Religion & Jewish Life

A new generation of Jewish delis embraces sustainability

Peter Levitt, co-owner of Sual's Restaurant and Deli in Berkeley, Calif., serving up some of the deli's grass-fed, sustainably produced meat. (Saul's Restaurant and Deli)

BERKELEY, Calif. (JTA) — Can a Jewish deli be a Jewish deli without pastrami?

That’s the question Saul’s Restaurant and Deli in Berkeley is facing after refusing the delivery of a truckload of pastrami because it did not meet the deli’s sustainability standards.

“We found out it is no longer hormone- and antibiotic-free, so we put it back on the truck and took it off the menu,” explained Saul’s co-owner Peter Levitt, who has been a leader in artisanal food sourcing for more than a decade. “We’re going to hear a lot of backlash from our customers these next few weeks.” Levitt was speaking at the so-called “Jewish Deli Summit” that he and his business partner Karen Adelman convened May 19 at Berkeley’s Jewish community center.

The confab, a follow-up to a similar discussion held at the same venue 15 months ago, brought together four cutting-edge deli owners from across the United States to talk about how to bring the fatty, meat-heavy, super-sized Ashkenazi deli cuisine of their forebears into line with contemporary values of health, nutrition and ethics.

“Last year we held a referendum to get permission from our customers to marry the mission of the Jewish deli with the sustainable mission,” Adelman told JTA. “In the past year there’s been a real blossoming of people breaking out the concept, making it live and breathe, so we wanted to bring them together to celebrate.”

A sustainable Jewish deli? Isn’t that an oxymoron?

Not at all, these mavens insist, although they acknowledge that very few people are doing what they do. “We’re struggling to define what it means to make a modern Jewish deli at a time when the deli is in decline and people are asking why it exists, and what does it mean to the way I think about my past,” said Noah Bernamoff of the Mile End Deli, which opened in Brooklyn in January 2010 and was quickly crowned New York’s best deli by New York magazine.

“This is the way I like to eat, with a consciousness about what I’m eating,” he told JTA. “I don’t proselytize — it’s not my style — but when something’s on the verge of being lost, like the deli, you look for all the tools that can help your cause.”

The Jewish deli is an icon that many folks, no doubt, would say shouldn’t be messed with. And sustainability is a slippery concept, more an approach to food than a formal standard, one that emphasizes seasonal menus, locally sourced ingredients, in-house production and ecologically sound growing practices.

It can mean other things, too, like smaller portions of meat; no nore 3-mile-high stacks on your sandwiches. For these new Jewish restaurants, it’s a philosophical choice as much as it is financial.

“Americans have doubled their meat consumption in recent years,” Levitt told JTA. “To do that, meat had to be made cheaper, along with a huge reduction in the ethics of production. The kids today say we can’t eat like this. They say we want to eat sustainably — that’s how they practice their spirituality.”

At Saul’s, the sandwiches have 6 ounces of meat rather than 12. But it’s mighty fine meat, Levitt says. “You’re lucky you’re not in New York,” quipped Bernamoff, who faces his own uphill struggle with a menu that offers just five or six breakfast items, and 10 choices for lunch. “We’re all battling people’s nostalgia.”

It’s the nostalgia that is misplaced, these chef-owners claim. Jewish cookbook author Joan Nathan, who moderated the panel discussion, agreed. “You think they had huge matzah balls in Europe?” she asked rhetorically. “The big meat sandwich has become an American tradition, like big matzah balls, but that’s not what the deli was originally. The past is always changing.”

American deli customers are used to huge menus and being able to order whatever they want at any time of year. That must change, these chef-owners insist, if the deli is to survive.

Bernamoff recalls a customer who came in soon after Mile End opened on a day when the restaurant had run out of meat.

“He shook his fist and said, ‘I’m never coming back.’ He was back a week later, he ate the meat, and on his sixth visit, his wife made us a cheesecake,” Bernamoff said.

Seasonality is another old-fashioned notion that these new delis say is part of their mission to revive. At Saul’s, the pickles are homemade and only available when local cucumbers are in season, from October to June. “If you eat pickles in February, you know they come from Costa Rica and they’re pumped full of chemicals,” Levitt warned. “You shouldn’t be eating pickles in February, and I hope you’ll start seeing that in all the new delis.”

Maybe and maybe not. Not all the panelists have the same commitment to sustainability as the Berkeley folks, or even the same interpretation.

“The No. 1 part of sustainability is staying in business,” said Ken Gordon, owner of Kenny & Zukes in Portland, Ore., explaining why his restaurant is not kosher. “We can’t afford a kosher kitchen, and there aren’t enough people who really care. Portland is not exactly west Jerusalem.”

In fact, none of these new delis is kosher, and the owners make no apologies. The restaurants are an expression of the owners’ Jewish sensibilities, they say, and each person’s is different. So Gordon serves bacon, whereas Levitt and Adelman do not.

“No one should question my definition of my own Judaism,” said Bernamoff, whose menu at Mile End Deli lists “chazzer,” Yiddish for pig, among the ingredients of its breakfast sandwich. “If I call myself a Jewish deli, that’s my prerogative.”

These new delis, all except Saul’s in business for less than three years, are engaged in a mission to change the way Americans think about deli, and make a living doing it.

The pastrami and corned beef will still be there — it’s just home smoked and house cured, more often than not, and it comes from humanely raised, hormone-free animals. They’re still serving kugel, although it might be made of sunchokes, preserved lemon and schmaltz, as Mile End served it when sunchokes were in season.

Or it might be sweet rye bread and sour cherries, as cooked at Wise Sons Deli, a “pop-up” eatery in San Francisco that is only open on Saturdays, when the young owners rent space in a commercial kitchen to serve their growing fan base.

“The changing food doesn’t change the deli experience,” said Wise Sons co-owner Evan Bloom, who met his business partner when the two cooked meals at the University of California, Berkeley Hillel. “It’s about people coming together, sharing food, sharing an experience. “A lot of people talk about what we’re trying to do with the food. But when people are eating together, singing, drinking, enjoying the food, it’s so rewarding. That’s what Jewish cooking is all about.”