Noah Bernamoff was irritated. The intense young owner of Brooklyn's Mile End Deli had just been asked how he could consider his restaurant a "real" Jewish deli considering it isn't kosher and many Jews can't eat there. Bernamoff shot back: "Kosher meat is laughable when it comes to quality. It's kind of a scam." As a Jew, he said, he believes in the concept of tikkun olam (a Hebrew phrase connoting social justice) and that kosher meat isn't slaughtered humanely. He continued: "No one should question my understanding of my own Judaism, and if I want to call my deli a Jewish deli, well that's my prerogative."
Such was the quandary on the table at Thursday night's deli summit at the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay: How do owners of new-school Jewish delis, where ingredients are sustainable, portions are moderate, and pickle bowls aren't free, please everyone? Answer: They don't.
Ken Gordon of Portland's Kenny and Zuke's: "Portland isn't exactly West Jerusalem. We keep talking about sustainability and, well, the number one thing about sustainability is staying in business. There aren't enough people that care about kosher." To illustrate his theory that "the best food is what people remember and never what they're currently eating," Gordon told a story about an elderly customer who complained that Kenny and Zuke's chicken soup was nothing like her grandmother's. "I couldn't help but think, 'You're 85 years old! How good is your memory?'"
Gordon and Bernamoff, both raised in religious families, confessed to having bacon on their menus. But it was what's not on the menu at Saul's Deli's that drew applause from the Berkeley audience. Saul's owner Peter Levitt discussed his decision to put pastrami on hiatus, explaining that when he learned that the Niman Ranch product he'd been using was no longer guaranteed to be hormone- and antibiotic-free, he "put it back on the delivery truck and sent it back." Levitt is installing his own smoker and hopes to have pastrami again in three weeks. "Ninety-eight percent of the American meat supply is unavailable to us because we use clean meat," he explained. "The goalpost keeps changing. Three years ago, Niman beef was good."
The newest deli operator on the dais, Wise Sons' Evan Bloom, spoke about why he thinks Jewish food is gaining popularity. "All these chefs were making their own charcuterie and salumis but no one was making their own pastrami," he said. "The line between what you can and can't serve at a Jewish deli has become invisible. Now, you're only limited by the size of your menu."
With moderator Joan Nathan looking on with grandmotherly admiration, Bloom brought down the house when he quipped, "It's cool to be Jewish again!"