Notes from the first-ever Deli Summit.
Third-choice moderator Joan Nathan, the prolific Jewish cookbook author with a perfectly coiffed pouf and an encyclopedic knowledge of kugel, kicked things off. “Tell us your pastrami conundrums.” Noah detailed his intricate sourcing and smoking process. “People don’t understand why I sometimes run out of meat. I can’t just call up Donny over at the plant and order more.” “At least you’re not dealing with a population that’s 75 percent vegan!” said Ken, from Portland. “We do a veggie Reuben,” offered Evan. Cheers and applause erupted from the Berkeley audience.
Sephardic cuisine, shrinking menus, pastrami portions were all fair game, but it was the topic of complimentary pickles that really got people fired up. “I don’t give pickles, or anything, away,” declared Noah. “Unless you’re a policeman. People come in asking, ‘Where’s my free slice of pastrami like I get at Katz’s?’ I tell them, ‘inside your sandwich.’ ”
“Nostalgia is something we all deal with,” continued Noah. “I have 85-year-old ladies telling me my chicken soup isn’t as good as their grandmother’s,” griped Ken. “Sorry, but your grandma has been dead for 40 years! How do you even remember?”
“You guys are just lucky not to be in New York,” Noah went on. “I’m still battling the 120-year-old meat temples. The idea of the ‘New York Deli’ is a joke.”
“Katz’s isn’t a deli,” muttered Joan.
People, some in faded Levis and Birkenstocks with socks, listened intently, cupping their faces and furiously scrawling questions on note cards. None of you are kosher. How can you call yourself a Jewish deli when your food is off-limits to a large number of Jews? “What, like 12 people?” scoffed Ken. “Portland isn’t exactly West Jerusalem.”
“Basically, it’s just cool to be Jewish again,” concluded Evan. Hoots, hollers, and then folks filed out. Most beaming. Others were disappointed. “Too much talk about meat,” said a woman sporting a “Bubala’s Rugelach” T-shirt in an attempt to pimp her new start-up. An orthodox man was blatantly offended. “That one from New York, he’s a self-hating Jew.”
At an invite-only after-party at Saul’s, the panelists clinked glasses of Côte Du Rhône and passed platters of potato latkes and bowls of rhubarb-and-carrot tsimmis. “We all have different philosophies of pastrami-ama,” said Karen, “but for deli’s survival, it’s important that we stick together.” Every member of the New Guard agreed.
Now, a year later, with gefilte fish trending on par with foie gras, the New Guard is indeed getting together again. This time it’s happening in Manhattan, at the City Grit, where Noah invited his West Coast deli friends to collaborate with him on a $200, nine-course Shabbat dinner on Oct. 12, as part of the Food Network’s New York City Wine & Food Festival, to be followed by a still-unnamed second Deli Summit on Oct. 13, moderated, this time, by David Sax. “I keep coming up with all these pretentious names,” says Noah, “like, ‘The Symposium on the Future of Jewish Food’ or whatever. But maybe it’ll just be ‘Deli Summit II.”
“It’s only 65 percent sold-out right now, but I’m not worried,” he adds, sounding slightly worried. “They wanted to pair me up with a Food Network chef—Michelle Bernstein from Miami,” Noah scoffs. “She does Spanish food?! It was, like, Yeah, yeah, they’re Jewish, stick them together …”
But with his new book out, especially, “I feel this unique responsibility,” says the 30-year-old cook who—unlike Ken—has admittedly packed on a few pounds since leaving law school to, unintentionally, carry a torch. “Together, we, you know, kind of represent the future of Jewish food.” So he dissed the celebrity chefs to stick with his peeps.
“It’s going to be a good reunion.”
Correction, Sept. 17, 2012: This article described Karen Adelman, the co-owner of Saul's Deli, as 5-foot-1. She is 5-foot-3.
Rachel Levin is a San Francisco-based writer/editor. She is a former senior travel editor, turned frequent contributor, for Sunset magazine. Her work also appears in the New York Times, Food & Wine, and San Francisco magazine, where she is a contributing editor.