The Mile End Deli dynamo shares his picky past and awkward Shabbats at grandma's house.
Noah Bernamoff examines food through a historic lens. He and his wife, Rae, along with close friend, Max Levine, opened the Mile End Delicatessen in Brooklyn in January 2010. It’s an old-fashioned deli inspired by Jewish comfort food. Today Bernamoff also has Mile End Sandwiches, a sandwich shop in Manhattan’s NoHo district, a Mile End Cookbook, and will soon have an online Mile End bakery and new menus coming out in the fall. Bernamoff talked about his evolution from a fussy child with picky tastes to an adventurous flavor creator and successful restaurateur. But at heart, he’s really an egg roll.
Emma Goss: Food writer and novelist Laurie Colwin wrote, “Certainly, cooking for oneself reveals man at his weirdest.” What do you eat when you’re alone?
Noah Bernamoff: It’s funny because I don eat much when I’m alone. Well, if I’m really really alone, which is rare, I often find myself just snacking. I don’t actually cook much when I’m completely alone. I’ll eat dips and pita bread, and little bits of bread, and I might concoct a leftover sandwich. The other night I was home alone, and I had [leftover] grilled halibut steaks, so I made halibut fish salad lettuce wraps.
EG: How do you eat or cook differently now than you did when you were younger?
NB: As a kid I was not a very adventurous eater. We’d go to my grandmother’s house for Shabbat and I would sit in the kitchen and eat chicken soup when everyone sat at the dining room table and go on to eat other things. My eating habits changed pretty dramatically in high school when I started introducing certain things into my diet. I was super particular about not eating fat on any steaks. Meat fat really disturbed me, I didn’t like the texture. Tart and very sour foods were hard for me to get into growing up. Of course now I more than love eating fat off of steak. Like most people, when you’re young you have very limited pleasures that come to your palette, and as you grow older you can appreciate things that were more difficult to understand when you were a kid. I’ve moved completely away from sweets and know there’s a lot of nuance in sour, acidic, and tart things.
EG: What principles guide your eating or cooking?
NB: My principles for eating and cooking are more or less the same. I don’t eat differently thank I cook [at the deli]. I feed people the way I eat, so the food we serve at the restaurants pass the test of where I would want my food from and how I would want my food made. Every week I go to the farmer’s market for myself at Grand army plaza. Or I go to the farmer’s market in Park Slope, and that’s where I buy all my produce and bread for the week at home. I do love cooking meat but I don’t eat that much at home. I purchase it at specific butcher shops. I’m very careful with the meat that I buy. There are things we don’t know about specific ways our food is created. I prefer to eat things knowingly than to pretend I’m eating something healthy but really just eating something very unknown and lacking transparency.
EG: Which food writer most speaks to you?
NB: On the more food industry restaurant management side, Danny Meyer. He’s an inspiring author and an inspiring thinker. For someone who is young in the business trying to still find my footing and find some direction as a restaurateur he’s definitely someone I look up to.
EG: Share with us a simple tip for cooking or eating that never fails you.
NB: Let your meat rest. People have this idea that if you let meat sit out it will get cold. Let your meat rest, it will make the difference between having a fine steak and a really great steak.
EG: What’s a food trend that totally mystifies you?
NB: I don’t have any issues with food trends. They’re more products of strong marketing than anything else. I have no issues with people finding opportunity in a fleeting idea. I just like to go to restaurants where the food has some bearing in some cultural tradition. Not even cultural. It just has to have some connection beyond the food. I like the concept of farm-to-table food and it’s important that people eat that way, but I think you can create that in any cuisine. Any cuisine can be made from ingredients from a responsible ranch. Just calling food “farm to table” [isn’t saying much]. There’s got to be more there than “this food came from a farm.” A restaurant is the product of tradition and food and history. To me food is about memory and about taste memory.
EG: What’s a mistake you consistently make in the kitchen or at a restaurant?
NB: One of the things that I tell people in the kitchen is never make the same mistake twice. Always learn from your mistakes. Because you don’t really have the time and the restaurant doesn’t have the patience for mistakes that are made constantly. I still make plenty of mistakes, but I make them once.
EG: What’s your favorite Jewish food, and why?
NB: This is a difficult one, obviously I like a lot of Jewish food. Well I guess, a smoked meat sandwich because for me it represents one of my strongest memories of eating when I was a kid, and I’ve enjoyed it my whole life. Or my grandmother’s chicken soup. They’re both my favorite because they both speak to a very specific and important memory, and a memory that has since gone on to inspire what it is that I do.
EG: If your personality could be characterized by a food, which one would it be and why?
NB: An egg roll or something like that, full of sweet and salty root vegetables on the inside but really cloaked in a fat on the outside. I don’t know what that means.
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