In celebration of Katz’s Delicatessen's 125th anniversary, JW Food & Wine talked all things deli with Katz's fifth-generation owner.
The Lower East Side is an ever-changing neighborhood; demographics constantly shifting, storefronts coming and going, and tenement houses morphing into high rise condos. Despite all this change and refashioning, one thing has remained a neighborhood staple: Katz’s Delicatessen, which is currently celebrating it’s 125th anniversary. I had the opportunity to schmooze all things deli with fifth-generation owner, Jake Dell.
Rachel Goldrich: Food writer and novelist Laurie Colwin wrote, “Certainly, cooking for oneself reveals man at his weirdest.” What do you eat when you’re alone?
Jake Dell: (Laughs). “That’s great. I go home. I eat with mom a lot. She would be mad if I didn’t come home when she makes something good. She makes a lot of chicken and she’s also a big baker: Banana breads, chocolate cakes. It’s good.
RG: How do you eat or cook differently now than you did when you were younger?
JD: I try to cook more than I did when I was a kid. The problem is that I’m usually here three meals a day. Or in my case, I guess it’s more like five meals. You just come up with creative food combinations when you’re always here. Whether it’s a hamburger where the buns are sweet potato knishes or different turkey and cole slaw combinations. The truth is though, no matter how long I’ve been here and how many times I’ve eaten here, there are mornings I wake up and all I crave is a pastrami on rye with a little bit of mustard. It’s too damn good … Objectively speaking.
RG: What principles guide your eating or cooking? (For example, Tamar Adler writes in “An Everlasting Meal” that we should “look at meals’ remainders with interest and imagine all the good things they will become.”)
JD: As a business owner, I guess it’s all about tradition, nostalgia and making sure that when people come in here they get the exact same thing they ordered from fifty years ago. It’s about a food tradition and culture that is largely disappearing and that needs to be maintained. Personally, I’ll eat anything.
RG: Which food writer most speaks to you?
JD: I don’t have a favorite. It’s really tough for me to say. I’ve met so many phenomenal chefs and food personalities over the years here. Anyone who highlights food and brings food into peoples lives is a hero in my mind.
RG: Share with us a simple tip for cooking or eating that never fails you.
RG: What’s a food trend that totally mystifies you?
JD: I have trouble with the concept of tofu. I want a food that doesn’t look like feta cheese and taste like Jello. It’s very bizarre to me.
RG: What’s a mistake you consistently make in the kitchen or at a restaurant?
JD: Too much garlic. No, I think the biggest one is not going home when mom made a good dinner.
RG: What’s your favorite Jewish food, and why?
JD: I feel like I have to say pastrami, right? But I think gefilte fish. Every major holiday we serve gefilte fish. It’s better than any of that jar crap you get. This is real homemade gefilte fish. Gefilte fish is definitely my favorite … and latkes.
RG: If your personality could be characterized by a food, which one would it be and why?
JD: Hot dog. This works on many levels for me: I’m relatively tall and thin, so it works from a shape standpoint. When I was a kid, I dressed up in a hot dog costume for about six or seven years in a row, and then I did it again in college for nostalgia's sake. And I think when it comes to business, I can be hard on the outside but deep down I’m a softie … and that’s the sign of a truly good hot dog. And we go through 4,000 of those hot dogs every week.
RG: Is the Jewish deli endangered?
JD: No. I know this isn’t always a popular belief. But I think the younger generation has a desire to connect to their Jewish heritage and Jewish food in particular that will keep us around. There is a desire to experience to deli food, and as long as people keep that desire alive and want to connect to their culture roots, I don’t think the Jewish deli is going anywhere.
RG: As people start to care more and more about where their food comes from and sustainability, does Katz’s have any plans to answer these growing concerns in our community?
JD: Katz’s goes through about 25,000 pounds of meat a week and where our meat comes from is definitely a concern of mine. We get most of our meat from upstate New York. I try and keep our meat within a days travel from here. We get our meat from as close as we can within reason. I’ve never done flash frozen from Argentina or anything like that.
RG: What is the best interaction you’ve ever had with a customer here?
JD: Oh, so many. So so many. We’ve had great celebrity interractions, local interactions ... Oh man. We have this cycle on the weekends that is amazing. You get first timers, the New York crowd that’s been coming here for years, then the late night bridge and tunnel crowd comes, and then you have the “oh my god that person is not in good shape” 3 a.m. crowd, and then it all sort of dies down and comes back to breakfast. It’s all just a bizarre, beautiful story. The change in customers throughout the day is just priceless.
On Friday, May 31, Katz's 125th Anniversary celebration weekend will kick off with a star-studded Shabbat Dinner benefitting the Henry Street Settlement at Katz’s, 205 East Houston Street, on the corner of Ludlow Street, Manhattan. Attendees will include celebrity Katz’s enthusiasts from all sectors of New York society and culture as well as long-time customers of the restaurant. The menu will be an interpretation of Katz’s staples by some of New York City’s best chefs.
On Sunday, June 2nd, Katz’s will host an all-day celebration inside the restaurant, open to the public, at 205 East Houston Street, on the corner of Ludlow Street, Manhattan. Throughout the day and night, diners will experience period performances by Klezmer bands and vaudeville acts.
A pastrami-eating contest presented by Major League Eating will take place at 2 p.m. at the DayLife Festival on Orchard Street between East Houston Street and Delancey Street.