Save the Deli

Jeremy Lebewohl: Birth of a Deli Man

Tuesday, December 18th, 2007

Jeremy Lebewohl, in his deli.

Back in Toronto now, after a wonderful few days in New York. As you’ve read in previous posts, the occasion was the reopening of the 2nd Ave Deli, which was truly fantastic. The reason behind this was one young man: Jeremy Lebewohl, and I want to take you through his day yesterday.

Say it with meat

First, a primer. Jeremy is young. Just 25. He’s educated, handsome, and a veteran of the Israeli military. Before this he was in the bagel business with his friend David Teyf, but over the past year he’s worked tirelessly to bring back the 2nd Ave Deli, a delicatessen started by his late uncle Abe, and run by his father Jack. Though he grew up in the original, he has no real counter experience, or experience running or working in a deli. In this sense, Jeremy Lebewohl is a very green deli man…but friends, I have tremendous faith in him, and yesterday I saw a nascent deli man start to take shape.

Firm, sweet, and a little slippery, the legendary kasha varnishkas were lovely.

After a Saturday off and a Sunday of finalizing details, Jeremy Lebewohl awoke at 3 am yesterday, kissed his sleeping wife, and headed off to his new deli. The morning shows were coming to film spots for television, and a huge media campaign would consume the whole morning…all the while, Jeremy and the delis staff had to start cooking, steaming, and cutting food for the first customers who’d arrive at 7 am, when the doors first opened. Over the next several hours, as dedicated regulars trickled in and ate soup and sandwiches for breakfast, Lebewohl walked around, put out fires (equipment and computer problems mostly), and gave what looked like dozens of interviews to everyone from Channel 6 to the New York Times.

Media Circus

He was cool, courteous and professional the whole time. So much so, that his father Jack (who is helping him open, but has the official role of “Proprietor’s Father” sat with me and had breakfast).

Jack Lebewohl, eating a breakfast of chopped egg, onion, and mushrooms (with plenty of schmaltz)

Jack was so happy, he went for a second breakfast of onions, mushrooms, and scrambled eggs. Gorgeously golden, they were by far the finest scrambled eggs I’ve ever eaten.

At 11, a phalanx of cameras assembled outside as Jeremy, his father, and the deli’s managers cut a string of nickel-a-shtickl salamis to officially open the deli. Mazel tovs went up in the air….and then, as they say, shit went crazy.

Within half an hour the lineup was out the door and halfway down the block to Lexington. Diehards and curious locals stood in the cold, with diminishing patience, as Jeremy walked, greeted, and handed out chopped liver with grevenes (which went with alarming speed).

Feeding the masses, freezing his asses.

Inside, problems with computers were jamming up the small area between the cash and the deli counter. Old countermen and waiters couldn’t figure out the new system. Orders were taking too long…old Jewish women started doing what they do best…kvetching.

Through it all, Jeremy kept his cool. He ran up and down the stairs, dealt with technicians, nervous new waiters, and customers, both grateful and complaining. He treated everyone with care, attention, and respect, and the frowns melted away. Jeremy has a natural feel for the job. His greatest strength, besides a taste for this food, is his love of people: of his staff, of his customers, and of his family. Soon, his cousin Sharon (Abe’s daughter), and Jack were there, praising him.

Sharon and Jack Lebewohl.

This was the scene, from noon until I left around 8pm. The lineup never died down. The problems would ebb and flow, but the entire time Jeremy never once lost his cool…never once gave an inch on quality. The food was incredible and everyone went away satisfied. Here’s yesterday’s highlights.

Mushroom Barley Soup: The original deli was known for its porcini version…the new one has shitake and is smokey, somewhat sweet, and simply perfect after a wait in the cold.

Cabbage Roll: Sweet, sour, wonderfully tender, yet firm meat, with just a hint of cinnamon and other spices. Gorgeous.

Rolled Beef sandwich: this is a meat that only two delis carry in all of America. It is difficult to make and expensive, but oh my good Hebrew lord it tastes wonderful. Like incredibly creamy roast beef, super duper trooper tender, with just enough pepper to give it a kick.

At 7pm, after fourteen hours straight, he sat down for five minutes and we shared a beer in the basement. Then he went and worked until 1 am, feeding the hungry crowd who wanted nothing more than for his delicatessen to succeed.

A rare moment of silence, rest, and sweet Israeli beer.

And here’s what I saw. I saw a deli pulling through an incredible first day with bravado. I saw crowds of young and old, rich and poor, local and foreign, Jewish and not, all of whom were more than willing to wait for New York’s most revered family run Jewish delicatessen.

Me and Fuyvush Finkel: a true deli fan and legend of the stage and screen.

I saw in Jeremy Lebewohl a great deli man in the making, soon to be mentioned with the type of reverence associated with the late Max Asnas, Leo Steiner, Shmulke Berstein, and his uncle, the legendary Abe Lebewohl.

Mazel Tov Jeremy. You’ve earned this success.
Go. Eat. Give him a fat hug.

The 2nd Ave Deli
162 E. 33rd St., New York, NY 10016
open 24/7

More deli stories from yesterday.

The Regulars Return for the Usual, No Longer on Second Avenue
by Jennifer 8. Lee
New York Times

I sat and talked with Jennifer yesterday and we are indeed kindred spirits. I’m writing a book about deli, she’s writing one on Chinese food and its relation with Americans. She’s hilarious and an excellent writer, and any deli/chinese food lover must check out her blog

Susan Watts is a staff photographer with the New York Daily News. Her gallery of pics from opening day are stellar.

New York Magazine’s fearless foodie, Josh Ozersky, at the deli

New York Newsday
Go to the photo pop up and check out me, handing out chopped liver in the first frame.

Exclusive Preview: the 2nd Ave Deli

Saturday, December 15th, 2007

Well deli fans, it all comes down to this. On Monday morning, at 6:00 am, the doors of the 2nd Ave Deli will open to the public for the first time. After nearly two years in exile, with much heart ringing and confusion, New York’s Jewish deli world will once again be able to call this delicatessen one of theirs. I have been, I have eaten and I will share my sights and tastes with you.

The countermen are all back and ready to slice

When Abe Lebewohl opened the doors of his small 2nd Ave Deli for the first time in 1954, it was to start a second life. After a youth spent narrowly escaping death at the hands of the Nazis and Soviets, running his deli became Lebewohl’s personal fulfillment of the American dream.

In time, the 2nd Ave Deli came to be known as one of the greatest Jewish delicatessens in Manhattan, a true East Village institution where devoted corned beef hounds worshiped amidst a temple of schmaltz. Now, it rises again, providing a rare second chance for a New York that is rapidly disappearing to turn back the clock.

Deli manager Steve Cohen, with a nice helping of p’tcha…calves foot jelly that is oniony, garlicky, and downright delicious as it melts on the tongue.

When the 2nd Ave Deli unexpectedly shut its doors in January 2006, the loss reverberated far beyond the deli’s customers. Most New Yorkers realized that the 2nd Ave Deli stood for more than just kishke and chopped liver. For half a century, Lebewohl’s deli represented an icon of stability amidst tumultuous surroundings. As the East Village changed character, from Jewish to Latino to hipster, from safe to dangerous to trendy, everyone from Yiddish speaking octogenarians to NYU freshman could rely upon the 2nd Ave Deli as a place to sit amongst friends.

New owner Jeremy Lebwohl (Abe’s Nephew), looks on at his new counter. Though only 25, the soul of a seasoned deli man burns within this young man.

When it closed, the sight of the deli’s neon letters lying on the sidewalk, like bodies at a crime scene, proved to be a watershed moment. History, success, and popularity proved no protection from progress’ march. In New York, even the most cherished institutions could become a Starbuck’s, or in the case of the 2nd Ave deli, a Chase bank branch.

Grievenes: Fried chicken skins, rendered in chicken fat, which are to the deli’s silken chopped liver, what caviar is to creme fraiche.

Certainly this wasn’t unprecedented. Across the city, Jewish delicatessens, which once numbered in the thousands, had been sharply declining for decades. Where once they were found on almost every block of the Bronx, in Brooklyn, Lower Manhattan, or Midtown, today there are but a few dozen scattered amidst the boroughs and suburbs. The causes of their decline are well documented; a rise in Jewish affluence and education, a change in diet based less on tradition and more on health and variety, a demographic shift away from New York’s tightly knit neighborhoods to suburbs or sunny havens like Los Angeles or Florida. Places such as Wolff’s, the Rialto, and Ratner’s were 20th century businesses operating in a 21st century world, and they paid the unfortunate cost of change.

Pastrami and Corned Beef, from Brooklyn’s Empire National. The pastrami is Eddie Weinberg’s classic recipe, a wonderful fatty navel cut, cured dark red, and rubbed with just enough pepper to make the meat sing. The corned beef is his too, then cured and doctored further by the 2nd Ave’s kitchen. It’s incredibly moist, subtle, and reeks of roasted garlic.

For the 2nd Ave Deli, the end came from the rapid increase in real estate values, brought about by gentrification. In the span of five years a neighborhood can go from desolate to desirable, with rents increasing tenfold. Family owned restaurants of all ethnic persuasions, whether Jewish, Italian, or Dominican, have little financial recourse to weather such shifts. Landlords opt increasingly for the big pockets of chains and high end dining establishments to occupy their properties. Lattes sell condominiums, latkes don’t.

This is the first gefilte fish I’ve ever eaten that didn’t need horseradish. It actually bursts in the mouth with juice, as though you’ve just plucked a fish from the river that already came in gefilte form. It is the perfect blend between chunky, and firm, sweet and sour, and they swear it actually tastes better than the old 2nd Ave Gefilte.

This is a shame. Visiting somewhere like McSorley’s Old Ale House, Gray’s Papaya, or Peter Luger’s is more than an indulgence in nostalgic kitch. These are the places where the Big Apple connects to its spiritual and physical soul. For many, a breath of sweat soaked air at the departed CBGB’s was their walk in Central Park. To those eating it, a bowl of matzo ball soup goes beyond boiled chicken, vegetables, and dough. It is a fragrant, liquid reality check in a time and place where the pace of life has eroded any sense of perspective. Trendy chains and fine dining cannot fill that void. We need these places to survive, so that we can too.

These rugelach were so dense, and packed with a sort of caramelized cinnamon nut combo, that we couldn’t stop eating them. End to end, the food is as close to deli perfection as one can find.

At the end of the meal, everyone gets a little shot of Bosco chocolate soda. It’s simple perfection like this that’s made this place a legend even before opening.

All this makes the rebirth of the 2nd Ave Deli so uniquely important. Of the timeless institutions that have disappeared from New York’s streets, few, if any, receive a fresh chance at redemption. Expectations are lofty, and the chance of failure remains high. Yet, a success for the new 2nd Ave Deli could very well mark the turning point in New York’s history when everyone stopped, just for a moment, to really smell the pastrami.

Jeremy’s father, Abe’s brother, and the deli’s former owner, Jack Lebewohl…the proudest dad in New York this week.

The 2nd Ave’s Second Coming! (a date is set)

Monday, December 10th, 2007

Get your jaws ready.

The cat is finally out of the bag. Though I’ve known it for some time, and the date has changed at least five times before this moment, it is now official. The Second Avenue Deli will reopen….

wait for it….

Next Monday, the 17th of December, 2007. Mark that day.

The news came by way of New York Magazine, who ran an interview with the deli’s owner, Jeremy Lebewohl.

For the unreconstructed Jewish-food fresser, the second coming of 2nd Avenue Deli—shuttered two years ago after a rent dispute, and reopening next week in Murray Hill—is a culinary event that trumps even the Manhattan debuts of Thomas Keller and Alain Ducasse. Into their vaunted ranks steps neophyte restaurateur Jeremy Lebewohl, the 25-year-old nephew of deli founder Abe Lebewohl and keeper of the kosher-deli flame.

It seemed like the whole city went into mourning when the deli closed. What made it so special?
You have other places in Manhattan that have good deli cases. But our kitchen—and I say this very confidently—nobody can touch. I won’t take away the counters from them, where you can get a good sandwich. But there aren’t that many places where you can get good soup. We have chicken fricassée, goulash, all these things that come from the kitchen. There’s not a single deli in Manhattan that can compare.

Have you changed the menu?
I did not subtract. I only added. Most importantly, I added a full line of appetizing. The people who eat smoked-fish appetizing eat deli meats. It’s the same client base.

Considering all that, is this a good deli moment?
People have asked me, “Do you think opening up a deli filled with fatty foods is a smart thing to do in modern times, when people are on diets and eating tossed salads and all this type of stuff?” I happen to think that now is the perfect climate. If you go to a lot of in-vogue restaurants, you’re going to see pork belly, and barbecue is back in a big way. Food tastes move in cycles. When I was a kid, in my house, in all my friends’ houses, there were all kinds of cookies and Entenmann’s cake and bags of potato chips. That’s what you ate. Then all of a sudden, God forbid you eat anything but a Diet Coke and maybe a crouton if you’re lucky. That’s not the way to live.


I can’t stress what this means for the cause of save the deli. The closing of the 2nd Ave Deli was a watershed moment in New York delicatessen history. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back, the signal to deli’s devoted masses that the time for action was upon them. You have answered with a roar, that the era of salt and fat and peppery mustard slathered schmaltzy meats is not over. If the closing of the original 2nd Ave Deli was our Bull Run, let this be our Gettysburg. Let us embrace it and show the world that this food is worth preserving and eating and loving.

I’m flying into New York on wednesday, and will update with news about the opening, a preview of the food, and photos from opening day. If you’re in the area, stop by next Monday, fight the crowds, brave the lineup and say hello. I’ll be the shmuck taking notes.

Can’t wait…

Chanukah (and that other holiday) Deli Gift Guide

Tuesday, December 4th, 2007

Happy Chanukah!

Yes deli fans, the era of oil is upon us. Line up those latkes and fire down those doughnuts, because the festival of lights is here, well ahead of Christmas, which means we won’t be assaulted by Bing Crosby songs for another week or so. Now that’s something to mazel tov about.

I’ve begun the editing of the deli book, which is now called “Save the Deli”, thanks to the popularity of this site. It’s due in mid-January, so needless to say, don’t be expecting too many updates until then. But today being the start of that least religious, and most materialistic of holy days, I figured I was due for a nice one.

The big question every year is: what am I going to get my beloved deli lover?

Well, here’s Save the Deli’s list of recommended gifts this year.

The official Save the Deli “Salami Mommy” Thong

Words can’t express the type of love a deli lover feels for his sweetheart. So why even speak, or write. Instead, let this hand crafted undergarment say the message you need to deliver, enshrining your love of deli and that special lady where it matters most…


Save the Deli Canvas Tote Bag

We’re all supposed to save the earth by abandoning those evil plastic bags. Why not do it in style, and while making a statement about your love of deli, with this attractive, sturdy and spacious canvas tote bag. It’ll easily fit three loaves of rye, 5 pounds of pastrami, and a half dozen knishes.


Chez Schwartz DVD

If you haven’t yet seen this in-depth documentary about Montreal’s most famous temple of smoked meat, you aren’t a true deli fan. The scenes of sandwiches being carved and assembled are so tempting, it should come with an X rating.

2. “Let’s Nosh” by Amy Wilson-Sanger

Finally, a children’s book about Jewish food, to get them interested young.
“Chopped liver spread
on dark rye bread
tastes best with extra schmaltz”

3. “The Book of Jewish Food” by Claudia Roden

This is by far the most interesting cook book I’ve ever read, let alone Jewish cook book. I’ve consulted this extensively in the research of my own book. Mrs. Roden crafts the tale of Jewish food over the past millenia, from the deli’s roots in the Ashkenazi world, to obscure recipes from communities in places like India. If you buy one book on Jewish cooking, this should be it.

“America’s Great Delis” by Sheryll Bellman

The original book on Jewish delis, with tons of pictures and recipes to satisfy your cravings. Looks as though it’s headed out of print, so order fast.

5. “The 2nd Ave Deli Cookbook” by Sharon Lebewohl

With the reopening of the namesake New York kosher deli only weeks away (more on that soon!), bring a bit of the East Village cum Murray Hill institution into your home with the recipes of the legendary Abe Lebewohl, his daughter Sharon, staff and friends. A great read, and a fantastic cookbook.

How to Feed Friends and Influence People: The Carnegie Deli” by Milton Parker and Allyn Freeman

A mere taste of the super-sized shtick from the famous delicatessen on 7th Avenue. Filled with history, jokes, and antics, plus only a 10th the weight of a Woody Allen sandwich.

“Jewish Cooking in America” by Joan Nathan

Joan Nathan is to Jewish American cooking, what Yakov Smirnov is to Soviet era comedy. She is the well, the source, the absolute bomb of bombs, and this thick cook book will surely satisfy any Jewish cook, in America or not.

Finally, there’s the gift every deli fan will be happy with…deli. Order some meats, breads, baked goods, and gear from your favorite delicatessen, so long as they deliver. Or, just order a gift certificate and let your loved one order whatever they want.

A small selection.

New York Delis
-salamis and pastramis

-cheesecakes and meats, oh my

-kosher kosher kosher…and such prices

tongue so good, you’ll kiss it

-glatt kosher, for the observant deli lover

LA Deli
-the finest pastrami anywhere…sent anywhere
what Larry King and the Hollywood elite eat. No, you can’t order Larry, but the Angus corned beef is deadly.
-the chocolate rugelach are worth the flight to LA
-kishke to kill for
-when Spielburg jets to Cabo on his jet, this is who feeds him


sweet home Chicago…the best in the Windy City
-killer chopped liver and brisket
-amazing Chicagoland baked goods and corned beef
-a taste of Montreal here in Toronto
-the deli where I grew up. #1 tongue
some legends need no introduction
a smoked meat legend in the making
The local Montreal favorite…amazing salami and cheese bageleh
-inventors of the double baked Detroit rye…a Motown classic
the deli that spawned an empire. ships nationally.
Ziggy Gruber is the New York king of deli…in Texas…yee ha, oy vey

the new kids in Portland, Ore

I know I’ve left a whole bunch out, so my apologies to them, but I have to get back to the book and have a pile of tongue in the fridge calling my name.

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