Noah Bernamoff Talks About Schmaltz, Bagels, and Keeping Jewish Food Alive


Yesterday, Noah Bernamoff spoke with us about his plans for Mile End, the phenomenally successful smoked-meat mecca he opened a little more than a year ago in Boerum Hill. Today, he talks with us about his grandmother’s recipes, keeping traditional Jewish foods alive, and the opening of a certain “Montreal bagel” store three blocks from Mile End.

Mile End’s dinner menu features a lot of Ashkenazi Jewish food like cholent and kasha varnishkes. Do you think classic Jewish cooking is due for an update courtesy of the younger generation?

I think that a lot of Jews in my, say, demographic, we had a traditional upbringing. We’re beginning to lose that motivation or capacity to keep that connection between the old country and what we have right here in the U.S., Canada, Western Europe, or whatever. My story is pretty common. I lost my grandmother two years ago. When that happened, I really came to recognize that this food, like delicatessen, will live on: People outside of Jewish tradition will still have an understanding of what delicatessen is supposed to be. But it’s the real, home-cooked comfort food that we’re on the cusp of losing. I was lucky: I got to go to my grandparents’ after school and cook for three to four hours before everyone else showed up. So I have a deeper understanding of the food we made together. There’s a handful of people around the country that have this experience, but if there’s not a group of us that stand up say, ‘This is food that’s worthy of public consumption and historical recognition,’ then it’s going to disappear as these individuals are disappearing.

In hindsight, I really need [my grandmother] to explain many of her recipes to me because on paper they don’t make any sense. The initial point for the recipe is really these scribbles on little pieces of paper that ended up in a shoebox. If people aren’t going to take on the task of opening up the shoebox, then it’s all going to disappear.

So you and Aaron Israel, your chef, are using Mile End in part to keep it from disappearing.

Before Aaron started working we had these conversations, and it was amazing to me that he feels as strongly about these things as I do. He had similar experiences. His understanding of technique and my willingness to throw resources and support towards him … and also to have the ability to share the food in its initial stages and get [each other’s critiques], it’s brought about a really creative environment where we’re seeking even recipes that my grandmother didn’t have in a shoebox. Recipes that other people’s grandparents had, recipes from Yiddish cookbooks translated into English.

There’s just so much more room to grow into it and bring it back. The more people who are doing it, the more recognition of this possible disappearance will come back to people’s minds. On some level, it requires the support of American and Canadian Jews. Once we can get that little bit of their support, it can be supported by food communities. I think we can keep the food alive.

Will you keep adding new traditional dishes to your dinner menu?

We don’t want to make it into a large menu, but we usually run three to four specials that are more reflective of rotating dishes. We always have specials that are new; some of them are variations on my grandma’s recipes, and some of them are variations of things beyond my grandma’s capacity. We’re not tied to the menu and we have the full intention of treating this food like any other restaurant would treat its food, which is seasonally. I wouldn’t want to sit down in the middle of the summer with a large oval dish of cholent.

Why do you think that traditional Jewish food is a harder sell than, say, traditional Italian food? Both can be equally heavy, but pasta is still seen as sexier than kasha varnishkes.

Perhaps Jewish cookbooks don’t do such a good job of making it seem delicious and approachable. Putting the food into an environment that’s not stuck in deli nostalgia might help to aid people’s perspective on the food, that it can be healthy and well-sourced and prepared in moderation. A little bit of schmaltz can go a long way, though you’re better off eating schmaltz than margarine.

People like yourself, Hugue Dufour and Sarah Obraitis at M. Wells, and even Mehdi Brunet-Benkritly at the Fedora are putting Quebecois food on the map in New York. And now someone’s planning to open a place selling Montreal bagels within blocks of Mile End. Do you think it will be long before someone labels it a trend?

I don’t want to consider it a trend because that food that M. Wells is putting out, there’s nothing trendy about that food. It’s just delicious. Is what Hugue and Sarah are doing trendy? I don’t know. I guess that means people talk about it. I could re-characterize it and say people are talking about it because it’s just flat-out phenomenal food. To a guy like Hugue who’s cooked this food all his adult life, this is what he knows. Quebec has been in the shadows for years; I couldn’t be happier that someone has stepped in and said this is full-on cuisine.

I think M. Wells is awesome. And I think that bagel shop could have chosen a location that was less leech-seeming. New York is a big city. I’m happy that someone’s here trying to make Montreal bagels. I think they’re the best in the world, but again, they chose a location that’s three blocks from me. I hope they think I do a tremendous amount of bagel business, but we don’t. The idea to serve Montreal bagels in New York is one that on some level belongs to Mile End, but I don’t have the resources to build a wood oven and bake Montreal bagels the way they need to be baked. I don’t have the logistics to transport Montreal water to New York. But I don’t have a monopoly on Montreal bagels in New York City. Maybe he’ll open up and the bagels won’t be Montreal bagels, but bagels baked in a wood-burning oven, and they’ll realize they want to come to Mile End for their Montreal bagels.