You could call it the little Jewish restaurant that could, but that wouldn’t be exactly correct in this case. Sure, bringing chopped liver and latkes to the Big Apple could be pretty tricky, but Zach Kutsher is a professional, and pastrami flows through his veins. Almost a year since it opened, Kutsher’s Tribeca has not only earned rave reviews but continues to evolve, bringing special holiday meals and new dishes to Manhattan mouths and keeping the New Jewish cuisine trend alive.
Let’s talk Jewish Food. Do you think Jewish food need to be kosher?
Actually, there was a big article in Jewish Week where I was asked that very question. I think that Jewish food and kosher, for the 99 percent, is totally irrelevant. One has nothing to do with the other. I think that Jewish food does not have to be kosher. The thing that’s cool about Jewish food is that it’s the stuff that you remember eating growing up, maybe having it at your grandma’s house or your mom made it. It’s part of your Friday-night dinner or a holiday festival. It’s much more about family and tradition–cultural tradition on a totally secular level. I think that kosher is really, honestly, a racket in the sense that being kosher means being kosher certified. You have to go through all sorts of craziness, and you’re really getting an inferior product for a more significant price.
I would never have a kosher restaurant because that’s not how I eat. I wouldn’t want a rabbi in my kitchen. And I think that it just totally limits your audience in a way, and I wouldn’t want to do that. I think in a way, Jewish food is almost iconic New York. We do pastrami and matzo ball soup. Yeah, they’re Jewish, but they’re also New York based.
Some people might argue that there is no Muslim food or Christian food, so why Jewish food? Is it OK to plunk it along the lines of Chinese or Italian cuisines–which are country/regionally based, not religiously?
Well, why not? You know, I’ve never heard of Christian food. And many people in this world are Christian. But that’s kind of silly to me. In terms of Muslim food, I don’t know, you’ve got halal food, which I guess is food that people who are Muslim eat. But I think of what we do here, more than anything, is really Jewish-American. You take certain things from the old country and put contemporary spins on it.
I don’t see why you can’t think of Jewish-American food as the same thing, though it’s not quite as ubiquitous, as Chinese or Italian. It has a smaller audience, there’re less people. But there’s no reason why it can’t stand alongside. If you look in Zagat, there’s a Jewish-food category.
Why do you think the Kutsher’s concept works so well in Manhattan, specifically?
I think it works well in Manhattan for two reasons. One, you have a lot of Jews that live here, let’s be honest. And two, so much of the Jewish-American experience really is centered in New York and the surrounding areas. It’s just a very natural fit here.
Kutsher’s started upstate with your great-grandparents. When you brought it to Manhattan, what type of changes did you make for your new clientele?
Oh, drastic changes. I’d say the whole mark of Kutsher’s Country Club and Resort, its heyday was really the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, was really a vacation home of families for generations, and that’s how I met my initial business partner. He was my first big backer in the project. His family went to Kutsher’s for years and years and years.
The food was different. You were on a full American plan where you had three meals each day, and you could only [eat] the left side of the menu, and it didn’t matter. That model just doesn’t work and certainly doesn’t work in New York City. So I took certain staples, whether it’s gefilte fish or matzo ball soup, chopped liver, salmon, rib eye steak, or kasha varnishkes. I wanted to see what I could do with them with a much more modern palate. Superior ingredients, more global flavor profiles. Some things are a perfect dish like our matzo ball soup. How could you make the best-tasting matzo ball soup? For pastrami, how could we take the art of actually making our pastrami, rather than buying it? We spent countless hours and hours and batch after batch after batch to figure out how to get the right flavor profile, texture, color. You know, it’s hard to figure out.
Those are foods that really stay true to the tradition as opposed to other dishes where it’s rooted, because it might have a Jewish ingredient, but it’s replayed. Just think of it as a Jewish bistro where if someone came in for dinner and didn’t know it was a Jewish restaurant and they come in and see chopped liver, but it’s chopped duck and chicken liver [duck is an unorthodox chopped-liver ingredient]. And if you look at a lot of our other entrées, there are hints of Jewish references, but it’s really just about great contemporary food that’s infused with Jewish cuisine ideas taken to a whole new level, but never forgetting the roots or taking ourselves too seriously.
All the cool kids now eat gefilte fish and herring. What is one of the more squeamish Jewish foods that you think might be poised for a comeback?
Well, we made those two things a little more contemporary. So our gefilte fish has wild halibut, rather than pike and carp and whitefish, and instead of horseradish, we serve it with beet-horseradish tartare, oil vinagrette, and micro arugula. It’s a really dressed up gefilte fish. For our pickled herring it’s done two ways. The first one is with the cream and onions, which is traditional, but the other is wasabi and yuzu kosho which is a totally different flavor, and people go crazy for it–if you like herring. You have to like herring to like it.
The next thing that people might bring back? I don’t know if people are ready for true stuffed derma. I doubt it because the one that we had at Kutsher’s [resort] was a breading stuffing inside the casing of the intestine, but you weren’t eating intestines or anything like that. You know, there was a tweet a couple days ago from [Time Out NY’s] Jordana Rothman asking, “What does anyone think of ptcha?” No one’s going to eat that, let’s be serious. It’s cow’s feet pickled in aspic, in gelatin. I don’t think there’s anything that can make that taste good.
Or smell good.
No. There are some things that are best left alone.