Yesterday, we talked smelly cow’s feet and kosher food with Kutsher’s Tribeca’s Zach Kutsher. Today, we continue by delving into the health advantage, or lack thereof, of using the rendered chicken fat known as schmaltz, his Dirty Dancing childhood, and what the Borscht Belt would be like if gambling was legalized.
Is there any health advantage to using rendered chicken fat/schmaltz?
I’m not going to pretend to be a nutritionist. I honestly have no idea. It’s natural, compared to some, and it’s certainly better than a processed oil. Obviously, you need to cook in some modicum of fat to get flavor, otherwise your food is going to be devoid of flavor (just like salt), so I would say the health advantage would be that you’re using a natural product. Something that wasn’t created by man that’s made with chemicals.
Why choose Tribeca for Kutsher’s?
I chose Tribeca for a couple of reasons. I think, first off, I wanted to be downtown. Definitely below 14th Street to have that hip, younger vibe. We probably defied a lot of expectations where people thought we were going to be more of a deli, and when some of the stories initially leaked, they said, “Oh, Kutsher’s deli,” and we’re really not deli at all. I would tell people, when I define the concept, to think of us as a Jewish Balthazar or Pastis meets Second Avenue Deli without the deli. So it would be natural to put it on the Upper West Side or something, but I wanted to attract as diverse an audience as possible, so I wanted to be downtown to revive a 100-year-old brand with that hip, cool element that I don’t think I would get if I was on the Upper West Side.
On top of that, Tribeca’s great for destination dining. You also have a big, strong office market. . . . Outside of midtown, it’s probably the biggest office market, if you include the financial district. You have a lot of residents, and on top of that, it’s the fastest-growing young Jewish secular population in all of Manhattan. Where a lot of people who live on the Upper West or Upper East, who decided that they didn’t want to move to the suburbs, have made Tribeca their home.
Any plans to open another Kutsher’s location?
We’re working on a bunch of things, but right now we’re focusing on making this the best place that it can be.
Tell me about growing up a stone’s throw from your great-grandparents Kutsher’s resort? Did you spend a lot of time there?
I grew up pretty much living on grounds. I first lived across the street from the first green of the golf course at the hotel. When I was 12, I moved up the hill. So I was pretty much there every day. It was like a giant playground.
Have you seen Dirty Dancing? Is the story line more real than one might think?
Of course I’ve seen Dirty Dancing. What kind of question is that?
Yeah, in the ’60 and ’70s (maybe not so much in the ’80s when I was there), it was like that. Dirty Dancing the movie is truly inspired by that [lifestyle]. That’s really how it was.
Any specific fond memories? A crazy story perhaps?
I got to just meet a lot of really cool people. Wilt Chamberlain [the basketball player] worked for my family for years. He was at my bar mitzvah and getting to hang out with him was pretty cool. I remember being 13, and Billy Crystal played at the hotel, and it was one of the first times that my parents let me go to the late show. He made all of these fart jokes that I thought were the funniest things ever.
I hung out with Jerry Seinfeld. Before he did his pilot. It’s funny because in the business plan that I had for Kutsher’s Tribeca, in my bio one of the pictures in there was me, Jerry . . . and I cropped out my dad and my sister.
It was very cool. I got to play golf every day. I spent a lot of time at the coffee shop sampling grilled salami and cheese and all sorts of things. I ran the children’s dining room when I was a senior in high school through college graduation, in the summer. I sort of feel like I have a similar job now. I’m running a children’s dining room . . . but on a very different scale.
If they legalized gambling in New York, would that have any effect on the upstate resorts?
Absolutely. I went to UPenn, I graduated in 1996, and then went directly to law school, and when I graduated Fordham, I ended up taking a job. I worked at Cravath, Swaine, and Moore for probably close to four years. We had a deal at that time with Park Place Entertainment that became Bally’s and then Caesar’s and then Harrah’s.
For all intents and purposes, Kutsher’s was done in 1999. We were going to get legalized gaming. We had a guy–Arthur Goldberg, who unfortunately died–who was a major component of that. The whole area would have been great. They would have had a couple casinos. We would have been one of them. There would be a lot more jobs there now. Now the whole area is instead very Hasidic. They’re the only people coming to the area willing to buy land. I think the state screwed up on so many occasions, and made it depressed as a direct result.
Do you think that with the popularity of Jewish-American cuisine do you think that could bolster the Borscht Belt as a popular destination again?
It could but it’s tricky. In order to bolster the Borscht Belt as a destination you need to really build a few four- or five-star flag hotel brands to come in, sink in a few million dollars and make a really nice place. Because anything else won’t cut it [for today’s vacationer] unless it’s really kitschy and really small. So I think, that if someone is willing to take the risk of building a full-scale resort that has the amenities that people are accustomed to, then sure. And if it could have a bunch of restaurants, and one of the restaurants does Jewish-American, but that in itself won’t bring the Borscht Belt back. It’s a different time and era. People’s expectations when they travel and where they go . . . you would need a truly tremendous project to bring back the area.
You would need the W Hotel.
That’s an example of one, sure.