Next! Behind the Counter at Katz's Delicatessen
8:14 P.M.: Basic Training
Charlie held out a white kitchen apron and a brand-new red Katz's Delicatessen baseball hat. I tied the apron on and slipped the hat onto my head.
"Okay," Charlie said, "follow me."
We walked two-thirds of the way down Katz's massive counter, squeezing into a narrow opening. Charlie called one of the countermen over.
"Yo John," Charlie said. "This is David. He's going to start cutting tonight." John nodded and looked at me with more than a hint of suspicion. "Just show him how it's done, okay?" John okayed in approval. Charlie looked at me, smiled, and sang the words "Good luck."
John had no time to waste. "Yo man, here's what you do." He swung his body around 180 degrees, grabbing the hot handle of the steam box. Big as an office desk, the array of large metal steam boxes are the final home for Katz's pastrami and corned beef. As John opened one of the lids, a blast of steam shot out, blanketing our bodies in the perfume of garlic, salt, and sweating meat that had been seasoning countermen here for generations. He pulled his head back for a second. Then he dove in.
Using a two-pronged carving fork, John sorted through a hot treasure chest of meat, stabbing and flipping until he found a pastrami that caught his eye. After he hauled out the meat, John and I stepped back to the wooden cutting board. Repositioning the pastrami so the leaner tip pointed to his right and the fatter end was directly in front of his belly, John raised his fork and sunk it about two and a half inches from the tip. "Okay man, watch carefully," he said. "You wanna hold your knife on an angle, and use the fork to help control it." Resting the back of the knife's edge against the fork on a 45-degree angle, he drew back his arm and sskt-sskt-sskt-sskt-sskt-sskt-sskt perfect slices of pastrami rhythmically came away.
John now raised the knife and THWACK came down, splitting the ribbons of pastrami into two even piles. He then delicately slid the blade underneath one half of the meat and lifted it neatly on top of the other half. Grabbing two slices of rye from beneath the counter, John took a wooden spoon out of a bucket of spicy brown mustard and painted the bread. He placed the meat on the rye and closed it, cutting the sandwich in half. He once again slipped the knife beneath and lifted the whole thing onto a waiting plate. John pulled the blade back and voilà, the sandwich rested there perfectly.
Next, we squeezed by other cutters and grabbed three pickles from two buckets. John lined them up side by side, held them in place with his hand, and with three quick slashes he sliced the pickles in half, tossing them onto another plate. "That's it, man. You got it?" I nodded. John stepped out of the way, raised his hand, and flicked a "come here" wave to the crowd, shouting "Next!" Within seconds customers started to line up in front of me, yelling orders.
"Katz's has to exist because if it didn't no one else would have any standard by which to be judged."
Having co-owned Katz's Delicatessen since 1988, Fred Austin seemed to be a tailor-made figurehead for the bad-ass deli. Goateed and bald, he stood well over six feet tall and boasted a substantial girth, which, given his image in the yellowing photos, had been steadily compounding over the years. "You can tell how long a person's worked here by how much weight he's put on," Austin once joked to a reporter. He was raised in the Lower East Side of the 1950s and 60s, and deli was tied into the very fabric of his life. "There were delicatessens literally on every block," Austin said, including two (Brother's and Henry's) on the very same stretch of Houston Street as Katz's. "You couldn't walk a block without tripping over one. Now, we're the only one left."
It is sadly fitting that the last original Jewish delicatessen on the Lower East Side also happens to be the oldest, not only in New York, but worldwide. The business was established in 1888 by the Lustig family, who sold to the German-born Eisland brothers in 1902, at a site directly across Ludlow. They were bought out in 1916 by Benny and Harry Katz (also German), who changed the name to Katz's and moved the deli across the street. In 1950, the Katz brothers doubled the deli in size, moving the entrance to the current location at the corner of Houston and Ludlow.
Over two decades ago, Fred Austin's brother-in-law, Alan Dell, told him that Katz's Delicatessen was for sale. Katz's had been on the market for a number of years, and Austin and Dell, businessmen with no deli experience, scooped it up from the Katz family. "I remember this huge feeling of nostalgia came over me when I walked in the door the first time and nothing had changed," Austin said. Their honeymoon was brief.
"It was rough going," Austin recalled. "There used to be crack addicts hanging out on the median strip on Houston Street. . . . New York was a deadly place for a long time. It was prominently highlighted as an example of a city that was going to be abandoned in twenty years." Austin and Dell reduced their salaries, shortened business hours, refinanced the mortgage, and cut back on staff. Katz's just squeezed by until the 1990s, when momentum shifted. "Ever since then things have been good," Austin said. "The city has rebounded with a joy and a vengeance that no one had expected."
The Lower East Side is now one of the most dynamic areas of Manhattan. Where tenements and warehouses once stood, condos rise in their place. Where salamis and pickles were once sold from pushcarts, today they can be bought at the nearby Whole Foods. Fashion boutiques are quickly replacing shops hawking schmattes, while butchers have been converted into clubs and bars. The junkies are long gone and tourism has now become the base of Katz's clientele. During the week, Austin estimates, half the deli's sandwiches are sold to tourists. On the weekend, that number jumps to 75 per cent. To cater to them, Austin and Dell have expanded the menu, adding cooked items such as blintzes, soups, and even Philly cheese steaks. Where people once stayed away from the deli after dark, Katz's recently expanded its weekend hours to 3 a.m., to accommodate the after-bar crowds. Late night was becoming as important as the lunch rush.
"You have to come in at night," Austin told me.
I asked him if I would be able to go behind the counter and interview the cutters.
"You can cut sandwiches if you want to."
Was he serious? How could I possibly pass this up?
"Show up this Saturday around five o'clock. We'll put you to work," Austin said, adding, "Just don't lose any fingers," without even the hint of a smile.
8:20 P.M.: The First Slice Is the Sweetest
"Are you open?" asked a man in rumpled sports jacket.
I stared past him blankly.
"Hey, umm, can I, like, get a sandwich?" he asked again.
Wait. Did they seriously expect me to step up and start making sandwiches?
"Uhhh, yeah, sure, what'll ya have?" I asked.
"Gimme a pastrami on rye."
Easy enough. I wheeled around to retrieve a pastrami from the steam box and stepped right into the path of one of the other cutters, nearly smacking my face into a scalding hunk of corned beef hanging off his sharp fork. "Cuidado!" he snarled in Spanish. The steam blinded me momentarily, clearing to reveal twenty pastramis piled in a shallow pool of bubbling black water. I stabbed and flipped a few, but couldn't really discern any difference. I picked up a random hunk, turned back to the counter, and ceremoniously slapped the meat down onto the worn wood. Let's see, what did John do?
First, leaner tip to the right and sink your fork in. Good.
Knife on an angle against the fork. Good.
The knife was sharp and the meat cut easily.
"Yo man! Yo yo yo! Whatchu doin'???"
I looked up to my right to see one of the busboys, the youngest staff behind the counter, running over as if I were carving up his cat. "Man, first you gotta give the guy a taste," he said. The customer looked a little puzzled but eagerly plopped the meat in his mouth and promptly deposited a rolled-up bill into the tip cup. The busboy handed me back the knife and I resumed cutting, instantly bringing out another cry of "No, no, no, no, man, look!" He took the knife and cut gracefully, his slices falling more evenly than mine and also thinner. He handed me back the knife and, with the look of a disappointed teacher, went back to hauling plates. I could understand why. Busboys weren't even allowed to touch knives; they had to earn their way up to the cutting board via the broom, and here was some fool who walked in off the street and started butchering sandwiches.
I cut the slices in half, piled them up, grabbed the bread, slathered the rye with mustard, slid the meat onto the bread, and closed the sandwich. Not bad. Then I went to cut the sandwich and my hand went through the bread. The cutting board was now a mess of pastrami slices, torn rye, and mustard. Shit. I grabbed more bread and tried to reconstruct the sandwich as best I could. What emerged was neither pretty nor proper, though it was entirely edible, which I assured the customer with a knowing smile.
"Pickles?" he asked.
Squeezing the pickles between my fingers, as John had shown me, I rapidly drew the knife across each, taking out a chunk of cumbersome rubber glove in the process, though, thankfully, no fingers. I handed over the pickles and sighed with relief.
"Do you want my ticket?" the customer asked.
I realized then that I had no idea how much any of this cost.
"Umm hey," I asked the counterman on my left, "how much for pastrami?"
"Do I just write that on the ticket?" I asked again. "Is there a code or something?"
"Yeah, man, just write it on," he replied. "Jeez."
I put the ticket on the cutting board, where it quickly soaked up all the meat's grease and became transparent. I scrawled as best I could and left the cashier to figure it out. Customer No. 1 just walked away dazed. One sandwich down and I was already exhausted, dejected, and in way over my head.
9:00 P.M.: The Steady Hours
Each sandwich I made was progressively better. I cut more quickly and more evenly, chopping and stacking the meat in one clean motion. The cutter to my left, Freddo, gave me tips as I went along:
—Don't scrape the board with the edge of the knife. It dulls the blade.
—Cut leaner meat from the tip and fatter from the back.
—If you don't have a lineup, put the meat back into the steam box so it stays moist.
—Dig the pastramis out from the bottom of the steam box. Those have been steaming the longest.
Though Katz's pastrami is smoked by an outside purveyor, it is dry cured. This gives Katz's pastrami its signature dark red color and also a less salty flavor, which many claim is the finest in New York, if not anywhere. A traditionally made product has its nuances. Like snowflakes (if snow came from cattle), no two pastramis are exactly alike. Sometimes the flesh would be buttery soft, with very few sinews to impede my carving, but often I'd cut into one that was tough and fibrous, and I'd find myself battling through a maze of tissue. Pros would call this "butchering," which a growing pile of wasted scraps attested to. Whenever I hit a tough piece, Freddo did his best to teach me how to carve it properly, slicing along the fatty center of the pastrami, a highway of sorts, until it split in two, and then watching as he trimmed the "shit" out—those thin, tough, yellow membranes that ruin a sandwich. I soon learned to admit a sort of failure. If a pastrami was too tough, I'd bring it back to the steam box to tenderize longer and get another. This is the same way experienced Katz's customers order their sandwiches.
"The pastrami is unmatched at Katz's," famed defense lawyer Alan Dershowitz told me. Raised on kosher delis in Brooklyn, Dershowitz has his Katz's ordering down to a science. "You have to stand in front of the counterman with three or four dollars in your hand, and you have to taste three or four different pastramis before you accept one. It's like a wine in France. It's either too lean or too fat. I remember when I was trying to be healthy once, I ordered a lean pastrami at Katz's and it was a disaster. It was inedible, and we had to order one that was more marbled. We realized the idea is not to have less fat pastrami, but to have less fat pastrami."
The crowd arrived in waves. Everything would be quiet for twenty minutes, and then they'd appear in front of me, holding out tickets and barking orders like Wall Street traders. For half an hour I'd work in a daze until the lineup just disappeared and I could take a moment to wipe my board down, regroup, and talk with the other cutters.
A nineteen-year-old Dominican-born counterman who had started at Katz's three years before, Freddo's real name was Alfredo Fernandez. He certainly looked older, with a pencil-thin beard and compact frame, but his impish grin, and the fact that he occupied the far end of the counter, betrayed his youth. Like Freddo, most of the countermen at Katz's are either Dominican or Puerto Rican. The night shift is largely in the hands of the younger generation. Charlie, the night manager, who was in his late twenties, had started at Katz's in his teens, but studied hospitality in college, and was now high up in the deli's management. Though he worked some days, it was the late shift that Charlie loved most. "In the day you got a lot more older people and a lot more orders to go," he said. Lunch lineups can snake out the door, which is astounding considering the place can seat up to 355 diners. If a tour bus happens to disgorge its passengers, up to a dozen cutters will face lineups seven-deep.
Nights were also when the cutters let loose, teasing each other constantly. The narrow space between the counters became a gauntlet of doom, as hip checks and arm grapples met brazen countermen who dared walk into another man's space. At one point, Beni, one of the most senior cutters, grabbed me by the arm and started twisting, taunting me in Spanish, calling me a pussy, slowly jabbing his carving fork into my side. I froze. Beni then looked up and realized he had the wrong guy. "Hey, sorry, I thought you were someone else," he said, patting me on the back, "but now you're one of us, okay?"
During the night shift, the walnut-skinned Beni (whose full name is Bienvenido Quiros) was the alpha-cutter, occupying the far end of the line, right down by the window. Katz's was Beni's latest (and he hoped last) home in a life of New York delis. When he came over from Puerto Rico in the 1960s, he began working as a butcher at Cookie's, in Long Island. From there his résumé reads straight from the obituary pages of New York Jewish delicatessens: 1st Jewish Deli, 6th Avenue Deli, Broadway Deli, Wolf's Deli. Beni learned to hand-cut meat at the legendary Lou G. Siegel, where they called him "Beni the Surgeon." He then went on to stints at the Stage Deli, Carnegie Deli, Sarge's Deli, and the legendary Schmulka Bernstein's on Essex. Finally, he wound up at Katz's. "This is the best deli by far," Beni said, effortlessly disassembling a corned beef. "The merchandise is so good because when you slice by hand the juice stays in the meat. With a machine, it draws the flavor out." Beni was best known for asking whether customers wanted their pastrami "lean and mean" or "juicy like Lucy."
Of seventy-three employees, only a handful were Jewish, including Austin, Dell, head chef Kenny Kohn, and a Ukrainian-born cutter named Pyotr Okmyansky, known simply as Peter, the oldest, and last, Jewish counterman at Katz's. Peter was born in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1933, as Stalin's famine was ending. He learned a little Yiddish from his mother, though the food served at Katz's was not something he ate back home. By the late 1970s, Peter was working part-time as a mechanic and played professional trombone in the national music conservatory. When his mother got the chance to come to the United States, Peter went with her, followed a year later by his wife and daughter. They moved to Brooklyn, where Peter worked at a gas station, and in 1985 a friend offered him a job at Katz's. Because the counterman's position came with medical insurance, he took it.
Most of the cutters back then were Soviet Jews, who in just four days taught Peter the art of carving a sandwich. After years working in the Soviet system, he fell in love with the job. Aside from putting his daughter through medical school, it afforded Peter unthinkable opportunities. He has served debutantes and movie stars, as well as President Clinton. "He come to counter, yes, Clinton, big man, he like a lot to eat," Peter recalled. "He order two or three hot dogs, pastrami sandwich, and something else."
As we spoke in the back of the deli, Peter rubbed his thick, calloused hands together. His full mane of white hair was hidden underneath the black Katz's baseball cap he always wore (most of the countermen wore paper hats). "I feel I can work steady here," Peter said. "Nobody can push you here, business is really business, you understand?" Physically, age didn't seem to be a factor, though co-workers often complained of Peter's moodiness and an obsessive need to organize the cutting stations. He boasted that he could sharpen fifteen knives a night, including all those at the start of his shift and the shift after him. It was a duty he took on because he felt he did it better than anyone. "I can't stay home. I feel sick, I feel tired. Here [Katz's] give me more physical energy," he said, flexing his biceps. "I feel more young working here."
12:00 A.M.: Prime Time
Somewhere after the twentieth pastrami sandwich, I somehow forgot that I was researching a book. Customers approached me and I was no longer nervous. "What are ya havin,' honey?" I'd say, or "What can I get you, bud?" I'd jostle and joke with the ladies—"Take a taste of this, sweetheart, I made it myself"—and I'd bust the chops of the lads—"C'mon, big guy, you don't think you can handle the club roll?"
The highlight of my night came when a tourist turned to his wife and said, "Guys like him have been here for decades. They're the real New York Deli Men. Hey buddy," he asked me, "how long you been working here?"
"Four hours," I answered.
He burst into laughter. "See, honey? He even has that famous Katz's sarcasm."
Still, anything other than a straight-up pastrami, corned beef, or turkey sandwich was a curve ball. Reubens, which were very popular, required a series of steps that involved slicing the corned beef, placing it onto a plate, microwaving Swiss cheese onto the meat, sliding it neatly onto bread, slathering on Russian dressing, and closing it with as little mess as possible. Mine looked like they'd been dropped off buildings. Likewise, the damn rubber gloves, prescribed by the health department, cause the hands to sweat, and they didn't fit properly. Each time I tried to wrap a takeout order, I'd catch a fingertip under a fold of paper and wrap half a glove up with the customer's sandwich.
The big Saturday night rush started trickling in after midnight, when bar hoppers migrated from the funky lounges of the East Village to the Lower East Side to end their evenings in innumerable basement bars and clubs. My lineup expanded seven-deep, and I served the following characters over the course of the next few hours:
—A Russian mobster with appropriately leopard-print-clad, large-breasted, bottle-blond companion. She wanted: "Meat. No bread, just meat. To go." He tipped twenty dollars.
—A nebbish Jewish man with his black fiancé. "She's converting for me," he said with a beaming smile, "so I brought her here." Brisket on rye.
—A guy from Boston who ordered his pastrami on white with lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise. I subtly recommended it on rye with mustard. He preferred his way. I restrained myself from slashing his throat.
—A coked-out blond model with her two gay friends, all in skinny jeans. "Hey honey," she said, glassy-eyed, "oh you're so cute, mmmmm I want a meat sandwich, honey, hahahaha, I want tongue with potato salad and cream cheese."
—A pair of six-foot-plus, thick-as-trees, combat-boot-wearing bikers in bomber jackets. They looked like skinheads crossbred with Hells Angels. "One pastrami, please, and one Reuben." Polite and genteel as Queen Elizabeth.
In addition to this there were Mexican tourists, wealthy debutantes, the Bridge and Tunnel club crowd, sarcastic cops, bleary-eyed immigrant workers, Upper East Side preppies, and a few hardscrabble East Village Jews. In short, it was a cross-section of anything the streets of New York could throw my way.
"I use the term organic to describe this place," said Fred Austin, "not to mean we serve organic products, but in the sense that it's alive. For many years Katz's was essentially a community room for the neighborhood." But as million-dollar condominium suites replaced the co-ops where Austin had grown up, where was that neighborhood heading and, with it, Katz's deli? Real estate values had risen 1600 per cent since Austin had taken over. "If I had to pay rent here, it would be fifty to sixty thousand dollars a month," he said. "[People] complain about the price of a pastrami sandwich now, but I'd have to charge forty dollars with those costs."
Part of him may have been nostalgic for the Lower East Side of yore, but Austin knew better than to stand in the way of progress. "Manhattan is exciting and electric and hard because things keep changing. Our original architecture and decor is here and I don't want it all replaced with steel and concrete, but I'd hate for someone to come along and say 'You can't paint here without a permit.'"
Offers to purchase Katz's Delicatessen come to Austin and Dell almost weekly, reportedly as high as $21 million. "Not that Katz's is a charity or social welfare experiment in any extent, but I've got seventy-five families who depend on Katz's and thousands of people who come here daily for fun and food," Austin said. "I have so much fun here I would not want it to change in my lifetime. It's very tempting to get that type of money, but what would I do with it? Buy another deli?"
Was he saying he'd never sell?
"Well, 'never' is a long time," he replied. "It's my goal not to sell. I can't imagine the circumstances where I would need to sell. If it's worth $5 million today it'll be worth $10 million tomorrow."
This was in November 2006. Three months later, I began to hear rumors from others in the delicatessen business that Katz's was quietly being put up for sale. Their asking price was supposedly north of $30 million with rumors flying as high as $50 million. Though they denied the rumors at every opportunity, Alan Dell later admitted to me that they were trying to figure out a way for developers to build on top of the deli, without having to close it down. Though the recession killed that plan by late 2008, most in the deli business, and in New York, agree that some transaction for Katz's is only a matter of time.
"It seems against human nature for anybody to resist the millions of dollars co-owners Fred Austin and Alan Dell are certainly being offered," New York Magazine's Grub Street blog wrote. "Other men have sold atomic secrets for less."
2:15 A.M.: Last Call.
"Takeouuut!" Charlie hollered at the top of his lungs, eliciting a unified chorus of "takeouuuuuuut!" along the counter.
The cleanup crew immediately started stacking chairs and clearing plates. The countermen on my end closed up shop. I looked down at the floor and beheld a trash mountain pooled around my ankles: torn hunks of bread, little bits of fat and gristle, the ripped white paper that held rye loaves, splotches of mustard and Russian dressing, rubber gloves galore, and a thick bed of sawdust. My shoes were coated so densely with peppercorns that I could have tossed them into the steam box and sliced them into sandwiches. My pants were stained transparent with grease. Every inch of me emanated pastrami musk. I handed Charlie back my apron. It was the greatest night of my life.