A behind-the-scenes tour of New York City’s dynamic food culture, as told through the voices of the chefs, line cooks, restaurateurs, waiters, and street vendors who have made this industry their lives.
“A must-read — both for those who live and dine in NYC and those who dream of doing so.” —Bustle
“[A] compelling volume by a writer whose beat is not food . . . with plenty of opinions to savor.” —Florence Fabricant, The New York Times
In Food and the City, Ina Yalof takes us on an insider’s journey into New York’s pulsating food scene alongside the men and women who call it home. Dominique Ansel declares what great good fortune led him to make the first Cronut. Lenny Berk explains why Woody Allen's mother would allow only him to slice her lox at Zabar’s. Ghaya Oliveira, who came to New York as a young Tunisian stockbroker, opens up about her hardscrabble yet swift trajectory from dishwasher to executive pastry chef at Daniel. Restaurateur Eddie Schoenfeld describes his journey from Nice Jewish Boy from Brooklyn to New York’s Indisputable Chinese Food Maven.
From old-schoolers such as David Fox, third-generation owner of Fox’s U-bet syrup, and the outspoken Upper West Side butcher “Schatzie” to new kids on the block including Patrick Collins, sous chef at The Dutch, and Brooklyn artisan Lauren Clark of Sucre Mort Pralines, Food and the City is a fascinating oral history with an unforgettable gallery of New Yorkers who embody the heart and soul of a culinary metropolis.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.50(d)|
About the Author
Ina Yalof has been writing books and articles about such diverse subjects as medicine, science, religion, and happiness for more than thirty years. Her books include the widely acclaimed oral history Life and Death: The Story of a Hospital, What It Means to Be Jewish, How I Write (coauthored with Janet Evanovich), What Happy Women Know, and Food and the City. Yalof’s articles have appeared in numerous national publications, including GQ, Harper's Bazaar, and New York magazine. She lives—and eats—in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
I grew up in Miami Beach, a child of parents who didn’t cook—unless throwing frozen TV dinners into the oven every night is your idea of cooking. There were, however, two exceptions. The first featured my father’s “famous” (more like “infamous” to my brother and me) Sunday-night salmon croquettes. Into a green, chipped, medium sized bowl he emptied a can of Bumblebee salmon, two eggs, and as much Pepperidge Farm breadcrumbs as the dish would hold. Next, he melted a quarter stick of butter in a cast iron pan until it began to sizzle - or burn – depending on whether or not he had left the room to get a cigarette. Into this pan he slid the four fish patties, browned them on both sides and voila! Leo’s Famous Croquettes. The second exception was when we went out for dinner--an infrequent event to say the least. When we did go, our destination was either Wolfie’s Coffee Shop or Junior’s Coffee Shop. And on very special occasions, the Hickory House, a real restaurant.
It was only when I married a New York boy who loved to eat – and met his mother - that I saw what I had been missing all those years. My mother-in-law lived in the Olcott Hotel on 72nd street in what was known at that time as an “efficiency apartment.” Meaning it had a kitchen - if you want to call it that. It was actually a converted closet with a tiny sink, a two-burner hot plate and an electric oven that rested on a makeshift counter. The refrigerator stood majestically in a corner of her bedroom, covered with vine-patterned Con-tact Paper so it would “fit in” with the décor. And whereas my mother kept golf balls in our refrigerator because she believed it increased their potential distance, my mother-in-law jammed enough food to feed a hockey team into hers.
It was she who taught me how to cook. And it was her son who taught me how to eat like a true New Yorker. By the time our kids could say “bagel” we were already dragging them around with us for catsup-smeared crinkle-cut fries at Nathan’s in Coney Island, bialys and whitefish at Barney Greengrass, and frozen hot chocolate at Serendipity. For years, we traditionally broke the Yom Kippur fast at Peking Duck in Chinatown and then walked two blocks to seal the deal with cannolli from Ferrara’s. I was in heaven. Sometimes even literally. Pig Heaven was one of my favorite Chinese restaurants (which, as it turns out, was the brainchild of Ed Schoenfeld, whose story appears on page tk/.)
Fast forward a few decades and a few million food trends, and here I am, more fascinated than ever by the gastronomic landscape of New York City, where what to eat and where and when seems to be all anyone talks about.
What got me started on this book was a chance encounter on a balmy early March afternoon--the kind of day that summons thoughts of spring. Walking home from lunch at some new vegan restaurant, I passed a butcher shop on Amsterdam Avenue on the Upper West Side. The door was wide open, and inside I glimpsed a heavy-set man in a white coat, seated behind a low counter against the back wall, talking to a customer. I kept walking, but something – who can ever say what that “something” is? - told me to circle around and look again. I did. This time the customer was gone, and the man was staring straight ahead at the doorway, almost as if he were expecting me. I went in and ordered two pounds of chopped meat. While an employee was grinding it fresh in the back, the owner and I began talking about what it means to be a butcher these days. His repartee was so entertaining, his observations so intriguing, his passion for his work so infectious that it got me thinking: how many others like him are there around this city? How many others might have stories worth sharing?
It turns out there are a lot.
After several intensive years of research in all five boroughs, I can tell you that there are more than enough to fill an encyclopedic number of volumes. Since I could do just one, an equally encyclopedic number of choices had to be made. I began with a long list of people who have influenced what and how New Yorkers eat, but ultimately chucked that list and started all over again, because the people with the most riveting tales to tell were, more often than not, people I’d never heard of or read about.
I found some of the best subjects in unexpected and often serendipitous ways. One weekday in midtown, for example, I followed the irresistible scent of grilled onions, which led me directly to the food cart of an Egyptian-American guy – Mohammad Abouliene - who was, at that moment, producing plates of Halal lamb at warp speed for a block-long line of hungry people working in the area. It turns out that that particular food cart has been the most popular, and the most imitated venue of its kind in the city for years.
This being New York, of course there was networking involved: Someone knew someone who knew someone else who could get me in touch with Bobby Weiss, a fourth-generation fish wholesaler at the new Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx…or Lauren Clark, a praline artisan in Brooklyn…or Miriam Tsinov, an Israeli-Uzbeki waitress with a following all her own. My own daughter introduced me to LuLu Powers, a much-in-demand caterer, who sent me to her foodie sister, who connected me to the general manager of a four-star restaurant, who arranged for me to meet Ghaya Olivera, their new executive pastry chef, who ended up being one of the best of all possible subjects. And so it went.
This book is an oral history: The characters speak for and about themselves. They are executive chefs and line cooks, restaurant owners and night managers, wholesale suppliers, cheese purveyors, bread bakers, street vendors, caterers, institutional meal planners, and more. Together, their narratives shine a spotlight on the competitive, unpredictable, often grueling but mostly satisfying lives they live in this epicurean culture where restaurants open and close before anyone knows their name, dreams are toppled and rebuilt, and things can and do turn on a dime.
They are a disparate group, to be sure, hailing from the ethnic enclaves of the four outer boroughs to the tony neighborhoods of Manhattan. Their backgrounds range from Egyptian to Italian, Dominican to Croatian, Mexican to American. Some names will be familiar to any casual observer of the food world; others may be unknown even to those for whom they work. I specifically avoided the so-called “rock-star chefs”, reasoning that they’re already overexposed—at least to the eighty-eight million viewers of the Food Network.
In the course of this work, my subjects led me into their inner sanctums. I explored an icy meat locker in Hunts Point in the Bronx, and observed from the perimeter more than my share of oppressively hot kitchens. I studied the New York art of slicing lox from a Zabar’s pro, listened to tales of jilted grooms from a Pierre Hotel banquet director, and didn’t notice I was freezing to death in the “21 Club’s” wine cellar, so entranced was I by reading the labels on some of the 4,897 bottles surrounding me.
Certain themes recur in these stories. Everyone has his or her own version of Proust’s madeline, a taste memory that opens a window to the past. But not everyone has the chance to translate these memories into reality in the here and now. Were just such memories the trigger for Betony’s Eamon Rockey when he devised a drink he calls “The Old Dog Shandy” using flavors that evoke memories of the smoke from his grandfather’s pipe and the honey from his grandmother’s cherished beehives? Was it Eddie Schoenfeld’s memories of eating Chinese food with his parents as a young boy that, twenty-two years later turned into his Sautéed Lobster, Egg, & Chopped Pork dish at Red Farm? Did Alexander Smalls’ recollections of the stories he heard about his great grandparents, all slaves, lead to his fascination with the African Diaspora that is the basis of his restaurant, The Cecil? I’m guessing yes, yes and yes.
The power of the media was another theme that ran through a number of interviews. This doesn’t come as a surprise in this day and age of information sharing. And it seems when it comes to food, two particular Forces (capital “F” intended) can literally make or break the objects of their evaluation. The first are food blogs such as Eater and Grub Street - the overwhelming craze for Dominique Ansel’s runaway bestselling cronut can attest to that. Also, The New York Times, whose food critic’s attendance in their dining rooms directly impacted the future of a number of restaurant people I spoke to. The other Force is Oprah, whose television show has been off the air for five years now, but whose effect still resonates with the success of those she has touched. Can anyone put a price on the value of a simple affirmative nod from this woman? Just ask Niño Esposito of Sette Mezzo or the women from Levain Bakery.
If I’ve learned anything from my extended immersion in the rich soil of New York City’s food world, it’s this: What makes the great ones great – waiters to caterers, executive chefs to line cooks, newly arrived to fourth-generationals – is that when it comes to food, they know even the most minute detail can make a huge difference. It doesn’t matter if you’re slicing a steak or selling it, embellishing a cake or serving it, raising a flock of ducks or lowering the price of olive oil, in the end, as line cook MacKenzie Arrington tells us: “…you’re all there with the same mindset and drive and passion for food. That’s what comes first and that’s all that matters. The food, the food, the food.”
I. STARTING FROM SCRATCH
Each of the seven narrators in this chapter created and built food-centered businesses from scratch. None went to business school. None were cushioned by trust funds, or had friends in high places paving their way. Most are immigrants, hailing from Poland and Greece, Egypt, Croatia and France. Not one is a native New Yorker. Instead of seeking small ponds for a big-fish advantage, every one of these people plunged into the biggest pond of all. New York, New York...hear the music?
If I can make it there…
And make it they did. Somehow, in this food-crazed metropolis already overrun with food-centered businesses, there was room for seven more—these seven, anyway. A rugelach specialist. A wholesale butcher. A Halal-cart chief. A tortilla supplier, praline artisan, pastry king, a couple of restaurateurs. But why, while so many others have come and gone, do these seven companies continue to flourish? Diverse though their enterprises may be, are there certain ingredients common to all—maybe even a shared secret recipe for success?
Common sense plus a quick Google inquiry into “entrepreneurial qualities” will yield adjectives like passion, drive, perseverance, resourcefulness, vision, and self-confidence. Pretty much all of them describe the subjects of this chapter—just as pretty much all of them describe every other self-made man or woman in any field. But we’re talking about men and women who work with, in, and around food. Not laptops or screwdrivers or cars or shoes or archaeological sites, but food. Glorious food.
Why the food world? For those involved with their native fare, there’s clearly the comfort factor of working within the culture of their native home. But there are so many other possibilities as well. Such as the many prospects for entry-level jobs that require no English and little training; or maybe the ever-expanding eating establishments and markets that pepper the city’s landscape are the draw. Or maybe it was a philosophical choice that even they, themselves, were unaware of. Food is a – and in some cases the--locus of family life. It triggers memory (see: Proust and the madeleine). It gives pleasure and comfort and warmth, emotional and otherwise. Food is energy; without energy, forget about passion, drive, perseverance, and the other facets of entrepreneurial spirit. Forget, for that matter, entrepreneurs—and everyone else. Food sustains life. Food IS life. Can’t live for long without it.
And then there’s love. Neighborly love, romantic love, familial love, animal love, self-love—what is preparing and serving food, for oneself or others, if not an act of love as well as survival? The subjects of this chapter share this awareness and perhaps that’s the ingredient they have in common: They feed people, and in so doing they comfort and sustain themselves.
Dominique Ansel Dominique Ansel Bakery
He seems a happy guy. Tall, dark and lanky. Despite being in this country for almost ten years, he still speaks with a heavily French accent. He’s been cooking professionally since he left high school at sixteen, ultimately landing a plum position at the long established Paris epicerie, Fauchon. From there, it was on to New York City and Restaurant Daniel, where he toiled for six years under Daniel Boulud as executive pastry chef. During his tenure at Daniel, the restaurant won three stars from Michelin and four from the New York Times. In 2013, he left to open his eponymous bakery in SoHo.
Opening day of Dominique Ansel Bakery is still so clear in my mind. I was very nervous. Holding my breath. I didn't know how many people were going to show up – if any. I didn't know what their reaction would be to my pastries or my bakery. I went in very early that morning to get everything set up and ready to open. The last thing was to remove the brown paper that the builders had left covering the inside of the windows facing the street. When I pulled down the paper, I saw at least ten people standing there, some of them trying to open the doors. But that’s New Yorkers for you. They see something new is coming, and they immediately have to know all about it.
Within a few days, we got a small write-up in The New York Times, and that was all it took. That first weekend it seemed everyone knew we were open. We got so slammed. We weren't ready for it. We had opened the shop with a very small team of six people. Very humble, very simple. And boom! Right away we had to hire more people to up our production and increase our customer service. I was completely overwhelmed.
When something like that happens, you very quickly realize you aren’t working for someone anymore. This isn’t a job and it isn’t a dream. This is reality. Your reality. When you're the boss, everything’s on you. If no one shows up to clean the bathroom – you clean it. No one to take out the trash? That’s your job, too. That’s the difference between a chef and a business owner. Once you’re a business owner, you have to be dedicated to your business night and day - day off or not. If, that is, you can even get a day off.
The DKA pastry was one of my first hits here. It’s a pastry I discovered back in France when I was working at Fauchon. I called it DKA, for Dominique's Kouign Amann. The kouign amann – which means “buttery cake” in Celtic - traditionally uses leftover bread dough. Years ago, when bakers portioned their bread dough, they took whatever was left over, put a big hunk of butter and sugar inside and baked it in the oven. The finished product came out very heavy, very greasy, very sugary. My version is much different. It's individual sized. I use less than half the butter and sugar. I repeat thin layers of dough, butter and sugar. What you get is a caramelized croissant. It’s a highly addictive pastry. Seriously. Somebody buys a DKA, starts eating it on the way out of the bakery, gets half-way down the block, makes a u-turn, and comes back to get another one. It makes me laugh to see this.
The cronut came about almost as a fluke. No one could ever have predicted that outcome. It started with a staff meeting at the beginning of 2013. In these meetings, we always talk about new innovations and things we can do, and someone said, “Maybe we can do a special donut.” I said, "You know, I'm French. They didn’t serve donuts in France, so I don't have a recipe for that. But maybe I can create something that will be like it." I experimented for three months, through lots of trial and error and minor adjustments of time and temperature until I finally came up with a way to make laminated dough with flaky layers that resembled a croissant. We formed it into a donut shape with the hole in the center, and filled it with a cream. Because it was a hybrid croissant and a donut, we called it a cronut. And because I thought it was so delicious, I put it on our list of pastries.
Not long afterward, one of the writers from Grub Street –New York Magazine’s food blog - happened to stop in the bakery for coffee. He asked if we were doing anything new. I said, "We're just now launching this." And I showed him the cronut. He tasted it, photographed it, and wrote an article about it for the blog. The article showed up on May 9th, 2013, at exactly 2:10 p.m. That same night, we got a call from the Grub Street people. "Hey guys, I don't know if you realize it, but this cronut thing is going to be big. You should make a few more for tomorrow." They told us they had an increase of 300% of traffic on the website, and over 140,000 links in just that one afternoon.
Naturally, I was very happy to see the article. But did I expect it to have that kind of an effect? Never! I made our usual fifty or so cronuts for that next morning, and when I opened the shop for business, there were maybe fifty people waiting outside. I’m wondering: what's all this? Every morning, I open the door of the bakery myself. It's become a tradition. I want to see my first customer and wish them welcome. By the third day after the Grub Street article, I opened the door to find over a hundred people waiting in line! I still had no idea what was happening.
Every day the number of cronuts we made increased a little. But the number of customers who showed up to buy them increased a lot! To the extent that we had to set up some rules just to keep things fair. I hated doing that, but we had no choice, because we sold out early every single day. We couldn’t just keep making more and more. Our bakery is small and we have many other pastries to get out as well. Rule 1 was: Maximum two cronuts per person. This lets us sell to as many different people as possible. Rule 2: Everyone waits in line. No exceptions. If we get food writers, TV stars, anyone, we kindly ask him or her to wait in line. We have a lot of respect for all our customers, especially the ones that wake up at five or six in the morning to come here and wait. It wouldn't be fair for me to give a cronut away to someone just because they are “important” – whatever that means.
No one could have imagined a scenario like this. Especially me. Then I started thinking: as great as the success of this cronut is, I want my bakery to be known for more that just one pastry. I don't want to let our creations kill our creativity. In other words, just because you’ve found a winner doesn't mean you should rest on your laurels. Think of an artist with a beautiful painting. Or a writer with a best seller. They don’t stop there. They keep making something new; they keep innovating and trying different techniques.
After the cronut, we launched a new creation we called a Frozen S’more. It's a special recipe that includes a marshmallow that can be eaten frozen. Inside the marshmallow there is frozen vanilla custard with a chocolate wafer. The whole concoction sits on a branch that has been smoked, so it smells like fire, and we torch it so the outside shell of the marshmallow is caramelized, like a thin shell of crème Brule. Beneath this shell, the marshmallow is slightly chewy, the frozen custard is creamy and cold, and you have the crunch of the chocolate wafer. The whole thing plays with texture, temperature, presentation, and taste. I didn't want people just to eat a scoop of ice cream. I wanted to them to have a different experience. Then we created the Magic Soufflé - molten chocolate encased inside a rectangular tower of orange blossom brioche with a drop of Grand Marnier. We heat it for you in the oven for a few minutes and you eat it hot. People love it.
Every aspect of care – down to the tiniest detail - is important to me here at the bakery. I learned that from working with Daniel Boulud. From the minute you step into his restaurant until the time you leave, someone is welcoming you, sitting you down, bringing butter and bread, serving water, taking your order, explaining the dishes on the menu, serving the meal, bringing dessert and coffee and the little chocolates you get at the end, and finally, wishing you a good night, and getting a taxi for you in the street. Every detail is important to him. Which is why we now service our customers before they even step inside the bakery. I still open the doors for the first time at 8 a.m., but if customers show up an hour or two before, one of us will step outside every fifteen minutes or so to greet them. We’ll pass freshly made little madeleines to keep them warm and thank them for coming. We don’t ever take a single person for granted. To the contrary. We’re both grateful and honored that our customers are there, because we know they are waiting for us.
Noe Balthazar Buena Vista Tortilla Company
The Buena Vista Tortilla Company factory is situated in a large Brooklyn warehouse. On this particular morning, the overhead doors to the street are open and forklifts roll in and out, transporting sealed boxes of tortillas and supplies. Deeper inside the factory, the aroma of warm, cooked corn curls through the air. Toward the back of the large expanse, a machine mixes and sheets the dough. Another cuts it into six and a quarter inch circles, and drops them onto a conveyor belt that carries them through a 500-degree oven and then a cooling tube. The tube spits out the now fully cooked tortillas at a rate of hundreds per minute into bins—and then the humans step in. Five gloved workers begin a choreographed series of sharp, deliberate movements, counting and stacking the soft disks, stuffing them into bags, and securing each bag with twist ties. There’s no kidding around on this job. And not surprisingly, there is no talking.
He owns the company. A congenial man, solidly built, thick dark hair and mustache. He immediately apologizes for his broken English. “I love America,” he tells me, gesturing large with his arms. “America gave me the opportunity. In my home town, Puebla, you don’t have anything. Nothing. Only your dreams. You want to make it, you come here. When the Twin Towers came down, I cried, because this country feels like family. In this country they give you food, they give you medical. When I got here, someone like me, with nothing, could go to the hospital and they would take care of you and then ask how much you can pay. In Mexico you have to pay first. If you have no money you have to stay outside. They don't care if you die. If you die, then you die. That's it.”
I was five years old when I started working with my mom on a farm picking tomatoes and green peppers. I had a little basket and I put the tomatoes there. When I was eight, she would go to work and leave me home to watch my brothers. We were little boys and little boys get hungry, and sometimes your mother is not there to feed you so you have to cook yourself. For my brothers and me, I made tortillas by hand. It’s not so hard to do it. You put corn flour and water into a bowl and mix it until it’s like a little elastic ball of dough. Then you put it between two sheets of plastic paper and with the heel of your hand you keep pushing it down it until it’s flattened. Then you take it out of the plastic paper, put it into a hot pan, cook it for a little while, flip it over and it’s ready. Of course you can buy a machine in the supermarket that flattens them and trims them for you. But we never had money for that.
Life is hard in my small town where I grew up; there's no work there. You work for six months a year if you’re lucky. But you eat twelve months a year, you know? So you’re always looking for something better for your family. And you have to hope that it’s here in America.
When I came to New York, I got a job working the line at a tortilla factory. It’s what I knew. My job was to feed the machines, and pack the boxes. Whatever they needed, I did it. For twenty years, I did it. Then, one day a close family member died and I had to go to Texas for the funeral. And when I came back, no more job. And I couldn’t find another one. It’s not easy when the only thing you know is tortillas. So I decided to go out on my own. What did I have to lose? I already had nothing.
I rented a small, run-down factory in Flushing that was once a tortilla place. I bought two old machines and repaired them and went to work. When I opened the doors, there were already a lot of people asking for tortillas. A good sign. First I called my business Ole Mexican but then I decided to change the name to Buena Vista, after my hometown in Puebla. When I put that name up on the sign, my business got even better. A lot of people in this town know Buena Vista and they wanted to come.
For the first four years I worked like a dog. I didn’t see any money. Hours and hours and everything I had to do I did myself. My wife and I and our children lived in the tiniest possible apartment. We had nothing to eat. Nothing. And believe me, it was hard not to quit and look for a job when you see that your children are hungry. But we did the best we could and I kept going. Working seventeen-hour days, seven days a week. I was always tired and hated being away from my family. Some days, all I could think of was how much I wanted to go home.
When I started, I was competing with all the big companies. I knew if I wanted to stand out, I had to be different. So I went for high quality. A tortilla is only flour and water. That's the whole deal. No oil, no flavorings, nothing else. So the quality of the flour you use is the most important thing. There is first quality, second quality and third quality. The third quality, you can eat it or give it to the animals. It's good, I'm not saying it's not good. But it's third-grade stuff. I used the best corn flour I could find. You can use cheaper flour you only sell it once. If they don't like it, it doesn't matter if you give it to them free. If they don't like it, that's it. If they like it, they tell their friends and that’s how your reputation gets made.
In the beginning, I was the whole show. I would cook half a day and the second half I would go out with my truck and sell and deliver to grocery stores and super markets. Eventually, I got two people to help me. We started by making twenty to forty cases a day - 36,000 single tortillas a day in my small space. My customers told me my tortillas were the best. Authentic, they said. What a tortilla should taste like. The result was, within three years I outgrew that space and moved here. Here I have around 5,000 square feet with fifteen people working full time. We now put out 450,000 tortillas a day for supermarkets, grocers, and restaurants, locally and out of state. It’s good, no?
Tortillas are the bread for Mexicans. The people, if they don't have tortillas on the table, it's like you're not eating anything. It's like the Chinese. Chinese have to eat rice. If they don't eat rice then don’t feel it’s been a meal for them. Same for us with tortillas. You have some and then you feel full. Mexicans know.
The Mexican people are lucky to be here, but I think New York is also lucky to have so many Mexicans. We are what make the food industry. You know what people say? They say if all the Mexicans went home tomorrow, there wouldn’t be a food industry in this city.
Sam Solasz Master Purveyors
On this crisp December morning, with daylight still an hour away, I arrived outside of Unit B-14 at the Hunts Point Meat Market in the South Bronx. A trio of white-coated workers stood on the loading dock, rubbing their gloved hands together and stomping their feet to warm them. A guy with a dark wool cap pulled down over his ears explained that they were waiting for a trailer to arrive from Chicago. “It’ll be hauling the carcasses of a hundred steers. Once it gets here, we’re lookin’ at four, five hours to unload the stuff.”
A young worker in a yellow safety helmet led me inside and up a short flight of stairs into a conference room, where Sam Solasz, the owner, was waiting. He’s a short, solidly built man with hands that look thick enough to wrestle a bull to the ground in less than thirty seconds. At eighty-three, he’s still going strong. Dressed in a heavy sweater under a butcher’s coat, he closed the door and waved me into a chair across the table from him. I turned on my tape recorder and began with one of my usual first questions: Where are you from? I was hardly prepared for what followed.
I grew up in Bialystok, Poland. At the very beginning of the war, 1939, all the Jews from my town, including my family, were rounded up and sent to live in a ghetto – an area walled off from the rest of the city. At one time, there were 65,000 Jews crammed into this one space, which was designed for perhaps one tenth that number. For the next several years, the ghetto operated as a forced labor camp. You did what the Germans needed you to do, what they told you to do. Those of us who could butcher animals –my father, who was a butcher, taught me how - we were trucked every morning by the Germans to a slaughterhouse outside the ghetto where we processed meat for the German Army. In the afternoon they brought us back and left us off inside the ghetto walls. Periodically, they would come to get some of the people, rounding them up for deportation to a concentration camp. Out of so many thousands, maybe fifty, fifty-five survived.
You ask me, how did I survive? I’ll tell you how. In 1942, I already was twenty-three months in the ghetto when, one morning, eight thousand of us were told to get on a train; they were transporting us to Treblinka, one of the camps built by the Nazis in occupied Poland. I was only thirteen years old, but I knew already about Treblinka, and I knew what was in store for us. Don’t ask how we knew. People knew.
Just three kilometers from Treblinka, I jumped from the train. I ran as fast as I could into the nearby forest where I found a large group of partisans hiding out in secret encampments. They were not only Jews. They were Russians, too, and others who, like me, were trying desperately to stay out of sight of the Nazis. We stayed in hiding in the forest, foraging for food and sometimes receiving it from the kindness of strangers, until the end of June 1944, when the Russians found us. They told us, “We liberated you. Now you have to do something for us.” They needed us to help them because by then we knew every inch of the forest. The Germans had hidden live mines in there and bombs and we knew where these mines were. And where it was safe and unsafe to trespass.
I stayed there with the Russians for four weeks and then I escaped. I made my way to Warsaw, then to Lodz, to Czechoslovakia and finally to Munich, Germany. It was 1945. The war had been over for four months and I was put into a displaced person’s camp. I was sixteen years old. In Munich, they had places where survivors could get help searching for relatives. I spoke only Polish, so I got someone to write a letter for me to the Forverts (a Jewish Newspaper) in New York, where my grandparents and my uncle had emigrated in 1922. One Saturday, right after synagogue, a relative of my father's came across my letter in the newspaper. Right away, he called up my uncle and said, "Hey, I just found somebody. It’s a boy. He's looking for you."
Five months later, I was on a ship to America.
When I arrived in New York, my whole family came to the docks to greet me. At the docks also were people looking for men who wanted to work. One guy was looking for butchers. My uncle took me over to him and I got his business card, which I put in my pocket. It turned out that he was from the third largest food company in the United States - Hygrade Food Products. The next day my uncle took me over to Hygrade. The manager gave me a white coat, an apron, a set of knives and said, “Show me what you can do.” So I sharpened the knives the way I like them and I worked for two hours straight. The following day, I had a job.
After my first a day's work, they told me my salary would be three hundred dollars a week. That was a lot of money in those days. People at the time were making $1.65 per hour. A gallon of gas was thirty-five cents. Gum was a nickel a pack and a carton of cigarettes was $1.20. I was butchering meat the way I knew from home, but he thought I was special. He wanted me to teach his workers how I did it. I showed them how to cut beef, how to break up the cattle into sides. In their slaughterhouse I butchered hogs, pigs, cattle and other things. Always working and teaching.
And then, 1956 rolled around. After five and a half years, I decided it was time to strike out on my own. With $6,500.00 I had saved, I gave my boss two-weeks notice, took the bus to 14th street and rented a space in the wholesale meat district. It all happened so fast, when the landlord asked the name of my business, I didn’t have one. My first thought was to call it “Meister’s”. In Europe, a meister is someone who knows everything. At Hygrade, anytime they needed something in the company they said, “Call Saul. He’s a real meister.” I added the word “Purveyors”, because that meant I sold provisions, as well. Then a friend said, “You know, Saul, you’re in America, now. You should use the English word.” In English, meister means master. And that’s how we became “Master Purveyors”. We got all the legal stuff out of the way and on August 16, 1957, Master Purveyors opened for business.
August 16 was a lucky day for me. A very sad, but also very lucky day. August 16 was the date when they killed all the people in Bialystok. But they didn’t kill me.
The business kept growing and as it did, we’d move into larger and larger quarters. Finally, in 2001, we left the meatpacking district. The area was undergoing a gentrification into a nightlife and shopping destination. Rents went up, and like so many others, we moved our operation to Hunts Point in the Bronx. Which is where we are today. Even in these new surroundings, we have continued to do business the old fashioned way. I buy straight cattle from the slaughterhouse.
Close to 500,000 pounds of meat arrive here every week. Maybe around 70,000 pounds a day. Give or take. And only the top, top of the line. All our beef comes from steer. Those are male cows that have been castrated. They do that when the cow is a calf so it develops muscles and weight. You also get quality, taste, and everything you want in a piece of meat. When I call up a slaughterhouse and order fifty steers, they arrive already quartered. That means two hundred pieces. As soon as the trailer pulls up to our loading dock, each of my “luggers” grabs a quarter, which weighs between 220 and 250 pounds, and hangs it on a hook that is attached to a bar on a roller. Immediately someone slaps our Master’s stamp on every quarter. We stamp it again when we break it down, so I can recognize whether it's my product or not. If one of my customers complains the meat is bad and he’s looking here for credit, I’ll say, “Yeah? Show me the stamp.”
Once the meat is hung and stamped, it gets rolled through the door. While it’s still on the hooks, one guy is there with an electric power saw and he cuts it right away two pieces. Then the next guy, and the next guy and the next guy. Each one has his own part to do. Two hours later, the hindquarter has been broken into ten pieces and those get cut again by my butchers into large portions of sirloins, ribs, brisket, and so on. I taught every one of my guys how to cut the way I want it. On a smaller scale, we have benchers. According to the orders that come in, they take the meat from the cooler, put it on the bench and cut it into fillet steaks, sirloin streaks. Whatever you want we do for you. We try to accommodate everyone. Amy Rubenstein, one of the owners of Peter Luger’s, comes in every Thursday morning to personally select her restaurant's weekly supply. She’s been doing that for years. She chooses what she wants, stamps her selections with the Peter Luger insignia, and that way we both know it’s hers.
I work eighteen hours a day, five days a week. Always have. I start my day at 8:30. That’s PM not AM. I come in at night because I want to see what product is coming in and what's going out. I leave here at two in the afternoon. Usually, I meet my wife at a restaurant. This is our time together. She has lunch, I have dinner. I eat five times a week steak. And I don't eat a little hamburger. I eat a steak. One and a half pounds, sometimes two pounds. I don't let my wife cook. She deserves to be treated well. It hasn’t always been easy for her since I’m never home at the normal times. But we’ve been married fifty-six years, so I’m guessing she’s used to me by now.
By 4 o’clock in the afternoon, I’m ready for bed. I sleep maybe four hours, until 8, 8:15 p.m. when I get up and go to work. My kids work with me here so they’re up crazy hours too. We’re all night owls. Scott, my younger son, comes in at 10 p.m. Mark, my oldest boy, comes in at midnight. My son-in-law, who used to be a doctor but recently hung up his stethoscope to join our team, comes in a half hour later. And then my workers start drifting in at different times after that. I’ve been doing it like this from day one that I came to this country. Sixty-three years and I’ve always worked nights. Always. I can do it blindfolded.
Jelena Pasic Harlem Shake
She was born in Rijeka, Croatia, a town of about 150,000 people. While studying at the University, she also worked for Procter and Gamble, which paid her in American dollars. That allowed for a “fantastic” standard of living but after graduating in 2000, she decided to start the new millennium in a grand style. She would go to America.
She arrived here on a J1 exchange visa, which allowed her to work for five months and travel for one. She arrived with $200 in her pocket and a promised job in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. “On day one, I discovered that the job entailed picking up cigarette butts and garbage. I never even finished the first day.” After several more employment debacles, including selling temporary tattoos, she headed for New York City and became a waitress. She’s thirty-eight.
I met my future husband while I was waitressing. He had always wanted to open a restaurant. Our parents gave us some financial help and we became partners in a series of small, successful cafés in Washington Heights. Seven years later, after our marriage fell apart, I learned that I had never really been a partner in the cafés at all. Which left me, after our divorce, without a job, almost broke, and with two kids to raise. I had a choice: work for someone else for the rest of my life or think of something really cool that would turn my life around. I had a business degree, and I knew how to run a café, so I’m thinking, why not keep going with that? Why not open my own restaurant?
My goals were first, to survive and feed my two children, and second, to create a place that’s beautiful, practical and has some culture. In short, a nice place where another mom and two kids can go to eat together that’s affordable for them. I knew it would be a huge gamble, but I figured if I took things conservatively so as not to lose whatever money I had left, I could do it.
In May of 2012, I decided to give it a go. First up was the location. I knew Harlem was up and coming. Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster Restaurant was thriving, as were Corner Social and other upscale eateries. But at the same time, there were few really cool, casual places to eat. And I figured, if I could fill that void, my place would be a hit. To me, the architecture along Lenox Avenue looked like a Parisian boulevard, but it was always in the shadow of other more thriving Harlem streets. After The Red Rooster opened and people started going up there, it became clear to me that perhaps the area might develop into something special.
I learned of a vacant corner spot on Lenox and 124th, and went to check it out. The space itself was horrible. Eight layers of dropped ceiling, no windows and a disgusting wood floor. But when I looked at it – all I saw was a corner. Just what I wanted. The landlord was a seventy five year old man who was no longer even thinking of renting the space because there had been so many unsuccessful restaurants there. For three months I negotiated that lease like I was negotiating a county’s destiny. I ended up taking it for fifteen years, which was a pretty big commitment - and I think he was just happy to lock someone in for a long time. And the rent itself was a blessing.
The day I signed the lease I remember standing on the corner, thinking: Okay, Jelena. What exactly are you going to do here? I knew I wanted a casual restaurant, but what kind? And then, it just came to me. A burger and shake restaurant! For me, as a mom with two kids, it’s a much better way to make a living than working late at night with liquor involved. Shake Shack was of course my inspiration. The food is delicious and the restaurant is now a New York tourist attraction. From what I could see, there was no burger place with good quality and nice design and this type of concept up here in Harlem. I wanted to do something like that. In Harlem. For Harlem.
It can be tough for a white person to come in and try to do business within a black culture. I knew that even though my intentions might be the best and I’m trying to provide an amazing product, I needed someone who could bridge the gap. I called Dennis Decker, a brilliant and creative designer who has been living in Harlem for 13 years. We decided together to highlight Harlem culture and make the restaurant a place that Harlem could be proud of. We started by totally gutting the building. And then, after the first day of demolition, it occurred to me that we had no name. It had to be something Harlem-specific; that I was sure of. I was thinking Harlem this, Harlem that, Harlem burgers. And then friend of mine very casually tossed off, “How about Harlem Shake?” “That’s it!” I said. “I’m going to be selling shakes. That’s perfect!” The next day, I called my lawyer and we trademarked the name.
And that’s when the fun began.
In February of 2013, we were still renovating, when my friend Kenji Alt e-mailed me. He said, “Jelena, there’s something strange going on. There’s a video on YouTube you need to watch.” Kenji is very big on trends. He’s a much-revered blogger, food writer and food critic, and he’s very tuned into everything that’s hip. He said, “There’s a clip of different people doing these dance moves. It’s called the Harlem Shake. This is totally ridiculous, but it seems it’s going viral!”
Up to that point, the restaurent had 384 “likes” on Facebook. I could never figure out why there were so many – or even any - because we weren’t open yet. But suddenly, after the YouTube clip, we started getting seven to eight-thousand “likes” a day. People were going crazy. There were hundreds of videos all over YouTube of different groups – old people, young people, black and white - all doing the same dance moves. It’s a like a flash-mob. The “Harlem Shake” starts with one dancer, dancing on his own somewhere; it could be in the middle of Grand Central Station. He’s oblivious to the people surrounding him, and they are seemingly oblivious to him. Then, suddenly, they all join him repeating the same dance moves as a crowd. The video has been replicated by all kinds of groups. I heard that The University of Georgia men's swim and dive team did it underwater, and members of the Norwegian Army did it too. All these people danced with their own group, and posted the tapes on YouTube. It was wild! I got E-mails from trademark brokers offering all kinds of money for the name. My Harlem Shake ended up having 27,000 “likes” on Facebook before we even opened.
Suddenly I began to worry that people might resent me and my restaurant, thinking that this white lady is trying to cash in on the name Harlem Shake and maybe demeaning their culture. I feared it was going to be a disaster for my business. I needed to do something fast. Because we were under construction, we had put up a 50-foot plywood safety-wall surrounding the restaurant while it was being built out. So we hired a graffiti artist named Kindo Harper to design something special. In huge, six-foot-tall letters, he painted the words: “Do the real Harlem Shake.” That was all it took! Within one week, that graffiti-painted plywood became a tourist attraction. Tour busses started coming up here, tourists and neighborhood people alike stopped to take pictures in front of it. It was so funny, my kids and I stood there laughing because fifty tourists are taking pictures with no idea how this came about.
I felt so lucky. The people from the neighborhood could not have been happier or prouder; they showed up in front of the plywood and danced the Harlem Shake themselves. All the New York newspapers wrote us up, which was pretty amazing. When it came time to open the restaurant, I was thinking: how do we take this plywood down? It’s a piece of art. We can’t just destroy it. So we found a home for it at Wadleigh High School, a neighborhood public school of performing arts, and we donated it to them. They use it as a theatrical prop to represent the Harlem background when they put on shows.
We opened on May 13. Opening day we had lines out the door and down the block. We got so slammed, it wasn’t fun. I sat in my office in the basement saying, never again! Did we have a few mishaps? More than a few those first weeks - food not ready, orders confused… what you’d expect from a place that newly opened to find a line a mile long waiting on the street. We were babies, and still are. We’re still working out our kinks but I’m feeling like we have a good future ahead of us.
People talk about the American dream. I think I’m living it. Seriously. I had sold everything when I moved to this country. I sold my car. I started with close to nothing. I was frightened to take the step I took, but I still took it. I’m a scuba diver and a parachuter and I can only liken this to jumping out of a plane without knowing if your parachute is going to open.
We’ve been in business a few months now. I still live in a 1-bedroom apartment on 126th st. My kids are with me two weeks out of the month. It took all my life’s savings to open this place and for the time being, I can’t afford anything better than that. And there still are many days that my childrens sit in the office with me when I know they would rather be somewhere else. But they understand that for now at least, this is what we have to do. I feel safe, right now. Like I’m where I belong. And sure, I know that I might fail, but at least for today I’m master of my own destiny.
Excerpted from "Food and the City"
Copyright © 2016 Ina Yalof.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
Ina Yalof's Food and the City presents a uniquely wide view of the food landscape in New York by sharing the engaging voices and compelling stories of the vibrant people living and working in this world every day. By honing these tales, Yalof gives lucky readers an insider's perspective on the diverse food world in New York City. --Eric Ripert, Executive Chef, Le Bernardin
Each story in this book inspires me with the turn of the page. These are stories of passion, motivation, hardship and resilience. Ina Yalof has captured the ingredients for success in the NYC restaurant scene while weaving tales that showcase the unwavering spirit of our fellow New Yorkers. --Marcus Samuelsson, James Beard-award winning chef and New York Times-bestselling author of Marcus off Duty and Yes, Chef!
Ina Yalof's book captures well once unknown tales of New York City's hard working chefs. I am proud that she featured our pastry Chef at restaurant Daniel, Chef Ghaya, and her unique story. She's been through a moving journey in her personal and professional life and her overall loyalty and dedication will inspire all. --Daniel Boulud, Chef/Owner, The Dinex Group
New Yorkers are so obsessed with eating, they often forget who's getting the food to them. Here are their stories and their struggles, with appearances by hurricanes, ghettos, poverty, 9/11, Rikers Island, real wars and hot dog wars. You'll be charmed and you'll be moved. --Alan Richman, sixteen-time winner of the James Beard Foundation Journalism Award
A wonderful book in which amazing cooks, chefs, and artisans tell their unique stories. I was particularly taken with the words of the immigrants, who are rarely celebrated. Their lives are not without struggles, crazy long hours and daily frustrations, yet the spirit of New York cuisine is in all of them. --Jonathan Waxman, chef/owner Barbuto and Jams, NYC and author of Italian, My Way