Food Friday: Q+A With Guest Chef, Mile End Deli's Noah Bernamoff

Posted by Drake, March 27, 2015
DOF X Mile End Poster


As part of our ongoing Guest Chef Series, Drake One Fifty welcomed NYC's Mile End Deli co-founder, Noah Bernamoff for a one-night-only Brooklyn-by-way-of-Montreal inspired dinner.


Specializing in smoked meats, pickled + baked goods, the Brooklyn-based, Montreal-style Jewish deli cuisine effortlessly takes our favourite Jewish eats and elevates them to redefine and transcend the traditional comfort food experience, satisfying even the pickiest of palates. You could expect the same 'old-meets-new', familiar flavour at our pop-up, with ingredients like their signature smoked meats, and a Mile End spin off of the classic matzo ball or latke recipe that even your Bubbe would approve of.


We sat down with Bernamoff for a quick Q+A session before the much anticipated pop-up dinner, where he gave us his two cents on true ethical food sourcing, the deep relationship between food and culture, his opinions about quality comfort food, and discussed future plans of bringing the Mile End to other cities.



DRAKE: Outside of the awesome established menu, what else can our guests expect at tonight’s Drake One Fifty x Mile End Deli Pop Up? What kind of experience do you want people to take away from tonight’s guest chef dinner?


NB: Well, I’m guessing that they can expect really good beverages from the DOF bar menu [laughs]. It’s hopefully a little bit out of the norm eating Jewish food the way we do it – there’s a few new restaurants in Toronto doing interesting things like that, but you know, we have our own little twist to it.


DRAKE: Have you had a chance to check out the cocktail menu here at Drake One Fifty?


NB: No, I had a beer last night, but maybe tonight I might chill out and have a cocktail or two. But I hope the experience is nice; it’s a beautiful restaurant and I hope the food comes out really well. As we would want if people were coming into our restaurant, we just want people to have fun with the people they come to eat with and have fun with their food!


DRAKE: What was the collaboration process like between Mile End and Drake One Fifty in developing the Pop-Up dinner menu?


NB: Well, we had sort of a few ideas that we threw out to Chef Ted [Corrado] and Jon [Pong] and they were super accommodating. They helped steer us a little bit in terms of what ingredients might be available. They obviously know their kitchen best and what equipment they have.


DRAKE: Did you get free range to do whatever you wanted?


NB: Yeah! There were really no parameters – I mean, just like, “Make a great meal! Here’s some previous menus to work with.” It was pretty free-form. But it’s great to have their assistance and the whole back-of-house team was very, very impressive.


DRAKE: Any objectives you were trying to achieve or ingredients you were excited to use?


NB: We obviously are really well known for meats that we cure and smoke ourselves but it’s a little challenging to get [the meat] up to Toronto. We tried to pick a few items that we thought would be interesting, that would echo some of the things that we do; some of the quicker process meat production. We just wanted to be, for lack of a better word, super-Jewy [laughs] and authentically Mile End.


DRAKE: Any items you’re particularly pumped for people to try tonight?


NB: Well, there’s certain things that I know are definitely going to be good, because well, they always are. The smoked prime rib I think is going to be really great. I haven’t tasted it yet because it’s still cooking. I mean, it’s not a big menu, so that just means we got to cherry pick our way around and make sure that everything we’re serving is something we’re excited by.


Mile End Deli Menu

The delicious menu offerings at Mile End Deli (Images courtesy of https://instagram.com/mileenddeli)


DRAKE: Everyone has their own idea or definition of what they consider “comfort food”. However, it seems that Mile End is pioneering a “quality comfort food” movement that moves far beyond existing conventional perceptions. What does quality comfort food mean to you and how does it drive the food + menu development at Mile End?


NB: Comfort food… quality comfort food, or really, all food were not categorically separated. They were always homemade, always made from scratch, no shortcuts. Our approach is similar to fine dining. I think if you took the same philosophy and just applied it to different themes of food and styles of food. You know, it’s the same philosophy, same approach, same application of technique but maybe one end presentation is really fine, and it’s in a beautiful space with perfect service – there’s a lot that goes into fine dining. Comfort food is a little bit more down home, its casual, you know, the vibe and the service is casual and so Mile End, we still try to approach every plate of food that we make with that same philosophy that you might use or employ when producing fine dining dishes. It’s just like, buy good ingredients, cook them nicely with some good technique, take good care of them, present them well, and make sure your customers are happy!


DRAKE: Do you mean like a farm-to-table approach?


NB: No, I think farm-to-table is just one version of that. We practice farm-to-table practices but we’re not a farm-to-table restaurant. I think the idea of farm-to-table has been sort of, misplaced, from a philosophy to being a category of food. You know, the Drake One Fifty isn’t a farm-to-table restaurant but they’re buying food from local farmers and purveyors and they’re putting it on the table [laughs]. Farm-to-table to me, doesn’t carry a lot of weight in and of itself. I think that food that has a story behind it, beyond the source of just the ingredients is to me, is what makes you know, quality comfort food. That’s make takes comfort food to the next level – elevates it, because there’s an actual narrative.


Montreal Mile End

Montreal's Mile End, the inspiration behind Brooklyn's Mile End Deli (Image courtesy of slicemagazine.blogspot.com)


DRAKE: I’ve read in various interviews and your own “Our Story” section on your website, how fondly you remember your upbringing in Montreal’s Mile End, and obviously the important influence it serves in running your business…


NB: Well, I grew up in Montreal but I lived in Mile End for a really long time. It’s where my grandparents grew up and it’s sort of the inspiration behind a lot of the food at Mile End. The seed that grew Mile End came from, and were inspired by the places, institutions, establishments in and around Mile End.


DRAKE: So my question pertains to your Mile End inspiration: in which ways to you manage to stay aligned with this influence + inspiration, how important is it to Mile End, and in what way can we see it tangibly implemented at Mile End? Do you still ship bagels in from St. Viateur?


NB: Well, we don’t ship the bagels anymore, we bake our own because we have our own shop called Black Seed Bagels - we bake our own bagels in a wood-burning oven, the way that they’re baked in Montreal. It’s about adopting the practices but we’ve gone beyond that too. You know, Jewish food, from a commercially available Jewish-food perspective, there’s not a lot of it. There’s certain key places in Montreal, like Wilensky’s, Shwartz’s and Beauty’s, those three places in particular, and bagel places like Fairmount and St. Viateur, they represent these really important markers in our cultural history as Montreal Jews. But at the same time, part of what Mile End, the restaurant, is about, is about pushing the boundaries. Like, “great, on one hand we make, what I think is a really great Wilensky special which we call the Ruth Wilensky, which is a salami sandwich. A very, very simple sandwich where we use our own homemade salami that really takes the sandwich to the next level.” But, to me, that’s not quite enough to really flesh out what it is to be a Jewish restaurant. It’s sort of our responsibility, in some way, to further our culture through food. You know, you look around and see the Italian culture being extended through the exploration of its many regional food. You see that in a lot of cultures – Italian, Chinese – basically you can name a culture and there’s probably a modern food movement that has helped move the needle in terms of how people understand themselves as that kind of, cultural person, or how people on the outside understand what that culture is through food. And of course food plays that vehicle now, perhaps in a way it never has before. People are that much more aware and interested in it. And so, coming back to us, how many other people are doing that with Jewish food? I mean, there are some, but you know, five and a half years ago when we opened Mile End, there really wasn’t.


DRAKE: Do you mean in Brooklyn specifically, or on a global scale?


NB: No I’m talking about globally. Sure, in Brooklyn there is a large Hasidic Jewish community, but they’re more concerned about creating kosher food. So they’ll have Chinese restaurants that are Kosher and to them they’ll be like, “that’s fine”. I’m more concerned about feeding people latkes whether they’re kosher or not is not my point, its culturally, the flavour of the food, that’s not just important for Jews to understand their own culture but it’s important for Jewish food to have some place in the culinary landscape, or at least, in North America.


Noah Bernamoff of Mile End Deli

Noah Bernamoff of Brooklyn's, Mile End Deli


DRAKE: Aside from one’s spoken language, food is one of the most important ways in which culture is shared with others but also used to retain distinct identities. The role that your own culture plays in the going-on’s at Mile End Deli is evident in your dishes, but what other nonobvious ways does the relationship between culture and food permeate throughout your business and appetite?


NB: Resourcefulness! I mean, Jews came from a place of poverty and hardship, and we came to North America and assimilated post-war. Generally, as a people, we’ve done pretty well. I mean, we’re above average [laughs]. The idea of the overstuffed deli sandwich was a product of newly assimilated Jews saying, “You know what, we can afford whatever we want! We can eat a sandwich that’s two sandwiches! I’m going to eat it today, I’m going to eat it tomorrow! That’s how big this sandwich is! I’m going to eat this double sized sandwich, just because I can!” To me, that’s not a source of pride for me. We are resourceful, we are capable of doing a lot with very little. We’re smart – we have a sophisticated form of analysis and analytical thinking. Something that people think of when they think of Jews is, “Oh! Doctors, lawyers, accountants!” It’s because we’re analytical as a people and we push ourselves that way. But when it comes to our food, we’re not analytical at all! We don’t push ourselves anywhere! We’re just like ‘Oh yeah, let’s have a deli sandwich.” It’s like, c’mon, there’s got to be more to this than just deli sandwiches! How can we be a little bit more resourceful? Let’s dig a little deeper into our culture and find some things that we don’t have!

Jews have existed for thousands of years, Israel’s existed for 65 years, so you know, Jews have lived amongst other nations for thousands of years so we have an incredible wealth of food that can legitimately be called Jewish but is also Italian, is also German, is also Polish, or Iraqi and Indian. It’s a real heterogeneous mix of food and so, when you scratch the surface you find deli underneath but if you take a scoop out of it, you can actually find so much other stuff that’s been lost. Even if you don’t look that far; you can look back to Yiddish cookbooks from Eastern Europe that are 100 to 150 years old, there’s a plethora of dishes that are just completely lost in time, lost in immigration, that we just don’t have anymore. And maybe we don’t have it anymore because people don’t really like it, maybe it doesn’t suit our modern sensibilities for food anymore but maybe it’s just because we lost it and people stopped making it because they didn’t know how to make it or no one showed them how to do it.


DRAKE: Is offering a kosher selection something you may implement over time at Mile End?


NB: When we first opened, it was a problem. I mean, kosher food is really expensive. It makes it very, very difficult for us to do what we do if we were to do it kosher. In part because we source ingredients from very select places; we’re very selective about where we get our meat from. It’s very important to me that, in terms of the idea of informing ourselves with a broader sense of our culture, that in our purchasing and sourcing that we’re responsible about it; where the lineage is known and all the way from start to finish, that people are being treated right, animals are being treated right, and the earth is being treated right. You know, as I would expect from any restaurant that thinks it’s a good restaurant, they should all be practicing these things. I don’t think I’m special because I do it. What is unique, in my opinion, is that I think that is more Jewish of me because I have a responsibility as a Jewish person – it’s called tikkun olam – which means “care for the world” and being a steward of the earth. It’s a broad philosophy, there’s a lot of writings on it. I’m not religious at all but I do believe in that. It’s totally a humanist approach and I really firmly believe in that. To me, if I had to choose between being a humanist Jew and a kosher Jew, which in many cases in New York, there is access to natural meat products that are also kosher but it’s a very small supply and it is extraordinarily expensive. I mean, it’s out of reach for a commercial enterprise like mine from a volume perspective and a cost perspective. And so for me, it’s a higher priority to be the Jew that I want to be than just be kosher because I’m told I have to be. That’s important for some people; I understand that I am excluding certain Jews from coming in and enjoying the food at Mile End, I’m not opposed to the idea…


DRAKE: But you can’t make everyone happy…


NB: Yeah, but you try to make everyone happy though. That’s part of being in the hospitality industry. Even when you want to give up and you want to just like, “there’s no way I’m ever going to make this person happy”, you actually have to continue trying, no matter what. That’s what you signed up for.


Mile End Deli x Drake One Fifty Pop-Up

Mile End Deli Chef, Josh Sobel and Mile End Deli Co-founder, Noah Bernamoff (Left), Drake One Fifty x Mile End Deli Pop-Up's "Whole Mishpucha" (Right)


DRAKE: Toronto’s diverse ethnic + multinational populations is what drives the incredible food culture that’s available here. I think Mile End would make an awesome addition to our city.


NB: Thank you! [Laughs]


DRAKE: We’ve been advertising the Drake One Fifty x Mile End Pop-Up event as a sort of, homecoming!


NB: I definitely am Canadian, that’s for sure! I don’t pretend to be American. Living in the U.S., you come to appreciate sort of the things that you completely overlooked when you were living in Canada, very much now than when I was living here eight, nine years ago. I’m very much a proud Canadian and I make sure people know that. I’ll always correct people when they say “You Americans” and I say, “No, no, no! You may be talking about them, but me, I’m an immigrant!” [Laughs]


DRAKE: Any restaurants or cultural foods you love checking out when visiting Toronto? Anything distinctly different about Canadian food culture that makes you miss it in Brooklyn?


NB: Not really, I mean Toronto and New York are very similar in its multiculturalism. I mean, New York has multiple Chinatowns, multiple areas just thick, thick, thick of South Asian cultures; like Indian, Pakistani…
From a food perspective it’s like, you guys have a ton of access to stuff here in Toronto, and we have a ton of access to stuff in Brooklyn and other areas like Queen’s – Queen’s is truly the multicultural borough of New York City. The thing is, I grew up in Montreal, so Montreal attracts a different kind of immigrant culture that is French speaking. So there are certain foods that you can really only get on North American soil in Montreal because the French immigrants gravitate to Montreal. Like North African foods are something you don’t really see a lot of in New York. I love Moroccan food – I can’t really find it in New York.
In Montreal, I grew up with friends who were Moroccan and their grandmothers would cook. At the same time in Montreal, you don’t really have a Persian culture, it’s sort of like, I traded Moroccan food with eating Persian food. There’s things that I did not grow up with in Montreal that I’m able to get in New York. Montreal has great Lebanese and Syrian food which you don’t quite see as much in New York because there’s obviously the huge French-speaking influence.


DRAKE: Any plans to bring it back home and open a Mile End in Toronto, or even Montreal’s Mile End, or anywhere else in Canada?


NB: You know, I’m not ruling anything out! I mean, we’ve already partaken in baby steps for the past five years, we’re kind of ready to take adult steps I think. We’re looking at expanding within New York.
Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami and some other cool cities like Portland and Austin; all are great cities with great food culture. There’s Nashville, Charleston, South Carolina – those are all really like, emerging great cities. Philadelphia is another one! I’m painting with a very broad brush but these are all very cool places to have Mile End Deli’s.
I mean, our concepts work well in cities, large population centres are attractive to me; Toronto is one of them.


Posted in: Food + Drink