“Good meat is homemade, it’s freshly ground spices, and it’s care for the method. It’s not looking for shortcuts, and that’s what the average deli became – ‘how can we shortcut everything to lower our costs, because people won’t pay more money but want bigger portions?’ I did this my way and I kind of gave the finger to that kind of thinking. And I’d like to give the proverbial finger to people that don’t like it.” – Noah Bernamoff of Mile End
Interview by Michelle Kiefer
In the short time that Mile End has been open, the nineteen-seat Montreal Deli-style eatery on Hoyt Street has already become a legend to smoked meat devotees citywide. Even tourists are making the pilgrimage to revel in what many claim is the city’s best brisket.
A sense of nostalgia fuels the spirit of Mile End. But it’s Noah’s unapologetically fastidious attention to detail that has made headlines. Ask Noah why he ships his bagels from Montreal instead of using the local New York version, and you won’t miss the sense of defiance in his voice. Some have criticized his dedication to doing things his way, but as the accolades and the lines stretching down the sidewalk any weekend afternoon attest, his way works.
So Noah, where are you from? How did you become interested in food and how did your background influence what you do at Mile End?
I grew up in a home where cooking was always the thing that brought family together. Friday night dinners at my grandmother’s were a tradition. I would get there early after school and help her cook when I was a little kid – stand on the stool next to her and taste the soup. And then I wasn’t so into food for a while, and I guess it was at a certain point in college that I realized I needed to start fending for myself, so I started opening up to the idea of cooking.
I’m from Montreal. Montreal’s got 2 full-time farmers’ markets – 7 days a week, 12 months a year. For a city of that size to have two full-time farmers’ markets is crazy. New York doesn’t even have that. Montreal has a rich culture of eating locally; the whole province has that. It’s very self-sustained. It’s really an agrarian society to a large extent. That influenced the sort of food I started to cook.
Montreal is on one hand an influence to the approach to the food at Mile End. The actual style/theme is the type of food that my family would eat, not just at home (which is what we’re trying to do at dinner- Jewish home cooking,) but the deli culture, the culture of going out on Sundays and having bagels and lox, or getting eggs and bacon. While that may seem very mundane, when you do it all the time it’s very ritualistic. The strength of that ritual is what I was really trying to bring to Mile End when we first opened.
So how did you first get the idea for Mile End?
I seem to always make it into the negative. I was in law school, and I wasn’t very happy. I spent more time my second year of law school thinking about what else I could be doing than what I was signed up to do. And so this was an idea that was born of that. You spend so many hours spent in front of books that you inherently let yourself drift toward better thoughts, and I was drifting toward the idea of opening a restaurant.
I always really loved restaurants and conceptually the idea of having people over and taking care of them. When I saw this space it was just an empty garage at the time, and by seeing it, I was really motivated to put it together. In a very short time I went from thinking about it and talking about it to actually doing it. That was May/June 2009 when the fundamental components fell into place. We opened in January 2010.
But you had no restaurant experience prior to opening Mile End?
My only experience in restaurants was being a customer. A lot of people sometimes take issue with that. I just kind of winged it. At first I thought I was opening up this small neighborhood spot that made everything themselves, like a workshop. I was very idealistic. I didn’t really understand all of the complexities I was going to be facing shortly into it. For example, I didn’t set the kitchen up very well; I didn’t have enough storage. I didn’t think everything through because of that lack of experience, but it was that lack of experience that enabled this teeny little space to happen. And ultimately I couldn’t feed everyone. But there’s nothing New Yorkers like more than not getting their way.
I wanted to open this cozy little spot, and it’s become something so much more than I ever thought or intended. I’m happy with where it is now.
So with that lack of experience, what have you learned? What would you say are the keys to a successful restaurant?
You need good people around you. Anyone who opens or manages a restaurant needs to understand they’re not going to do it themselves. I use the analogy of the Greek diner owner who’s handcuffed to the register. That was the last thing I ever wanted to get myself into. I thought this would be a cozy little living room for myself where I could share food with people.
That didn’t happen, but I do think of myself as a people person. I think you do have to be involved. There’s this absentee owner trend, especially in New York City where there’s so many wealthy people. They’re like, “Oh I wipe my ass with one-hundred dollar bills, I should open a seven million dollar restaurant -that sounds like fun.” Yea it does sound fun, it must be fun to cut the checks and not lift a finger. But that also means you imbue the restaurant with no character or personality. I think that’s one of the pitfalls to opening a restaurant. I’m sure everyone’s going to love the food, but will it be a memorable experience?
To me, the memorable experience comes from all of those components – the food, the service, the comfort level of your surroundings. I’ve been to my fair share of very fancy restaurants and spent my fair share of money on stupid checks, and do I even remember those meals? I can’t even remember the components of those dishes. Fancy is not my thing, and I don’t think that’s the thing that makes a good restaurant a good restaurant or a good owner a good owner. The thing has to be an extension of yourself, it has to represent those aspects of your life that you want to celebrate. It’s so much more than just serving food to people.
It also helps to have interests that cover the spectrum of what constructing a restaurant entails. Food, design, architecture, business management, policy creation – these are all things I have interest in. I also have an eye for detail. When I walk into the place here I can make a checklist of things not done the way I want them to be done. I can’t come in here without criticizing a laundry list of things. I see everything.
How do you source your ingredients?
We use two meat suppliers- Pat LaFrieda and DeBragga and Spitler – both classic New York meatpackers, but they’ve taken charge of bringing in really high quality meats. One of the drawbacks of going from being a little workshop to running out of food constantly and upping our supply and opening a second kitchen just to produce our food, is that we go through more brisket in a week than most farms in upstate New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut will ever slaughter in the course of multiple years.
There are two briskets on a cow, and we go through one hundred briskets in a week, so fifty cows have to die for us to have those hundred briskets. Most “large” farms Upstate have two-hundred fifty head of cattle period for the season. So we’re forced to buy from the Midwest for our meat, but we do buy the highest quality that we can source outside of New York State.
Pork bellies and lamb come from Niman Ranch. We buy milk-fed veal from North Carolina. Our dairy comes from Bethel Creamery in Upstate New York. We get our eggs from Brey’s Eggs down the road from our dairy farmer in Sullivan County, New York. Our trout comes from Edenbrook Trout, also in Sullivan County. Our salmon is organic Scottish salmon.
Tell me more about the bagels and the smoked meat.
The bagels we bring down from Montreal. The baker is St. Viateur. They’ve been baking for like 75 years in the same oven. The bagel is an old style bagel that is very similar to what used to be made in New York: actual hole in the middle, hand-rolled, hard-boiled very quickly. They lay it out on these wooden planks and insert the plank into this low, wide wood-burning oven for a couple minutes. And if you have the opportunity to eat one right of the oven- it’s not a bagel, it’s beyond a bagel. It’s almost like a nugget of gold. It’s a magical, magical thing.
Montreal is 375 miles from here, and I know a lot of people think we’re a bunch of hypocrites –“they talk about sourcing locally, and what’s wrong with the bagels in New York? “First of all, it’s 375 miles away – not that distant I would say compared to the avocados from Peru. No one bitches about buying avocados in February. So there’s that, and honestly to me, if I’m presented with two things – one is a local good that in my opinion is not well made, or a good that comes from a little further away that is vastly superior, I’m going to go with the vastly superior good.
When it comes to the bagels, it was my thing. I wanted to have these bagels. Anyone who knows this experience that I refer to understands. The people that don’t have that connection don’t really get it.
People have a short memory in New York, especially old-timers. If you’ve grown up in New York in the past fifty years, you don’t know what the original thing was. And the old guys don’t really know either because they can’t remember it. It is a lost art, and the beauty of Montreal bagels is that it’s never changed.
The store’s no bigger than it was in 1932. Same size store, same process, the oven is the same. It looks like they got a new dough mixer – ok fine, I’ll give them that. They use the same flour. It’s really about producing the bagels in Montreal. Here it’s like, what do you want on your bagel? In Montreal you don’t have that option. You go and buy your bagels. You want cream cheese on your bagel? Here’s a fridge and a package of cream cheese, go home and put cream cheese on your bagel. There’s no “I’ll have egg and sausage on my bagel.” It just doesn’t exist.
Good smoked meat is hand-made and it’s highly variable. Not to make it sound too philosophical, but you can only have the best sandwich if you know you can have the worst. The problem with what deli meat has become is it’s so generic; they’ve reduced the process down so that you can never have a bad sandwich, but you can also never have a great sandwich. It’s just this midline of flavor and style.
By doing what we do here, every now and then someone catches a bad one, but more times than not someone’s going to score an awesome sandwich. That’s because we take the time to do the process by hand. When was the last time you saw a turkey breast that was perfectly round? Obviously they’re grinding the meat up and turning it into an artificial thing. We don’t do that, and we’d prefer that someone maybe have a dry turkey sandwich so that the nine other sandwiches that come off of that breast are awesome. That’s an offset that I’m willing to accept. I recognize what that means for business, but people have to recognize that it’s a real process.
I remember people when we were running out of smoked meat saying, “Why doesn’t this fucking idiot just order more?” Well you know I can’t just order more because it’s a process. I don’t go to a factory that processes this stuff. If your favorite dish at a restaurant was taken off the menu or 86’d one night, people aren’t like, “That fucking idiot why didn’t he order more of that ingredient.” It’s the same thing with the smoked meat and everything we make. We’re charging for pickles – yea it’s because I had to take those pickles and brine them, then I had to like let them ferment for four weeks and that takes up space and a lot of labor. I can’t just call up Mr. Pickle and say “Hey Mr. Pickle will you drop off seven buckets of pickles? I need them tomorrow.” It doesn’t work that way. People think now that a deli is just this thing of convenience.
Good meat is homemade, it’s freshly ground spices, and it’s care for the method. It’s not looking for shortcuts, and that’s what the average deli became – ‘how can we shortcut everything to lower our costs, because people won’t pay more money but want bigger portions?’ I did this and I kind of gave the finger to that kind of thinking. And I’d like to give the proverbial finger to people that don’t like it.
You don’t like it? I have nineteen seats, you don’t have to come.
You want pickles on the table because you just show up? No problem, go to Katz’s.
What are your favorite dishes on the menu?
I think the trout is particularly great at dinner. I think the lamb tongue that we serve at night is unbelievable. I think we make great chopped liver. My grandmother made great chopped liver, and it’s essentially her recipe. I think our borscht, for a vegetarian borscht, is really, really good. I don’t know- I kind of like everything, that’s the benefit of having a concise menu. There’s nothing on it that I dislike.
Do you have any plans to develop or change the menu in the future?
We’ve slowly added some sandwiches to the menu. For example, our chicken salad sandwich was a special first but then so popular we kept it on. We added fried chicken skin into the salad mixture, lightly pickled cucumbers, hot peppers, and we serve it on homemade challah. That’s a great sandwich. We’re constantly working on stuff; I’m constantly developing things. Like our hot dog- we’re not a hot dog restaurant, but yet I don’t know anyone else who makes his or her own hot dogs. Not even hot dogs restaurants make their own hot dogs.
I’ve read that Mile End refers to the name of a neighborhood in Montreal. What is that neighborhood like now?
Pretty hipster-y. There are a lot of Hasidic Jews, a lot of hipsters. Young professionals. There’re still some old neighborhood types. Montreal is a slow-changing city, unlike New York where a neighborhood can go from being desolate to completely built-out and tens of thousands of people in the course of seven or eight years – that would take like 40 years in Montreal. There are still old school Quebecois artists in the neighborhood. It’s a big mix. Montreal’s really like that. It’s not as neighborhood-y as New York.
What inspires you about Brooklyn?
I love living here. This sort of built environment is what Mile End is like in Montreal. Three or four-story buildings, a connection to the street, a sense of community. I think that the restaurants in Brooklyn are really doing something special. A lot of people are moving here or have lived here for a while, and to a large extent there’s this push to work where you live and make work more a natural part of one’s life, where in New York it’s so easy to be one thing during the day and another thing during leisure time.
When I was in school I was a normal guy with normal interests, then there I was putting my suit on and going to work on Wall Street in the attorney general’s office. It felt weird to me. So those people who have been the driving creative force behind New York City for the past few years are finally saying, I don’t need to take the train in anymore, I can hop on my bike and go to work. There’s that environment, that collection of individuals within the borough that has really made this an inspiring and creative place. I think the restaurants are definitely great, and you can avoid pretention. I don’t go out to eat that often but I’m totally happy to stick it out in Brooklyn.
What are your ultimate goals?
My goals aren’t too forward thinking. One thing I learned is that if you think too far ahead you lose sight of the near future. One benefit is that for eleven months straight I was here every day. I don’t have to do that anymore. I’m spending my time developing the business into a wider brand. I’m taking the components I learned here on Hoyt Street and applying them to different parts of the city and different types of businesses. One thing that I’ve always wanted to do with food development was creating things that are great for our purposes but that could be applied equally well to someone else’s sandwich idea. For me, the end goal is packaging a lot of this stuff up and making it more widely available. Instead of eating Hebrew National salami or hot dogs, you could be grabbing the Mile End hot dogs. People want a better product that they can trust.
Mile End is located at 97 Hoyt Street, between Atlantic and Pacific, in Boerum Hill.
Among the many, many accolades they’ve garnered since opening a little over a year ago, Mile End was named Best Deli in NYC by New York magazine.