Katz’s Delicatessen, located at 205 Houston Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and founded in 1888 by the Iceland Brothers, is the oldest Jewish, but not Kosher delicatessen in New York City. Upon the arrival of Willy Katz in 1903, the establishment’s name was changed to Iceland and Katz. Then in 1910 when Willy’s cousin Benny joined him and then bought out the Iceland brothers the name was changed permanently to Katz’s despite later ownership changes. The latest change took place in 1988, on its 100th anniversary, when the Katz family ran out of heirs and sold out to long-time restaurateur Martin Dell, his son Alan, and Martin’s son-in-law Fred Austin. In May Lucy Gordan, a native Manhattanite and www.Epicurean-Traveler.com’s Bureau Chief for Europe interviewed Alan’s son Jake, who officially joined the business in late 2009 and is currently in charge of all major operations.
In 2015, Zagat’s gave Katz’s a food rating of 25 and ranked it as the number one deli in New York City.
Our tastes in food are closely connected to our childhood; what are your first memories of food?
JD: That my mother, who was a special ed. teacher for 30 years, liked to cook a little bit of everything, but particularly Italian food. I cherished these dinners at home with the family. They are childhood, but not my first, memories of food. Everyone in my family likes to cook, not to mention eat.
What are your first memories of Katz’s?
JD: They go back to my very first memories in general. I basically grew up here. I celebrated all my childhood birthday parties here. One year we made pickles, another a magician (who was a friend of my father’s) performed. There were customers all round. My grandfather and father weren’t going to close for a kid’s birthday party. I had my bar mitzvah here too.
Who was your mentor?
JD: My father and he still is.
What are the essential qualities of a top restaurateur?
JD: Hard work and a business brain.
What do you like best about your work?
JD: I love interacting with people and hearing stories about this place. They are never-ending because a lot of people develop a strong emotional attachment to this place and comeback regularly.
JD: Dealing with the City, State, and Federal bureaucracy is a hassle. Taxes and paperwork.
Can you explain exactly what pastrami and corned beef are and how they are prepared?
Corned beef is a brisket cut of cow meat from the shoulder, beef that’s been pickled for four weeks. Pastrami is a navel cut of meat from the stomach that’s been cured and smoked. So pastrami has that black on that outside that’s salt and pepper, coriander, garlic-flavors that have come together during the smoking process. So the two major differences between the two are the cut of meat and the smoking process for pastrami. However, both are boiled; both are steamed; both are cut by hand traditionally. Katz’s corned beef and pastrami take 30 days to cure. They contain no additives. With additives commercially prepared corned beef is pressure injected (or “pumped”) to cure in 36 hours.
What’s your favorite dish on the menu??
JD: Without a doubt it’s our pastrami sandwich on rye bread. Reubens are popular too. My father added the Reuben, but, since it contains both meat and cheese, it’s not really a deli sandwich. Each week Katz’s serves 15,000 pounds of pastrami, 8,000 pounds of corned beef, 2,000 pounds of salami, and 4,000 pounds of hot dogs.
We serve anywhere from 400 to 4,000 customers a day. The range varies a lot. Weekends are the busiest.
How do you explain the recent deli Renaissance? How is your pastrami different from the nouveaux delis or your traditional competitors like “Zabars,” “Artie’s,” and “Barney Greengrass,” to name a few?
JD: Our pastrami is the original. All the new delis are great, wonderful because they introduce people back to what delis were traditionally, but at the end of the day what we do is unique; no one else produces their meats our way. We are professionals; this is how the meats are supposed to be prepared: how we cure it, how we smoke it, how we boil it, how we steam it, how we cut it by hand, and the original cuts of meat…
No, we’re not worried about what you call our competitors. There are enough customers to go around for everybody.
Yours is the fourth family to own Katz’s and you are the third generation of your family to be in charge. Your grandfather Martin was a restaurateur and your father a chef; can you tell me about them?
JD: My grandfather was born and grew up very poor here on the Lower East Side. In the early part of the 20th century, the Lower East side was home to millions of newly immigrated families, mostly Italian and Eastern European Jews. Katz’s became a focal point for congregating. On Fridays the Jews came here for franks and beans, a longtime Katz tradition. As a young man, my grandfather had a bunch of odd jobs—salesman jobs. Eventually he saved up enough money to buy a bar and became very successful. He was an example of the “American dream.” He made money. His bar was on Cornelia Street. He got involved here in the late-1980s. At the time business was horrible; the neighborhood was in shambles. He and then my father Alan did a great job of really turning things around.
Dell is a shortened, Anglicized surname; where were your ancestors from?
JD: Yes, exactly, it used to be Delowitz or Judelowitz. We don’t know exactly which Eastern European country our ancestors on both sides came from. It was the shtetl life back then for all my ancestors.
Katz’s is your classic Jewish deli; how did your restaurateur grandfather, then your chef father, and now you each modify the menu? What new dishes did each of you add?
JD: None of us have changed much. Any changes we’ve made are about the back office, from ledgers to computers. As for the menu, at the end of the day our customers like our pastrami, our traditions. They like to come in and feel its familiarity. As I said, my father added the Reuben. Customers assume it’s a deli sandwich, so we have it.
Instead, what would you never change?
JD: I wouldn’t eliminate anything. For me change might mean adding something, like my father’s Reuben. My father and I are on the same page about this. He comes in often and we speak on the phone several times a day. He doesn’t interfere.
I presume you’re closed on Jewish holidays?
JD: No, we’re open 365. We take no reservations except for private parties. Our website is www.katzsdelicatessen.com.
What percent of the staff is Jewish?
JD: Very small. Our philosophy is to employ people from the neighborhood and this is not a wildly Jewish neighborhood anymore.
The walls are covered with photographs of celebrities who’ve eaten here; can you list the most famous one for me?
JD: There are too many. That depends on what genre you are interested in, be it politics, sports, fashion, or entertainment. For example, six US presidents have eaten here: FDR, Jimmy Carter, Bush Sr., Clinton. Honestly, I don’t’ remember the other two. Among the many actors who recently ate here are Leonardo De Caprio and Richard Gere.
Not to mention that scenes from lots of movies have been filmed here. The most famous in Meg Ryan’s fake orgasm in the 1989 romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally…followed by Estelle Reiner’s iconic line: “I’ll have what she’s having.” The table at which Ryan and Billy Crystal sat is marked by a sign that says: “Where Harry Met Sally…Hope you have what she had! Enjoy!” Other scenes come from the movies: the French film Nous York (2012), Mary and Max (2009), Across the Universe (2007), Enchanted (2007), We Own the Night (2007), and Donnie Brasco (1997).
Where do your customers come from? Are they mainly Jewish?
JD: Oh goodness, from all over the world and of all religious faiths. During the week, on weekday nights our customers are mostly New Yorkers; at lunch they’re almost all tourists; on the weekends, Christmastime and summers again they’re tourists. My staff also comes from everywhere.
At 27 aren’t you very young to run this business? What’s your biggest challenge?
JD: I don’t think the challenges have anything to do with my age. They are challenges you’d see in any business at any age. Running a business is very hard. There’s always something that’s going to go wrong, something that you need to fix. Many challenges are unpredictable.
What has been the worst scenario since you took over?
JD: Since I’ve been at the helm, we’ve had two major hurricanes. We’ve had numerous power shortages; a major water main rupture put three feet of mud in our basement. That was a fun one. Hurricane Sandy was a fun one.
So you haven’t much modified the menu or the décor, but two years ago you opened an art gallery next door, and last year you sold your air rights? Why?
JD: Yes, it was meant to be a pop-up in honor of a celebration of our 125th anniversary. You know anniversaries are short-lived by nature. It was a nice space for local artists to showcase their work. Either they lived here or they made their art here. They had to have some meaningful connection to the Lower East Side. It helped many of them to launch their careers, to get hooked up with other galleries. It was a lot of fun.
As for the air rights, I sold them because I’m never going to build on top of this place. I might as well make money on something I’m never going to do. The buyers can’t build on top of me. It’s in the agreement. Air rights are often misreported and misunderstood. Essentially what I did amounts more to a transfer. They’re building a building next-door four stories taller than Katz’s, but neither they nor I can build four more stories on my building. So they can build next door to me, but no one can build on top of Katz’s. No one can touch this place now. I did this to protect my business for my children and my grandchildren. That was the point.
Up to now we talked about Jake Dell the restaurateur; I’d like to know more about Jake Dell himself. For example, what are you favorite foods?
JD: Pastrami on rye with a little bit of mustard (there’s no question) and latkes. There’s so much good food out there. It’s impossible to choose one dish as my favorite. That’s the beauty of New York. There’s every type of food in the world here.
A dish you don’t like?
JD: None. I like pretty much every food out there. I think that cumin is overused in a lot of dishes and it’s not my favorite spice. But short of that I like pretty much everything.
What is your favorite spice?
Aside from Kosher, what are your favorite cuisines?
JD: Italian hands-down.
Are you going to be a pain in the neck when you get married and remind your bride regularly that she can’t cook as well as your mother?
JD: Of course not.
Your favorite drink?
JD: Dr. Brown’s soda. I also like our chocolate egg cream.
Your favorite color?
Your favorite flower?
JD: I never thought about that. I’m not a big flower guy. Well. Maybe birds-of-paradise.
Your favorite sweet?
JD: Chocolate, hands-down, particularly chocolate jelly-rings. Luckily we don’t serve them here because I’d eat them all and be obese.
Katz’s most popular sweets?
JD: Cheese cake and chocolate babka.
What is never missing from your refrigerator at home?
JD: Orange juice, sometimes freshly squeezed, sometimes not.
Who cooks at your house?
JD: I do. I cook what’s in the fridge. My style is: “What do we have in the fridge? I don’t know. Let’s make it up.”
What do you like to cook best?
Where do you like to go on vacation?
JD: I don’t get to leave here very often, but I do like to travel to warmer climates. Beaches. I spent some time in Spain and I loved it.
What’s your favorite city besides NYC and why?
JD: London; it reminds me a lot of New York. They are both full of life. Different cultures come together. Paris does that well too and it’s wonderfully romantic in so many ways, but I think I like London a little bit more than Paris. Honestly, I think it’s because I can speak the language. I bet if I could speak French, it might be Paris over London.
Have you been to Italy where I live?
JD: Yes, Italy’s is one of my favorite cultures, especially gastronomically-speaking. I’ve been to Rome, Florence, travelled all through Tuscany, Venice, and Milan. Of the cities I really like Florence. It’ a human-size place filled with culture. Anywhere you go in Italy, of course, is filled with culture. I think Lake Como is the most beautiful place in Italy.
I don’t know about restaurateurs, but chefs are well-known for having collections, often of fast cars, motorcycles, or watches; what about you?
JD: Chefs are also crazy. As for me, I have no collection, at least not yet, unless you count Katz’s T-shirts as a collection. My father and I each own every Katz’s t-shirt that’s ever been made.
If they hadn’t become chefs Heinz Beck told me he had wanted to become a painter; Marchesi a pianist; Thomas Keller the shortstop for the New York Yankees; what about you?
JD: A doctor. I’d been accepted to medical school. However, I couldn’t tear myself away from here. I am so in love with this place. I didn’t know that I would fall in love with the job. I thought to myself why wouldn’t I want to do this job? Now it’s been six years. I’m really lucky. Usually with a job you do not wake up every day excited to go to work. I do.
So what is your typical day?
JD: Anything and everything. I do everything that needs to be done. I have a staff of 130 and hundreds of customers that need to be fed. I do inventories; I do bankrolls, scheduling, and payroll in the back of the house. Up front I love talking with our customers table to table; doing interviews with journalists like you. Wherever I need to be, I’ll be.
What’s your dream for the future?
JD: We started to ship orders, now mostly in the United States, but my goal is to do so all over the world. There’s really no reason we can’t.
Is your first overseas destination Israel?
JD: London, the U.K., and Australia. It’s easier to ship than to open another Katz’s abroad. There’s a precedent. During the Second World War, the then owners, Lenny Katz and Izzy Tarowsky, who each had a son serving overseas, started a campaign “Send a Salami to Your Boy in the Army.” We continue to support American troops today. We have arranged special international shipping to U.S. military addresses only, and send gift packages to our troops stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq.
We have also catered parties in all five boroughs for many years. As of now we don’t do wedding cakes. However, you can’t foresee every change you’ll make. You never know where you might end up. All I know is that this location will never change.
Epilogue: To learn more about Katz’s read: Katz’s: An Autobiography of a Delicatessen. Published as part of its 125th anniversary celebrations, its text is by Jake Dell, its some 600 photographs by Baldomero Fernandez (384 pages). It’s on sale, along with souvenir mugs, candles, and T-shirts at Katz’s cashier and at Amazon for $23.99.