Five years ago, Noah Bernamoff was more than half way through law school and miserable. A native Montrealer, he started making one of the city's signature dishes, smoked meat, in a smoker on his roof, and curing salamis in a living room closet. He ultimately managed to open Mile End Deli, one of the only Jewish delis to launch and survive in the city's competitive and classic deli scene. Since then, Bernamoff opened a location in Manhattan, launched Black Seed Bagels, and will soon open a bar called Grand Army, just up the street from the original Mile End. He talks about how his idea for a poutine shop ended up as a deli, how dan dan noodles fit into his menu, and what's next for the nouveau deli.
I heard once that before you were open you were cooking in your apartment closet. True or false?
Noah Bernamoff: I was making stuff at home, and I would smoke using a smoker on the roof. And, I was drying salamis in the closet. Obviously, we have more than one closet, you know [laughs].
Was anything else in the closet?
I had some other stuff in the closet. Don't worry, no one ate it in the restaurant.
You were in law school when you opened Mile End. How did you end up in the restaurant world?
I was two years in when I found the space. I wasn't sure what exactly it was gonna be. I knew it was gonna be inspired by Montreal, but I wasn't sure whether it was a poutine shop, or whether it was a Jewish deli. I was thinking, "Oh well, you know what's really good? Smoked meat on poutine. So, I talked about it with my new friend Dave Sax [who was writing Save the Deli]. He said: "You're gonna make smoked meat to go on top of poutine? That's crazy, you should make smoked meat sandwiches."
I started thinking of this as more than just a Montreal-inspired restaurant — almost as a Jewish deli. And then my grandmother passed away, and it became evident, abundantly evident, that's what it ought to be. I had this rush of emotion where it was like, "Oh, wow. Nana dies, what happens to all the food?"
I think a lot of Jews around our age have that recognition of, "Oh my gosh, once our grandparents' generation really is gone, where does it leave us culturally with the food?"
I said: "Okay, the narrative behind this needs to be somewhat Jewish, not just Montreal." That's how it came together, literally a few weeks before we opened.
What did you have on the menu you first opened?
We had smoked meat, smoked turkey, which we called "The Grandpa." We had bagels and lox — the bagels from St-Viateur that we were driving down in a truck regularly. We had a borscht, poutines, and pickles. When we opened, I had a container of pickles pickling in the basement, and I told customers "We're waiting ‘till my pickles are ready...When they're ready, you'll have them." And then, when they were finally ready we sold out of them in two days.
So, then you just went back to not having pickles for a while while they were pickling?
No. I called Seamus at Brooklyn Brine, and was like "Hey man, you don't know me, but can I buy a box of your pickles from you?" And we did that for a few months until we had commissary space, where we resumed making our pickles. It was just funny. I was so principled being like "Everything here is homemade!" We don't buy anything from anybody, except for ketchup."
I can't reasonably put a tomato on a smoked meat sandwich, it's like someone putting celery on a pizza.
And you used to be really adamant about the mustard on one of the sandwiches, right? Like, mustard was required...
One of the sandwiches was the Ruth Wilensky, which was the salami sandwich on the onion roll. And so, it's a joke, because at Wilensky's in Montreal, there's a sign that says "No Mustard, 5¢ Extra." And so I put that on the menu, "No Mustard, 5¢ Extra," and people would say, "What kind of place charges you more to take something off?"
Maybe half a percent of the people that saw the menu actually understood what I was referencing. We never charged people 5¢ for asking for no mustard. It was meant to be the truest homage we could think of for Wilensky's.
But, I have a thing about anything else going onto the smoked meat sandwich except for mustard. People ask for tomato and lettuce on it. We will put lettuce and tomato on a plate on the side, but we won't put it on the sandwich. I just can't, it's just not the way the sandwich is meant to be eaten, and if people need it to be that way, then fine, but you're gonna have to deal with it yourself. I can't reasonably put a tomato on a smoked meat sandwich, it's like someone putting celery on a pizza.
You were sort of this young gun opening a Montreal-style deli in a city that cares very deeply about deli. Did you have any backlash when you opened?
Yeah, of course, we had a lot of people come in and say "This sucks compared to Katz's or Second Avenue or whatever." Especially when we had bagels from St-Viateur. I think there's a real problem with traditional foods — there's this unstoppable competition for who's the best. I think that's a big problem that only hurts those foods
I think it was ballsy, it was risky move, but what did I have to lose at the time?
Smoked meat is different than pastrami, you can like one or the other or both or neither. I'm not putting it out there and saying it's better than or worse than, it's just a different thing, and I think a lot of people just don't have that perspective. I talk to a lot of deli owners in other parts of the country, and they're like "Yeah, people that come in are always like ‘This pastrami sucks compared to what I used to eat in New York.'" Like New York's this mythical Mecca of pastrami.
I think it was ballsy, it was risky move, but what did I have to lose at the time? I was in law school. I was miserable. Now it's like, "Wow, Noah, that's a real risk you took," but it wasn't. At the time, no one knew who I was, there was no expectation whatsoever. I could have opened, people would have come and would've said "this sucks," and we would've closed, right? But we opened, and it didn't suck, and people kept coming.
Mile End has changed a lot since it opened. What would you say has been the biggest change?
Some things have changed dramatically, some things have not changed at all. All of our homemade meat production has gotten so much better over the years. But, some of the core sandwiches have remained pretty much the same right through.
We're not trying to be the Chipotle of deli or of Jewish food.
Every time we've had a new person as a chef, they've applied some of their own ideas to what the menu should look like. There are certain things that will never change. No one's gonna reinvent poutine here, no one's ever gonna reinvent smoked meat sandwiches. We've got certain things that will be everlasting I hope, but then there's other areas where there's room for flexibility.
Eli [Sussman] was into a lot of the Middle Eastern stuff, and Jared [Levin] was into a lot of the Chinese stuff... there's a different character every time someone else is in the kitchen, but everything still everything runs through me. And, I've pretty much always found some narrative, some rationale within the narrative to explain why we serve smoked meat dan dan noodles, or lamb merguez. There's a story behind all the foods that we serve here that I think is congruent with Jewish tradition.
Do you ever consider opening other locations of Mile End, either in New York or outside of New York?
Of course. I think there's a ton of potential, in New York, and even truthfully more outside of New York, where people are starved for not just Jewish food, but quality comfort food. We're not trying to be the Chipotle of deli or of Jewish food at all. Black Seed's trying to be the Chipotle of bagels, however. I'm kidding, I'm kidding, that's not true either, but we'd love to be in other cities.
I fear real estate in New York very deeply.
Any place in particular?
Major cities. Miami or Los Angeles or Chicago or Philadelphia, or any of the big cities that I think are generally underserved. I'm a restless guy, so I'm always considering opportunities. Period.
I fear real estate in New York very deeply, and so it's something we need to be very conscious of, because when the restaurant gets kicked out of its space, it's over, you know? So that's why other cities are becoming more and more interesting. I'm also very much enamored by the decentralization of food creativity. I think in America, we're seeing more of that in the last 2-3 years. New York is not the hub. It's really cool to see places like Nashville and Charleston and LA and Portland.
Had I gone to Nashville and opened a Jewish deli five years ago, people would be like: "You know there's like five Jews here, right?" And now, it doesn't really matter how many Jews are there, there's a food community and people that are interested in food.