New Yorkers are defensive about their delis. Pastrami, corned beef and bagels have been the city's signature cuisine since the turn of the century, and we're damn proud of them. So when some 27-year-old Quebecer waltzes into Brooklyn and starts a Montreal style "Smoked Meat" deli, we won't stand for it, right? Au contraire. Upon opening, Mile End in Boerum Hill exploded in popularity, forcing it to close early after running out of food nearly every day. Proprietor Noah Bernamoff's not sweating the hype, though. Turns out this is just one small step in his mission to bring garlicky, peppery smoked meat to New York.
So you're originally from Montreal? Born and raised.
When did you move to New York? About three years ago. I moved; Rae [wife] is in New York. We met at McGill, and she wanted to come back to New York and so I joined her and I started to go to Law school, as sort of a reason to be here. And that was three years ago.
Did you have a previous interest in law, or was it just something to do? It was a default decision. It wasn't because of a particular interest in law, it was more, "Well, I studied Poli-Sci as an undergrad," and you know, when you don't know what else to do and you have an arts degree, you go to law school. That was my experience at least.
So what got you started with smoked meat? I just missed it. It was something I couldn't find here, and I just started trying to make my own.
Had you always had an interest in food? Yeah, I've always really enjoyed cooking as a hobby. I grew up in a home where our family gatherings were really revolved around food. I'm Jewish so...yeah. So since I started at McGill I guess I needed to fend for myself when I left home. I was actually at boarding school for a couple years and then went to McGill, so I needed to fend for myself. I subsequently taught myself to cook, and I had a foundation but I taught myself to cook the things I wanted to cook. So it was a combination of that and just being miserable in school and being a little bit homesick for Montreal. And that led me to doing the smoked meat.
New York's deli culture was originally just kind of the Jewish culture here. Is it the same in Montreal? Its roots are definitely very firmly planted in the eastern European Jewish immigration wave at the beginning of the century. But over time, one of the reasons why Montreal delis are not dying like so many other delis around the country—New York and L.A.—is because the French Canadian culture has also in many ways adopted the deli. Not as their own, but as something that they're more than happy to enjoy, even though it wasn't culturally specific to them. So yeah, so its present permutation is very general. The famous delis in Montreal are frequented by everybody.
One of the appeals to me about delis is realizing that Jewish soul food has kind of a broader reach than just for Jews. You know, I look around here and I see who comes in. I mean, there are all people from all walks of life that are just sitting at the same table, talking to each other. And that's a pretty wonderful byproduct of this whole process, is bringing really disparate groups of people together.
When most people think of Montreal, they think of the French Canadians. But there is a big Jewish community up there? Yeah, the Jewish community is probably 90,000 right now. It used to be 120,000 or so back in the '60s. There was a pretty considerable anglophone flight from Montreal back in the mid '70s when there was really a real scare that Quebec was in fact going to separate from the rest of Canada. So a lot of people moved to Toronto, but some came to New York. But my parents' generation, when you graduated from college, it was probably more desirable to leave Montreal than it was to stay. But that said, the Montreal Jewish community is a really tight community. Everyone seems to know everyone.
And the other interesting aspect of the Montreal Jewish community is that because Quebec is French speaking, there is a sizable community of Jews from French speaking areas of the world, which are the newest immigrants to the community. So you have a lot of Moroccans, a lot of Algerian Jews, Egyptian Jews, Lebanese Jews, just generally people who would have a French background and therefore more attracted to Montreal than New York. And Montreal essentially experienced the same story as New York as far as Jewish immigration. They have found them all over the country, because you got on the boat and you were hoping to see the Statue of Liberty that your cousin sent the postcard of, but some people ended up in Montreal, some people ended up in Boston or Argentina. That's why Buenos Aires has such a huge population, because everyone thought they were getting on the boat to New York.
So what was the transition between learning how to make smoked meat and deciding to open up a restaurant? That transition—hah, good question. I mean it was one of those things that I had talked about forever and ever, not necessarily this concept in particular, but that I wanted to be more involved with food and creating a space for people to enjoy it. It combines a bunch of my passions, like food but also design and architecture and social experiments with human beings, and creating situations where people can really maximize their sociability.
That's really vague, but I like the idea of hospitality, so for me Mile End is a brand. In a way I'm brand-building, and this is just the first step in establishing the brand. How did I transition into actually doing this? It was just one of those things where certainly the job market for lawyers is really terrible right now, the worst it's maybe ever been. And I guess the wind had left my sails, I felt really terrible because I had spent all the time, all this money and I don't even have any legitimate opportunities to advance in this profession.
And why wait until that perfect moment? Everyone says, "Oh, why don't you work for 10 years, and then you'll save some money, and then you can do whatever you want." But no one tells you that after your 10 years you're the most miserable individual, and you have a family and you can't risk your income. You've already set your lifestyle and to try to change it when your income is six-figures easily every year, that's not easy to do. And most lawyers I know wish they hadn't even gone that route. They're stuck. It's the golden handcuffs. And all that culminated in this feeling of, "Holy shit, I really have to do it." I was feeling like it was now or never, I would wake up with sweats in the middle of the night like "what am I doing with my life?" Now or never.
Well, clearly the risk has been pretty successful. Mile End has had to close early almost every day. Yeah, dinner isn't even an option anymore because we don't have enough food to make it through to the end of some days to the end of lunch. And people ask why we don't get more food, and say I clearly don't know how to run a restaurant. And I'm not necessarily saying I know how to run a restaurant, because I still make mistakes day in and day out. However, our philosophy is that we want to make deli food the authentic way, the way it was done initially. And that means hand-making everything, and not using anything processed, and anything that we can make ourselves we will make ourselves. And that just means in the context of supply that if I don't have enough space to literally make the food myself, then I just will not have that food available.
So it's obviously a good problem to have that I have more demand than supply, and I'm working on increasing supply, but until that happens dinner is not going to happen. But this way I'm sort of easing the whole group into the process of doing breakfast, lunch and dinner every single day. And that's not easy. We tried doing it the first few days we opened, and those few days were some of the most difficult days in my life. I was here for 18, 19 hours those days. That's just not sustainable.
So what makes smoked meat different than a New York style pastrami or corned beef? Well, in Montreal we don't have corned beef or pastrami. Traditionally in a whole brisket there's a part that could clearly be the front and the back. The front of the brisket which is just that single layer tends to be leaner, just naturally, so meat producers used to cut it off and make corned beef out of that, and then the back would be dry cured and smoked. Over time, pastrami is much more expensive to smoke over actual wood, so pastrami in many ways is actually roasted, and what they put on the cure is smoked flavor. And in Montreal we have neither of those two, they've just taken the whole brisket and trimmed it back, about 75% of the middle, and then with that they extensively dry cure it.
And it's also, funny enough, not even smoked either. The way they do it is they hang it so the fat drips off and lands on the burners that are creating the heat in the smoke house, and actually the fat burning on the burners is what creates—it's almost smoking in its own fat. But that's a regulation that was imposed upon Montreal delis by the health department, that they couldn't burn wood anymore inside the smoke houses. So going back to when it was initially done, it was fully smoked over hard wood. Also the spice mixture is different. In my opinion, there's more of a garlic kick happening in smoked meat. There's also a lot more pepper, coriander thing at the end. It's just a little more aggressive than pastrami. I think it's much closer to pastrami than it is to corned beef. Corned beef is wet brined and then boiled. They do that because the meat is very lean and they think it needs the moisture. And I just disagree. If you smoke and steam you'll have plenty of moisture.
So have guys in Katz's Deli t-shirts been hanging around with chains and brass knuckles because you've set up on their turf? No. [Laughs] I mean, I would say for the most part people come in and say, "Get me that pastrami sandwich!" And I say, just so you know, I call it smoked meat, it's actually a smoked meat sandwich, and they're like "whatever it's called, give me that sandwich." So I think New Yorkers are an open bunch and for me, call it whatever you want, either you like it or you don't like it. I'll let people call it pastrami if they really want, even though I know that's not it. But no pitchforks, no angry people.
So any forms of Montreal egg creams or pizza that you're doing to introduce to challenge the New York stuff? Yeah, no. I might do some Quebecois specialties, like meat pies. There are just a lot of fresh, agricultural ingredients in Quebec. A lot of duck and lamb, rabbit, all a little bit on the heavy side, kind of like deli. But Montreal pizza's terrible. Compared to New York pizza, Montreal pizza is atrocious. I mean, New York is the best at so many things, and these are things I grew up with, I'm not trying to claim that this is the best. There's no such thing as an objective best from any rational perspective. So as far as I'm concerned, I'm happy. I like Katz's pastrami, I like corned beef at 2nd Ave Deli, and I like this food too. I'm not trying to infringe on anyone's turf. This is just what I grew up with, so this is my preference.