Against all odds, Jewish food is having a moment right now. Smoked meats and chopped liver, for years only deemed appropriate for dingy delis, are being gussied up and repackaged as hip. Perhaps it was inevitable—every other iteration of comfort food has gone upscale (truffled mac and cheese, anyone?), and Jewish food, last of the unsexy holdouts, is ripe for a makeover.
Zach Kutsher knows this, perhaps better than anyone. Kutsher grew up at Kutsher's Hotel and Country Club in the Catskills, the 100-year-old classic Borscht Belt resort which you may recognize as the inspiration for Dirty Dancing. It serves things like "Glazed Peach Half on a Bed of Creamy Rice Pudding" and "Old Fashion Kasha Varnishkas with Creamed Fresh Mushrooms." Kutsher wanted to open a Kutsher's in the city, but he didn't want to serve the dated food he grew up with. So he hooked up with restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow and chef Mark Spangenthal and set out to revamp classic Jewish food and give it an upscale, modern twist.
It worked. Since opening last month, Kutsher's Tribeca has been packed, drawing praise almost across the board for its food and atmosphere. We talked to Kutsher about the challenges of remodeling a traditional cuisine, why Jewish food is so hot right now, and how to make gefilte fish palatable.
Let's talk about the menu at Kutsher's. It's old-school Jewish food done up in a whole new, fancy way. How did you come up with menu and tailor it to modern tastes? Part of the genesis of the concept came from, okay, here's this brand I want to tap into and I've got this kind of natural audience where I want to elevate and advance what Jewish cuisine can really be. And I looked at hundreds and hundreds of menus for places in New York and other cities and so much of the cuisine was really relegated to delis and related restaurants that had two unique things in common: there was no innovation with the exception of an odd place or two here and there, which there are a couple of new modern delis, but outside of that every place was like a one trick pony that would do one or to things well with the rest of the menu being lackluster. And the dining rooms were dated and not really a fun environment to be in, and I'm being nice there. None of them were a night out. They were the kind of place you'd go for a sandwich for lunch, or take a tourist, or go after a late night of drinking, but you would never go there after work for a drink, you'd never got there with a date, you'd never go there for any kind of special occasion.
So I thought I could take the best of the cuisine staples—whether it's chicken, brisket, salmon, pastrami, you name it—and infuse that with much more quality ingredients, beautiful presentation, modern techniques, and a little bit healthier cooking style in a dynamic setting where I had a full bar with great beer, a great wine list, a really cool mixology program. Our drinks are all made in house—our syrups, our cordials, our sodas. It was just such an opportunity to do something that was so different and fun and really carve out a unique dining space that just doesn't exist.
Kutsher's gefilte fish
Jewish food is very firmly rooted in tradition. And, as I'm sure you know, it's not very sexy. I like to think that we've somewhat succeeded in making Jewish food sexy.
Do you worry about isolating people who grew up with this food and might not recognize what you're doing at Kutsher's? Look, you can't be all things to all people. You gotta do what your heart's in. I think that our food has enough familiarity to people that they'll recognize it's really upscale comfort food with a modern twist. They'll be some people that will tell you, "Oh, I've never really wanted to have your quinoa varnishkas, how do you use quinoa and not kasha?" And for every two people that say that, there are ten people that will be like, "Oh my God, this dish is amazing! I love quinoa, I love how much lighter it is." And you're never going to please everybody. You have to do something that pleases yourself.
By and large, the vast majority of diners that we serve are really into what we're doing. Nothing is so avant garde or crazy that we're some weirdo Jewish fusion that is just bizarre. Each dish is really accessible and we've updated some things. Like gefilte fish has got wild halibut rather than pike, salmon, carp, and whitefish, but it's delicious and it's beautiful and it's really unlike any gefilte fish anyone's ever had. I'd much rather have 100 people tell me, "I never ate gefilte fish, but yours is delicious," than the five people who will complain that it's not like the kind they got in a jar. Things have to evolve and change otherwise they stay static and boring.
One of the cool things that I think about the concept is that beyond just selling food, by being tied to my family's hotel and brand, we really own retro. It's one thing to say we're looking to create a speakeasy, but we've got a 100+ year brand behind us that's really authentic and you can't make that up. One of the things that my family did was really try to change with the times that allowed us to stay in business for a really long time. By being able to stay current and please as many people as we can, I do think we're doing a good job of really selling a sense of community and tradition and cultural identity that stems beyond Jewish and even go so far as to say its really iconic New York. Kutsher's was a New York institution to Jews and non-Jews for decades. We're looking to make Kutsher's Tribeca a New York City institution for the next generation.
Kutsher's house made charcuterie (Evan Sung)
Tell me about your customers. Who's coming in? Are you getting diners who have no idea what the original Kutsher's is? I get a mixed bag. I get people that come in that have no idea, that never knew this food could be this good. I get people who come in who are 30 who might have gone to camp up there. I have people who used to work up there. People tell the worst stories of how they used to work for my grandparents [Laughs]. It's a really diverse crowd.
Jewish food seems to have having a moment right now. Against all odds, it's trendy. Did you anticipate that when you were opening the restaurant? You know, I really didn't. I think it's great that that's going on and it's cool to be part of that. But the genesis of the idea and what we're doing really had nothing to do with any of that cause it was just really rooted in my family's history and in my DNA that this was what were going to do regardless of anything
Do you have any guesses as to why Jewish might be in the spotlight right now? I think that it's a little bit of a misunderstood food. A lot of people think that could be really heavy, and it doesn't have to be. I think we're proving on a nightly basis how fun it could be. Everyone likes a touch of the familiar. Especially in New York City, so much of Jewish food because it is an immigrant food has become part of New York cuisine. When people think of pastrami in New York City, yeah, it started out as an immigrant Jewish food, but it's a New York food. A lot of what we're doing it taking these more traditional Jewish items that have really been assimilated into a larger macro New York culture and putting fun spins of them
What dishes are you particularly proud of? Things that might illustrate what you were just talking about—traditional foods that you've updated for the times? Quinoa varniskas is one, our gefilte fish is another. It's made with wild halibut and a beet and horseradish tartare. I love our Romanian steak, which is a prime skirt steak with caramelized onions and our wild mushroom knish is amazing. Our roast chicken I could eat every night. We take a pletzel, which is kind of like a Jewish focaccia that we make in house and that's part of our stuffing along with maitake, black trumpet, and royal trumpet mushrooms and it adds this umami flavor and this earthy goodness and levels of complexity that most people don't expect from roast chicken. And I love our rainbow cookie Sundaes.
Kutsher's crispy potato latke (Evan Sung)
Can you tell me about this Chinese food Sunday program you just launched? Its' a fun thing to do. Yes, it's a stereotype that Jews like Chinese food and I think by and large it's generally true. So we thought it was a way to change it up and have fun food and do something that we all here like, to have like a Jewish-Chinese Sunday supper. It's got a very fine-tuned menu of a couple of Chinese items. We're rolling it out on Christmas and then it'll be available every Sunday after that, along with the rest of our menu. We haven't gone full Chinese [Laughs].
I imagine Christmas will be very busy for you. Christmas is insane. Right now we have 354 people on our books between 3:00-10:00pm. We'll see how it goes.