Tuesday, 24 September 2013

"I'd call it Nectar of Judea and copyright the name."

I am thinking about the deli's I've been in over the years.


Once, in New York, I got elbowed in the ribs by another customer because I took too long to place my order in a busy deli during rush our. I was young, from a small rural Ontario town and didn't know what I was doing. I didn't know the rude, fast-paced aggression of restaurants that survived on the strength of one or two products. I was surprised that the guy behind the counter didn't even flinch and just took the other guy's order before mine.  I think I got pastrami.  I had been awake for 24 hours, wandering aimlessly through an infinitely large city, knowing nothing about my destination.


She's made a home in Ontario, but all of my life my mom told me longing stories of Montreal, the home of her youth. Whenever I needed to justify feeling different growing up in a rural farming community, I would chalk it up to being raised by a Montrealer. Montreal became a calling to me. When I was 19 I moved there, having only visited once the year before.

Most of my time in Montreal was spent drunk, hungover, strung out on drugs, wandering aimlessly through the city at night, writing about isolation, reading William S. Burroughs novels, and going insane.  I was a boy and I got manhandled by a real city.  Still, I did what anyone must do when in Montreal: ate smoked meat.

My boy F. brought me to Schwartz's my first weekend in town.  This one I'd heard of before.  It'd come up in my Mom's stories, in conversation with my lifelong Mtler aunt, in Mordecai Richler's work, and it was on everyone's list of what to do when I was in Montreal.   Neither of us had been.  F. had been in Montreal for a year, but had been restricted to the cloistered area surrounding McGill, McGilligans Island.  Again, my rural propensity for politeness tossed me around.  We ate our giant plate of pink, moist, savory meat on some loose pieces of rye and yellow mustard.  Then, oblivious to the world around us, we sat at our table catching up on old times, talking like we'd paid for a room.  After a few minutes one of the aggressive, burly dudes that worked there came over, and in an irritated voice said: "Look, either you guys buy something else or get out.  I have people waiting for tables here."


I didn't last a year in Montreal.  The language barrier was too much, and honestly I just wasn't hard enough to carve my own niche into a place with such a demand.  I wasn't a motivated worker, I was a dreamer, narcissistic, and dealing with all the moodiness and anxiety of being in my late teens.  I got fired, was broke, and if my mom hadn't sent me the money to come home I would have ended up homeless.

When I'd returned to Ontario I floated around shitty fast-food jobs and convinced myself I was a Buddha.  I worked in a grocery store for a bit until a friend got me a job in a small restaurant on the main stretch of the Kitchener downtown.  I'd moved out by this point, and money was the only motivating factor in directing my employment.  That is, I didn't have enough of it and I needed it to pay rent.

What I'd been told about this restaurant was that it had insane night shift line ups.  It was run by a militant Turkish guy who had high standards of his employees, and he was neurotic and difficult to work with.

I did a couple of day shifts.  The lunch was busy.  I mostly worked till and topped sandwiches, and then cleaned up afterwards. I felt good about it.  I only got freaked out on a couple of times by the boss, but otherwise the job wasn't too hard.  My friend Sam showed me the ropes and really made sure that I would make it there.  The pay was good and there were lots of hours.  

This place didn't have too difficult of a set-up.  There was very little prep involved, besides dicing vegetables.  Our meats were all sourced elsewhere, and everything was cooked in basically the same way on a big double flat-top griddle.  After initially sourcing the right ingredients for the right prices, it seemed like managing the restaurant was simple and involved just making sure there was enough inventory to sell.

I'd been warned about Friday and Saturday nights.  Sam told me they'd kick my ass.  "From about midnight on the place is just swarmed by barbarians, the Mongolians get loosed from all the clubs around and sack our walls for the next three hours.  Focus on taking money in batches and then topping sandwiches as fast as you can.  Don't get caught up on customer service.  From midnight on, the customer is no longer right.  You put shit on the bun, give them a chipotle sauce, and firmly put the bun into those drunk fuckers' hands and tell them to get lost."

He wasn't wrong.  Night shifts there made me develop tough skin.  It was a small, open kitchen and we were short staffed, since the boss liked to save most on labor.  Sam and I took on what seemed like endless line-ups of drunk, high, angry, rude, and tired customers in a two-man kitchen.  We didn't have chits, so we memorized calls.  I wrote down a tally of sandwich types and shouted them at Sam who flung mountains of meat and vegetables onto the flat-top.

What I learned is that drunks like to talk, they don't like to wait, and they will give you a hard time.  In my first night shift I wasn't prepared for the last one.  Two guys started harassing me about the length of the wait, and then said that we'd fucked something up - then seeing I was getting flustered two more customers chimed in, and before I knew it I had a chorus of discontent on my hands.  Sam turned away from the flat top for a second: "What's the problem?  Its taking too long?  How about you fuck right off.  Wait a fucking minute and your sandwich will be done.  I'm cooking for hundreds here."

The two us mowed down weekends together for almost a year, and over time I learned that Sam's way was the way it had to be done.  It wasn't just Sam's way, it was the cook's way, and especially the deli way.  The way of the open kitchen, the way of cooking and dealing with long line ups, the way of crowded, over-full tiny rooms of hungry people waiting for your product because its the best.

I worked there for three years, and I learned to be an asshole when it was needed.  Eventually I learned to turn it into spectacle, to sell my asshole to customers dressed up as a prince.  One Bluesfest I worked almost a full 24 hours, closing for one hour to clean and re-up from our suppliers.  In the middle of a long line-up a middle-aged drunk guy started loudly bitching about how long things were taking.  "Sir," I always called them sir, "you're gonna have to wait.  We're cooking as fast as we can and there are people in front of you."

"Well that's just fucking bullshit.  What is this? I've been waiting for a fucking hour!"

"Listen, sir, you're not the only one waiting."

"Such fucking service.  Do you guys know who I am?!  Do you know what I could do to this place?!"

I turned to the rest of the crowed like a character addresses an audience in a Shakespearean play: "Does anybody know who this guy is?"  People started laughing.


"Seriously, does anybody know who this guy is?  I think he's lost.  Can somebody take him home?"

I walked over the till, opened it, and threw enough money to refund his sandwich at him.  "Listen, sir, as much as I am curious about your wrath, I'm gonna have to get you to leave." 

He just stared at me blankly.  Shocked that he had no pull, no effect.  I think the most devastating realization was that he wouldn't even get his sandwich after the wait.

"Sir, that means leave.  Get lost.  Go."  Then I shoo'd him away with my hands like one shoo's a cat.

Instead of a riot, I got applause. People love that shit.   


I worked at the sandwich shop for 3 years.  There was only so far it could take me and make me feel satisfied though.  The fact that we didn't make our own meat really bothered me, and I couldn't help but feel ashamed when somebody asked me about it and I didn't know the answer.

We had Montreal Smoked Meat on the menu.  We got it in, the briskets vacuum packed from a Montreal seller. We didn't do traditional sandwiches with it, and I would constantly tell customers that were expecting a real Montreal styled sandwich against getting it.  "There are vegetables and cheese and things in it.  You don't want it."

I've worked at a couple of places that's done the whole Montreal smoked meat thing, and its been the same story.  Nobody makes it themselves in Ontario, it seems, except Caplansky's.  

Despite that, everyone loves the stuff.  Craves it on and off like a pregnant woman.  You know, there's nothing else in the world like it.  My friend and kitchen manager, Tim, and I were talking about it.  He's tried doing some Montreal smoked meat in the past, and he's been toying around with a recipe.  We fantasized about serving sandwiches with homemade Kosher pickles, fresh house baked rye bread, hand-mixed mustard, and of course our own smoked meat.  These are the sorts of conversations cooks tend to have, but we decided to make it a reality. Over the last couple of weeks we've put the gears into motion.

We ran it as a special last week, and are going to again tonight.  Customer response last week was incredible.  Customers bought multiples of them, one of the servers got a phone number of a customer who wanted us to call him next time we did it. Another said he was a raised Montrealer and that ours was the best he'd had in his life.

The morning Tim put the finishing touches on it he sent me this picture.  I was aroused in ways I couldn't express without describing my erection.

My partner baked the rye bread and I made the mustard and pickles.

None of this rotary slicer bullshit.  I cut that shit by hand.


I see, maybe in the future, a deli run by me and my friends.  Maybe we'll get Sam back on the horse, and I'll get back into the groove, strong-arming customers, and selling the best meat on the block.

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