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Q&A with The Man Behind Kutsher's Tribeca

Sure, Jewish deli food is suddenly in fashion with places, like Mile End, smoking their own meats and baking their own breads.  But Zach Kutsher decided to take it to a whole new level when he opened an upscale Jewish bistro of sorts called Kutsher’s in Tribeca. How many restaurateurs would dare add caviar to potato pancakes or use wild halibut to make gefilte fish? 

Kutsher turned nostalgia for his family’s Jewish country club in the Catskills (a real-life version of Dirty Dancing’s Kellerman’s) into a pioneering Jewish-American bistro in Tribeca. New Yorkers can’t get enough of his updated Kutsher’s, which adds wild mushrooms to knishes, makes their own syrups in house, and transforms chocolate babka into bread pudding. ‘

But other than running the Children’s Dining Room as a youngster at his parents’ Kutsher’s Country Club, Zach is a relative newcomer to the restaurant business. Up until three years ago, he was a corporate lawyer, until he decided to quit his job and enroll in the Institute of Culinary Education.  “[The career change] was half madness and half wanting to do something culturally significant and personally rewarding,” Zach said.

The move seems to have paid off as New Yorkers can’t get enough of his spiffed up versions of Jewish-American classics.  “We’re working on a smoked brisket that will blow people’s minds,” he shares. 

What did you want to be when you grew up?
It’s very hard to remember, but there was a time I wanted to be an art historian and professional basketball player. I soon realized I was 5′ 10″ and that art history didn’t quite pay the bills.

What was your first job in food and what did you learn?
I ran the Children’s Dining Room at Kutsher’s Country Club. I learned how to deal with 150 parents and their kids and how to get food out quickly. A true lesson in guest satisfaction. The best part was that if someone complained about me, I knew I wouldn’t be fired.

What are some of your fondest memories of your family’s resort, essentially a Jewish country club in the Catskills?
Getting to hang out with the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, Dr. J, Clyde Frasier, Jerry Seinfeld, Billy Crystal and Joan Rivers. Plus going to the coffee shop (aka the Flying Saucer) at Kutsher’s and sneaking in a grilled salami and cheese sandwich after school. Let’s also not forget about all of the young ladies that came each summer.

What did you enjoy eating there growing up?
I truly loved the Knishes, Pierogies, Chicken Kiev, Dark Meat Roast Turkey and especially the house made Challah.

Ever get nostalgic watching Dirty Dancing? Had to ask :)…
Of course – never put Baby in the corner. Joel Grey (Jennifer Grey’s father) actually performed at Kutsher’s quite a few times.

When you left your job as a corporate lawyer in 2009, you could have taken your career in any direction. So what inspired you to enroll in the Institute of Culinary Education?
Half madness and the other half wanting to do something culturally significant and personally rewarding. The best part about the restaurant is that I’m not just selling food, but also a sense of tradition, community and cultural identity. It’s pretty cool to be part of something that is larger than oneself. I also wanted to see if I could create something out of an idea in my head.

How did you come up with the idea to recreate the concept of Kutsher’s in Manhattan? And what made you decide to reinvent the cuisine with dishes, like potato pancakes with caviar or chocolate babka bread pudding?
The short answer is that “Jewish” cuisine has been relegated to delis and related restaurants that have two things in common: One, no innovation. These places tend to be one trick ponies that have a few good items and the rest of the menu falls short. And two, the decor, for lack of a better term, is dilapidated. All in all, none of these places are not a night out. I always loved food and wine and have an encyclopedic knowledge of everywhere I eat, so I thought “Why not create a restaurant that elevates and advances Jewish — really iconic New York — cuisine in a fun, modern and hip manner?” There was no place like this that existed. So, by using superior ingredients, beautiful presentations, lighter cooking styles and a modern palate combined with a beautiful yet comfortable dining room that paid homage to Kutsher’s along with house-made cocktails, local beers and a full wine list, I might be on to something. I thought about how I like to eat and hang out and the rest came naturally and I found the perfect chef in Mark Spangenthal – a nice Jewish boy from Great Neck, NY with a wonderful pedigree.

While it’s undoubtedly a success, were you ever worried it wouldn’t take off? After all, it’s Jewish deli food, which didn’t exactly have the best reputation when you decided to open it. Not to mention Kutsher’s is a 120-seat restaurant. That’s a big bet to make.
Of course I worried. It was not an easy ride and I put a substantial amount of my own hard earned money on the line which is very nerve-wracking. This business is all about overcoming obstacles each and every day. I’m thrilled with all the press we have gotten and the great reviews as well. However, nothing makes me happier than seeing guests of all ages (especially the young ones I thought I might not reach) coming up to me each night and thanking me for building Kutsher’s Tribeca. On a different note, we are not a deli, but rather, a modern Jewish American bistro. So I always felt that we would really surprise people to the upside with our food offerings. And when you add the dynamic space created by Rafael de Cardenas, I knew we would exceed everyone’s pre-conceived notions of what the restaurant was all about.

Why do you think America is suddenly embracing Jewish Deli cuisine?
Because when done properly, it’s delicious food that has the ability to touch a person’s emotional consciousness in such a meaningful manner. Being able to tap into childhood memories is a wonderful thing.

What’s the most difficult part about opening a restaurant?
Well, everything. If I had to pick one thing, it’s the timing of so many different aspects of a project needing to come together at exactly the right (and often the same) time to make it work.

Describe your ideal meal at Kutsher’s Tribeca.
I would bring a friend so I could share and would start out with a house-made cocktail (all of our syrups, cordials, compotes and foams we make right here at the restaurant) and then share an Artichokes alla Judea (fried baby artichokes and a Delicatessen Works with our house-cured and smoked pastrami, veal tongue, duck pastrami, chopped liver and spicy beef salami on rye. Then, I’d get the Romanian Steak, which is a prime piece of meat (only one other restaurant in New York City serves prime skirt steak) that comes with caramelized onions, mushrooms and a house-made knish. Then I’d order our grilled duck breast and I wouldn’t be able to resist an order of our duck schmaltz fries that we hand cut each day and serve with a horseradish aioli. Top off the meal with a Rainbow Cookie Hot Fudge Sundae with house-made rainbow cookies, vanilla ice cream from Il Laboratorio del Gelato, marshmallow fluff and hot fudge.

How involved were you in planning the menu with Chef Mark Spangenthal? 
I was very involved and gave Mark some general conceptual ideas and he made them all come to life in the most amazing way possible. 

When creating the menu, did you study old Jewish-American or Eastern European cookbooks? O
r were you mostly inspired by family recipes?

That’s best answered by Mark who used some family tricks and did a ton of research and development. I just thought how I would like to eat.

Unlike most people, I’m obsessed with gefilte fish. Whose idea was it to recreate gefilte fish, a dish that traditionally conjures up bad memories?
I wanted to have an amazing gefilte fish since the one we had at the resort was so good. However, Mark perfected it beyond my wildest dreams by using wild halibut and adding a horseradish beet tartare and a parsley oil vinaigrette.

What’s the secret to Kutsher’s pastrami?
If I told you, I’d have to kill you. Let’s just say that we spent three months perfecting it. Brining and smoking are a true art form.

Other than Kutsher’s, who makes the best pastrami in town?
Mile End – hands down.

Any new riffs on Jewish classics in the works?
Yes – we are working on a smoked brisket that will blow people’s minds. We are also planning a special Passover Sedar menu as we speak.

What neighborhood do you live and where are some of your favorite places to dine there?
I live at 16th Street and 5th Avenue – so call it Union Square West. I work so much at Kutsher’s Tribeca right now that I don’t have time to eat out. I’m either at work or home playing with my 10-month-old son. I do like the brunch at Mesa Grill and have become a huge fan of Red Farm.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Ask me in another year.

Any plans to open up additional Kutsher’s locations?
I have big plans, but need to build the first one right before I can think of anything else.

Your family sold Kutsher’s in the Catskills, but would you ever like to be involved in the resort again?
Not right now. The hardest part about a resort is that your guests stay overnight. At least mine leave at the end of the night.

You’re on your deathbed…Sex or dinner?
Why can’t I have both – kinda like George Costanza style.

Kutsher’s Tribeca
186 Franklin Street bet.

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