Meet & Eat: Niki Russ Federman, Russ & Daughters
"The food world is so romanticized these days, but it's impossible to sustain quality and excellence if you're not willing to get your hands dirty (or in our case, fishy). "
Since 1914, the Russ family has fed generations of New Yorkers. In contrast to a deli, an "appetizing store" focuses on fish and dairy products, and Russ and Daughters serves up some of the most amazing fish products in the city, and arguably beyond.
Niki Russ Federman (shown here making her best fish face) is part of the youngest generation of the Russ family. She took some time away from the pre-Passover rush to answer a few of our questions about working in the family business and the wonders of gefilte fish.
Name: Niki Russ Federman
Location: Lower East Side
Occupation: Co-proprieter, Russ and Daughters
You're a fourth generation Russ. How did you make your decision to go into the family business? Did you ever think about a different career? Going into the family business was an idea that I both flirted with and fought against for many years. Doing the same thing as your parents, grandparents and great-grandparents is not exactly the obvious choice in our day and age.
I studied political science in undergrad, attended business school at Yale (but left) and worked in a variety of fields that interested me: the arts, international development, and healthcare--I even taught yoga. What I understand now was that I needed to check off all of the possible directions my life could have taken before I could really appreciate my relationship to Russ & Daughters. I came to realize that being the fourth generation of a beloved institution, that is also a successful business, was in fact a privilege and an opportunity. I was 28 when I decided to join the business. That was three years ago.
What's it like growing up having a connection to a New York institution? Do people come in and tell you stories about their past and connection to the store Growing up in Russ & Daughters--my father is the third generation of the Russ family and my mother worked with him--I understood that the reputation that we have comes from a lot of hard work. The food world is so romanticized these days, but it's impossible to sustain quality and excellence if you're not willing to get your hands dirty (or in our case, fishy).
When I joined the business, I knew what I was getting myself into. I also learned from an early age that the personal feel of our store, of our connection to our customers and vice versa, is not the norm, especially as small businesses become replaced by chain stores. At least once a day someone shares with us a story about their connection to the shop, whether they've been coming for fifty years or for the first time. In an ever-changing, anonymous city, it's very special to have a place where people can experience continuity and familiarity.
Passover is here, which I know is keeping you busy. What are the top sellers this holiday? All of the homemade Passover staples are top sellers. We have chicken soup with matzoh balls, chopped liver, not one, but three different kinds of gefilte fish, tsimmes--basically everything you would need for a seder besides a brisket.
Remember, we're an appetizing store, not a delicatessen. Technically speaking, that means we specialize in smoked and cured fish and dairy. But our chopped liver is out of this world, so that's our one major transgression. This year, our salmon and whitefish gefilte fish is selling so quickly that the kitchen can hardly keep up.
What's your favorite Passover food, and why? What do you like best about Passover? Chicken soup with matzoh balls. I'm eating some right now while I answer these questions. What I like about the holiday is that first, it's about people coming together and remembering where they're from. And second, there's always a place at the table for a stranger or someone with nowhere to go. This business of not eating bread for over a week? That part I could do without.
Old-fashioned gefilte fish vs. salmon and whitefish gefilte fish--pros and cons? Why do you think so many people are squeamish about gefilte fish? If you want to channel your bubbe and stick with tradition, go for the old-fashioned gefilte fish. If you want to taste what Time Out magazine said was one of the best things they ate in 2008, that would be our salmon and whitefish gefilte fish. I too would be squeamish if I ate the kind that floats in a murky glass jar on supermarket shelves.
Tell us a little about your decision to start your blog, Lox Populi, and your Twitter feed. We're bringing some of the new school to the old school. There are so many interesting people, memorable stories or wacky moments that happen at Russ & Daughters within the course of the day that we felt we needed a blog as a place to record them.
We revamped our website this past summer, so this was the most opportune time to launch Lox Populi. We want the blog content to be generated not just by us, but by our community. So if anyone has a good story, recipe or even video, we encourage everyone to share their contributions with us!
Check out the recent video submission (below) by some young Russ & Daughters fans. All I will say is that it's an unusual love story.
Any good celebrity spottings lately? We could cover the walls with pictures of celebrities if we wanted to, but we're not that kind of place. Famous or not, everyone who shops here should have a genuine Russ & Daughters experience.
Best pizza in the city? For me, the importance of food is as much about the taste as it is about the people. So, in that regard, I would have to say the Sofia pizza at Rosario's on the corner of Orchard and Stanton. Sal, the owner and Lower East Side fixture in his own right, has known me since I was a kid. When I was dating my now-husband Christopher, I had to take him to Rosario's and make sure that Sal approved.
Favorite burger? The burger at Le French Diner on Orchard Street. The only problem is that if you were to dare ask for ketchup, you would run the risk of getting thrown out by Zucco, the owner. I appreciate purists, but sometimes I just want some ketchup.
Favorite bagel? Russ & Daughters' of course. We're not considered the "Best Bagel and Lox in New York" by New York Magazine for nothing.
Best late-night eats? There's a neighborhood restaurant in Park Slope called Bogotá, which I like because it's relaxed, yet festive, and I'm partial to because--people may be surprised to know--I'm half Colombian. For a quick bite, I'll sit at the bar and have patacones, which are like the Colombian version of tacos.
Undiscovered gem? If I told you, it wouldn't be undiscovered.
Guilty pleasures? Every morning, when I get to the shop, I eat a croissant right as it comes out of the oven.
Food you won't eat? Can't think of one.
Most memorable New York City meal? The day I found out that I was accepted into my first choice college, I skipped out of school and went and had lunch at Bouley.
Everyone has a go-to person they call for restaurant recommendations. Who's yours? My cousin Josh, another fourth generation Russ and partner in the business, is my go-to guy. He eats out a lot and hits the new restaurants before I do. I usually hear about it the next day and find out which places are worth it or not.