Katz's Owner Jake Dell on Childhood Memories and 125 Years of Pastrami
"This place is unique; it's magical.... I get to see people transported back to when they first came here, to what they remember. It's food, it's nostalgia, it's atmosphere, all combined here at Katz's. "
Like any seasoned New Yorker, I've been to Katz's Deli on Houston a good number of times in my tenure here. But when I received their first book, Autobiography of a Delicatessen, I wasn't sure what to make of it. It's a tome mostly of photographs by Baldomero Fernandez—the ticket system, plates of pastrami and corned beef, shots of regulars and late-night revelers—with no recipe for their brine for full-sour pickles, or how to make matzo balls light and fluffy. I planned on flipping through and then passing it onto my photographer. But then...
I laughed at odd-ball statistics—the phone number in 1933 was Drydock 4-7887; a typical pastrami sandwich weighs the same as a standard football; three current staff members are named Jose de la Cruz. And I got all misty-eyed a few times, as the significance of such a New York icon was illustrated in word and image. I hadn't realized how in jeopardy Katz's was of closing in 1989, when the Manhattan Bridge was closed long-term for renovations. Or that Soupy Sales was the first celebrity photo that went on what would soon be cluttered walls of such captured moments. The book teems with intimate stories and humorous anecdotes, capturing the many people who have made Katz's an institution since 1888.
In celebration of Katz's 125 years and this new book, we sat down with Jake Dell, whose grandfather Martin bought into Katz's in 1988, and who became a third-generation co-owner in 2010. When we remarked how long it'd been since we'd been in, he shot back, "Welcome back, we missed you. What took you the hell so long?"
Can you recall the first time Katz's was a significant place for you? I was here so often as a kid I can't really pinpoint any one moment, but I had every birthday party here. The whole class would come down and we'd make pickles or something fun. I remember being terrified of the countermen, how big they were, and their knives. They all knew me and so they'd yell at me—okay, it just felt like they were yelling because they were these big, scary Russian guys—"Hey, Jake, how are ya?" Since I can remember my apartment, I remember Katz's. It was always another home for me. My father grew up down here, my grandfather lived down here, and my mother taught at a school a few blocks away.
How about when it became something more, and you realized how iconic it is? It wasn't until college, once I'd left this environment. It was always just the restaurant—the sounds and smells that I just knew. And then I remember freshman year, very clearly, I'm in the dining hall and someone was like, "Hey, Jake, someone's wearing a Katz's shirt over there." So, the bright-eyed freshman that I am, I walk over and go, "Hey, that's my family's place, how do you know about it?" And he was like, "Shit, that's your place? That's one of my favorite places in the world!" He was from Kentucky, or something. How the hell did he know about Katz's deli in Kentucky? It made me appreciate how amazing this place really is and what it can mean to a lot of people.
Being a third-generation owner, does this place extend further out into your family? It's not necessarily my family but all the different families here make it special. There are families that are third generation in their own right, whose grandfather worked as a cook or cutter here. There are seventeen family members in one family here. So it's not just my family; there are a lot of families with a lot of traditions that come in here.
That's pretty unique. Why do you think that exists? We've always prided ourselves on being a neighborhood place and hiring people from the neighborhood. The neighborhood has changed, but people have stayed and love being a part of this place. Katz's has always kind of anchored itself in the community, and so I think families are drawn to it in the same way I knew this place as a second home. A lot of these guys have that too, a sentimental attachment to this place from visiting their fathers or grandfathers here. I don't think it's too far of a stretch that they're here now.
You almost went a completely different route with medical school before you trailed your father here for a year. What convinced you to join? There was no one thing; it was everything. This place is unique; it's magical. I get to sit here and talk to people for a living. I get to make people happy. I get to see people transported back to when they first came here, to what they remember. It's food, it's nostalgia, it's atmosphere, all combined here at Katz's. And that means a lot to a lot of people and I get to be a part of that, which is amazing.
There was also the fact that if I didn't do this I wouldn't really know what would happen to it. I'm the only one in this generation of owners, and I didn't want to see this place disappear, to get knocked down and turn into a big condo. So you combine that and the fact that I loved every second of being here, it was an easy decision.
What was the biggest learning curve in that first year? I learned on paper what I needed to do here, but when you have someone yelling at you that their corned beef sandwich is too fatty that goes right out the window. I didn't understand how intense that could be, how people are hard to please sometimes, and you want to make sure you have the best product—the best food, the best everything—and be on your game all the time. I think that was the hardest adjustment.
Now you've got this book, that's unique as well. What was your goal with it? The point was to really capture a snapshot in time, in 2013—what does every aspect of the deli look like right now? But there was no question that the history had to be brought in, too. We could have written a novel just about the first or second generations, but I wanted to capture a moment, and I hope this in fifty years from now we can still open it up and it will stand the test of time. I just really want to allow people a glimpse into the magic of this place and what makes it special.
You also stick some pretty quirky touches in that, like comparing the weight of a pastrami sandwich to its equivalence in ping pong balls (145 balls). I tried to think of the most obscure, random stats I could possibly think of, and that's one. It was fun, looking back, over 125 years of history, which is a really, really long period of time. So to be able to throw random statistics in—like we've had 12 states incorporated since we've been here—was really cool. Plus I got a neon sign, which is awesome!
I loved the tidbit about an Anthony Bourdain lecture you attended in college, who claimed that a Katz's pastrami was his 3 a.m. craving. I wasn't planning on going to that lecture but my friend told me I had to come, and I happened to be wearing a Katz's shirt—of course, because 97% of my wardrobe are Katz's shirts, no lie. So I'm wearing a Katz's shirt and my friend picks me up and Anthony looks at me and goes, "Yeah, that place. That's great!" And I went over to him afterwards and he said, "Oh, your dad's Alan? I love your place!" And we had a full conversation. And I don't know if he'll remember that, but that moment in my mind stands out. It was wonderfully special and really meant a lot to me.
Book image of Autobiography of a Delicatessen by Baldomero Fernandez used with permission by Bauer and Dean Publishers.