There’s a romance that comes with sitting down to a Jiggs dinner; something that goes beyond simple boiled vegetables into a part of Newfoundland culture. It means eating the same food your grandparents ate; taking part in something that’s more than a Sunday feed.
For Jonathan Richler, it’s brisket and knishes and chicken soup with matzoh balls that fill him up, literally and figuratively.
When he and his two business partners — Adam Blanchard of Five Brothers Cheese and Dave Williams of Get Stuffed — hold their second pop-up Jewish Deli event in St. John’s this weekend. The menu will be comfort food all-around; traditional Jewish fare with a local twist.
For $30, you can have your choice of chicken schnitzel or smoked meat, served on bread with trimmings that include cabbage, salt meat, coleslaw, Newfoundland chanterelle and mushroom knishes, and deep-fried pickled turnip and potato, among other things.
“You should see my basement,” Richler says. “I’ve got about 45 litres of pickled vegetables that I’ve been doing over the past three months. Every type of vegetable that’s been out over the winter — green beans, asparagus, all sorts of hot peppers, all pickled and ready to garnish deli plates.”
You may recognize Richler as the host of VOCM’s “Nightline” open-line show. Raised in St. John’s by parents from Montreal, Richler enjoyed visits from his grandmother, who’d bring kosher salamis and hot dogs.
When he moved to Montreal as a teenager, he frequented the delis and bagel shops near his home.
“I can’t believe I looked so healthy, because for a good 10 years of my life, I ate smoked meat sandwiches probably three or four times a week,” he says, laughing.
Last summer, Richler, a self-described foodie, paired with Blanchard, a chef, and Williams to host a one-day Jewish deli event at Chinched Bistro on Queen Street.
The restaurant shared its facilities with the guys on a Sunday, a day Chinched is regularly closed, and with Blanchard in the kitchen, Williams running the floor and Richler acting as meat slicer and experimental chef and doing what ever else needed to be done, they served lunch to about 120 customers. About half of those had made dine-in reservations, and the rest chose take-out.
“I remember the first guy that showed up,” Richler says. “It was freezing and raining and buddy showed up exactly at one for his smoked meat sandwich and then all of a sudden there was a huge lineup. It was great.”
This time, dine-in spots took only 30 hours to fill up, with social media the only advertising Richler and his partners have done. They’re preparing enough take-out to accommodate twice as many customers this time.
The recipes, Richler says, will be based on ones he grew up with. The recipes for the knishes come from his mom, but are close to the kind his grandmother used to make as well.
“She’s straight-up Moscow, Eastern European Jew, so this knish is straight out of the ghetto,” he says.
“The smoked meat is a cultivated recipe. The chicken soup is definitely my Bubbe’s recipe, with a bit of variation. My matzoh balls have Newfoundland savoury in them and I smoke them. The rye bread we’re using this time around for the brisket is from one of the boys at Chinched who’s got a three-year-old rye culture, and it’s as close to the original caraway seed flavour as you can really get, so it’s quite exciting.”
Dessert is chocolate rugelach, a Jewish pastry.
Some other things, Richler says, have been made up along the way, including what he calls his “flavour sprinkles.”
“The secret ingredient in all Eastern European deli food is schmaltz, which is rendered chicken fat. One of our proudest things is our flavour sprinkles, which are basically Jewish scruncheons. You take your schmaltz chicken skin, which is very, very crispy, and you pulverize it and that’s what we sprinkle over the French fries.”
This is comfort food, Richler says, and he’s not interested in skimping for the sake of lowering calories.
“Delis are synonomous with comfort and happiness and being filled,” he explained.
“I’m of the philosophy, where I don’t eat unsalted butter, I don’t drink one per cent milk. If you’re going to do it, do it in moderation, but get the whole fat experience. Fat is good for you.”
Richler, Williams and Blanchard intend to use as many locally-grown and produced ingredients as possible, which is why there is no vegetarian option on their menu this time around.
Over the summer, when local veggies are in season, they’ll have a table at the St. John’s Farmer’s Market on Saturdays with more selection.
They’ve already started taking reservations for the next Jewish Deli event (though they haven’t nailed down a date yet), and in the meantime, are open to delivering orders of brisket, as they’ve done in the past.
Richler admits he’s “in love” with the idea of one day opening a permanent Jewish Deli.
“It’s a wonderful dream,” he says.
“I think we sell out so fast because this is a vision carried not just by me, and that’s what I’m trying to find out — how many people would like us around on a regular basis. In the meantime, we’ll be keeping the brisket dream alive.”
Jewish Deli take-out (cash only) will be available at Chinched,
7 Queen Street, from 12-3:30 p.m. on Sunday.
Anyone wishing to contact Richler for brisket orders can do so by tweeting him @jonathanrichler.