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Bar mitzvahs and Jewish food

No end in sight for Mile End

for The Brooklyn Paper

Photo gallery

The exterior of Mile End’s Brooklyn location.
A delicious spread of Mile End’s delicatessen delights.
Owner, Noah Bernamoff.

Noah and Rae Bernamoff look like a backpack-toting, 20-something couple with growing pains and dreams of a better tomorrow. But behind each of their dark-rimmed glasses and checker-patterned, plaid ensembles sits what seems to be a mini-empire in the making — Mile End Deli, a totally Jewish deli tucked into what was once a grungy Boerum Hill garage.

Inside, where a rustic wooden decor and polished brick walls have taken over any signs of grease, cars, or tools, the Bernamoffs and partner Max Levine cook up entirely homey selections of traditionally Jewish plates with a hint of Canadian influence — Noah is originally from Montreal.

Since the deli’s humble opening in January 2010, it has expanded away from Brooklyn into a second location on Bond Street in Manhattan, where Jewish comfort food — that has delighted guests at the NYC Wine and Food Festival and has garnered a growing list of rave reviews — reign supreme.

Yet, if you don’t live in New York, “The Mile End Cookbook,” which was released last September, can help any traditional Jewish chef put a unique spin on classic dishes. And if you do live in Brooklyn or Manhattan, they offer a catering program for weddings, holiday events, and of course, bar and bat mitzvahs.

We caught up with Rae Bernamoff to talk about the art of Jewish cooking and what’s important to remember when planning the menu for your bar or bat mitzvah.

Jonathan Borge: At The Mile End, how do you define authentic Jewish cuisine?

Rae Bernamoff: Our approach definitely is of the Ashkenazi Eastern European heritage — it’s the food that we serve and the food that we’re familiar with. Ultimately, I like to call it Jewish soul food, and the defining characteristics are based on the peasant approach to cooking. There are a lot of root vegetables like carrots, which function as a symbol of a medallion or a coin, a symbol of prosperity.

JB: Who taught you and Noah everything you know about food?

RB: Definitely our grandmothers. Noah’s grandmother and my grandmother — to whom we dedicated the book — are the women that really showed us what was what in the kitchen. Noah’s nana was the ultimate homemaker and she would spend the whole week preparing for the Shabbat dinner.

JB: Why do you think The Mild End has been so successful?

RB: What’s so great about Jewish soul food is that it really has this satisfying appeal. It’s food that anyone can connect with and in many ways the classics of the delicatessen have also become synonymous with New York staples. Things like bagels, matzoh ball soup, and pastrami sandwiches are foods we’ll find at restaurants owned by Jews and non-Jews alike. When our Jewish customers come in they definitely have a connection to the food that’s deeper and more familial, but because the food is tasty, it speaks to a wide audience.

JB: At a bar mitzvah, what are must-have menu items?

RB: The element that Mile End is most excited about and that we’ve introduced into the bar mitzvah scene is the smoked meat carving station. So, smoked meat is like the Canadian cousin of pastrami. It’s a cured and smoked beef brisket, and that’s our house specialty. We’ve been setting up these stations at special events like weddings or bar mitzvahs where we come in with a hot, steamed brisket and we set up a carving station to serve the meat on our house-baked rye bread with some mustard.

We have the slicer so we can talk about the two-week process that goes into making the meat, we can answer questions about the history of pastrami, which is very deep, and we have the perfume-y flavors along with the hot meat.

JB: How is the carving station scheduled into the whole event?

RB: It’s often a highlight of the cocktail hour. Usually it makes sense within the first hour to have the carving station with some of your other offerings, whether it be the ever-present sushi bar or finger foods. Recently, I’ve seen a trend where a lot of people are going the food truck route, so they’ll bring in different vendors with very unique, specific offerings. We also love to prepare sandwiches from the carving station as a late-night snack and we’ll custom wrap them with the name of the client.

JB: How is preparing for a catered event different than preparing for any day at the shop?

RB: We work really closely with our clients to prepare a menu that speaks directly to their audience. It’s really all about creating a really hearty, satisfying meal. We offer a latke bar, where we fry up little potato pancakes and serve them with an assortment of different toppings — anything from a tart, homemade apple sauce to a Meyer lemon sour cream to more complex toppings like a salmon belly tartar or a beet and blue cheese salad that can function as finger food.

JB: What deems a bar mitzvah successful?

RB: The most successful events are those that work with their environment. In Brooklyn, there are so many unique venues that speak to the neighborhood, and those are a lot of fun. When we have clients that have access to outdoor space, that opens up a whole separate sort of possibility for utilizing an outdoor charcoal grill or something of that sort.

JB: Why is the food served at a bar mitzvah so important?

RB: As with any Jewish function, the food is the heart of the story, right? It tends to be the thing that everyone remembers and the thing that everybody talks about. Food plays such a prominent part in Jewish culture that very often our memories of spending time with our families are around the table, so I think at special events the food is the opportunity to connect your guests with your personal history and your love of food and ways of eating.

JB: Tell us about your desserts.

RB: We have a new custom-colored rainbow cookie. Bar mitzvahs often have a color theme, so we can work with that and create a rainbow cookie with those colors, and those are the almond-paste cookies with chocolate on top and rainbow cookies or tri-colored cookies. We play on native New York desserts like the black-and-white cookie, and you can do those in different color combinations as well. We have a cheesecake that we regularly serve in the restaurants — it’s an out-of-this-world creamy dessert. We like to do an assortment of different cookies, too, like rugelach, almond cookies, macaroons — the whole classic cookie spectrum. You can place them on the dessert table or pre-pack them for guests to take.

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