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Jake Dell on the Institution of Katz's Delicatessen

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We're sitting down with our favorite writers and cooks to talk about their upcoming cookbooks, their best food memories, and just about anything else.

Today: We talk to Jake Dell, fifth-generation owner of Katz's Delicatessen, about the recently published Katz's: Autobiography of a Delicatessen. Read on to win a copy of the book!

Jake Katz Autobiography of a Delicatessen

The best kind of New York institution is relatable to people everywhere. It doesn't alienate; it brings together the otherwise separate masses. Think Woody Allen, and Frank Sinatra, and arguably the most famous deli in the world: Katz's.

In a culture where culinary fads arrive and pass quickly, Katz's proves that the deli remains alive and well. It is family-run, steeped in history, standing on a menu that is impervious to trends and refuses to change. Its loyal following has everything to do with integrity and very, very little to do with that time that Meg Ryan threw her head back and made some noises.

In the recently published Katz's: Autobiography of a Delicatessen, manager Jake Dell has penned the deli's history, accompanied by photographs by Baldomero Fernandez. We chatted with Jake about all things Katz's, and we're giving away three copies!

Katz's has always been a family-run business. What are the most important lessons that your father, uncle, and grandfather taught you about running the deli?
Growing up, I was always reminded of the value of the customer. Just like those before me, I try to meet and greet everyone who walks through our doors, and make it my mission to make sure that everyone leaves with a smile on their face.

My family likes to remind me that a “Katz’s nirvana” can usually be achieved in 3 ways: food quality, nostalgia, and atmosphere. So I focus on making sure that everything we serve is of the highest quality, that we maintain the centuries-old traditions that our customers know and love, and that this wonderful deli continually remains a fun, vibrant, eccentric, and exciting place to eat. 

In your opinion, what's the most underrated item on the menu?
I think “underrated” is the wrong word here. There are many items that are simply “under-ordered” because people usually flock to the hotdogs, matzoh balls or hot meats (pastrami, corned beef, brisket, and turkey). One of those items would probably be the latkes or blintzes. They’re perfect -- just the way grandma made them. Or maybe the chocolate babka -- it’ll seriously change your world!

More: Watch Joan Nathan make cheese blintzes.

Cheese Blintzes

How many people know the pastrami recipe? How secret is it? 
I don’t know what you're talking about.

When you're not at Katz's, what do you eat?
Like any good Jewish boy, I go home to eat a lot, and my mother never seems to skimp out. Sometimes I feel like she thinks I have 3 stomachs! I also think that my sister is one of the best cooks in NYC -- so that’s a great plus! If I’m not going home or cooking for myself, I’m a big burrito eater. In fact, my roommates and I had a challenge to see who could be the first to eat 50 burritos over a several month period. I won. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not.

Katz's on Food52    

What do you want readers to learn from this book?
I want people to get a glimpse into what makes Katz’s Deli so special, to see the magic that I am lucky enough to experience every day. Baldomero, the photographer, did a wonderful job capturing every aspect of who we are. I kept the history and the stories brief, and let his pictures speak for themselves. 125 years from now, we’ll have this snapshot of the deli, and a cohesive story of what brought us to this moment.

We're giving away copies of Katz's: Autobiography of a Delicatessen to five lucky readers! In the comments, tell us: what's your favorite thing to order at a deli? We'll choose five winners at random this Friday, October 4 at 3 PM EST. Sorry, but we can only ship to US-based readers.

Blintz photo by James Ransom. All book photos by Baldomero Fernandez.