StarChefs ICC 2012: Counter Culture – The History of Appetizing in NY – Niki Russ Federman & Joshua Russ Tupper

Joshua Russ Tupper

 “We’re here to talk about slicing…I’m an example of what not to do,” exclaimed Josh Russ as he held up his bandaged hand at the beginning of the demo. Although the injury had not actually occurred in the line of duty, the delicate touch needed to handle the products with which they work became a central theme of the morning’s lecture.

Russ & Daughtersis a New York icon. When out of towners ask where they need to eat while visiting, this 100+ year-old smoked fish mecca is high on my list of suggestions. Now run by the great grandchildren of the shop’s original owners, Russ & Daughters specializes in appetizing—the noun, not the adjective. Simply put, “appetizing” is the food you want to eat with a bagel and is one of New York’s most unique food traditions, though much of the knowledge surrounding it has become lost.

Niki Russ Federman & Joshua Russ Tupper of Russ & Daughters

Although New Yorker’s are now rediscovering Jewish food culture, with high-end riffs on a bagel and lox popping up everywhere from wd~50 to Eleven Madison Park, Russ & Daughters has been serving shmears, herring, and their signature Nova for four generation.  As Joshua put it, “New Jewish cuisine is becoming hip and interesting, but out family has been doing it for a hundred years.”

Niki Russ Federman

Appetizing is a complementary food tradition to delicatessens, which grew out of Jewish dietary law that mandates the separation of meat and milk—the deli is where one bought smoked meat, while the appetizing store was for fish and dairy. This makes sense when one notices that Katz’s, another New York institution known for serving the perfect pastrami on rye, is located less than a block away. When Jews came home from synagogue they wanted something ready to eat, and these products were the perfect choice.

The Russ’s great grandfather hailed from a small village in Poland and started his first business in the US selling pickled herring from a barrel on Orchard Street (side note: can’t you imagine foodies today ironically clamoring for this product, and lining up around the block for a taste of the “herring man’s” famous barreled fish?). Eventually, Russ was able to save up enough money to open a storefront called “JR Russ Cut Rate Appetizing.” At the time, the Lower East Side had over 30 appetizing stores. Eastern European immigrants did not have a lot of money, and the salting, curing, and pickling of fish made it an inexpensive product with an extended shelf life. As is so often the case, what was once a humble immigrant food has become a fixture of New York’s food scene. JR went on to have three daughters and to change the name of the family business, which became one of the first in the country to acknowledge female participation.

Niki Russ Federman slicing Nova salmon

In this interactive demo, Niki and Joshua Russ traced the heritage of appetizing in the Big Apple and demonstrated the proper technique to yield perfect slices of this delicate product. Many chefs, they noted, have not been adequately trained to slice salmon, yet the process has an enormous impact on flavor, texture, and overall experience of the product; it’s an art unto itself.

Niki Russ Federman and her sliced Nova salmon

One of the biggest concerns is waste. At R&D they slice approximately 1600lb of fish a week and a few improper trims can mean a huge dent in their profit margins. Why slice by hand instead of using machines? Simple: the heat front the machines changes the texture of these delicate products, often making is grainy.

Niki Russ Federman and Joshua Russ Tupper walking Miami, Fl chef Darryl Johnson through slicing salmon.

To ensure accuracy, they use a ham slicer which has a long, thin, flexible blade that is gentle on the fish’s flesh, and light and easy on the hands. At R&D, everyone is mandated to slice with their right hand because of the positioning at the counter. They always slice away from the body for more control, and aim for pieces thin enough to see the blade through the fish as they’re cutting; “Your supposed to be able to read the Times through the slice,” explained Joshua. The angle at which the blade is held is also key for minimizing waste and must be adjusted as you move across the length of the fish. There are eight people at the counter at R&D, so everyone is inheriting someone else’s slice. Finally, the presentation on the paper is very important because it’s part of a customer’s experience when they open it at home; the grain of the fish should all be running in the same direction.

Russ and Daughters Nova salmon with a ham knife.

That morning, we were treated to a taste of Russ & Daughter’s signature Gaspe Nova, an Atlantic salmon with a smoky, but mild and delicate flavor and a silky mouth feel. They noted that if you walk in and ask for lox, it’s not what many would expect. Lox is cured, not smoked, and as a result is extremely salty (most really mean they want “Nova” when they ask for lox); cutting the saltiness of the lox was how a bagel first entered the equation.

Niki Russ Federman trimming salmon

At R&D, they’ve been at the forefront of the whole “nose to tail” movement since before most of us were born. The “fleigel” (sp), the side fin of the fish, is known as a Jewish lollypop; it’s mostly fat, and is one of the most delicious parts of the fish that they sell. Those, along with the fish trimmings, are sold for $5/lb and can be used in stocks—a great “chef secret” for which they’re known. Many chefs also come in to buy fish skin, which can be grilled/dehydrated/etc. In addition, the brown portion of the fish is usually considered undesirable, but many old-timers coming in requesting it and they’ll sell is along with the other scraps.

Joshua said that customers often come in and ask him what the best product is. He equated this to walking into a wine store and asking for the best wine; “It’s like choosing between your children,” he exclaimed. Each has it’s own terroir; there is no “best.”

My family was amongst the Eastern European immigrants that first settled on the Lower East Side generations ago, and Russ & Daughters was an institution even back then. In an age of the newest, the hottest, the modern, and in a city constantly chasing the next epicurean trend, it’s nice to see tweezers being used to remove pin bones rather than plate garnishes—it’s comforting that there is still a storefront on Allen & Houston looking to the past rather than the future. Here’s to another hundred years!

All photos by John M. Sconzo, M.D.


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