Recap: Kutshers Tribeca “Appetite City” Event at Tenement Museum

Posted on: October 26th, 2011 at 12:02 pm by

Nobody puts Kutshers in the corner. The last kosher Catskills resort is bringing Jewish food into the 21st century — and into Tribeca.

With the opening line from Annie Hall describing Catskills cuisine in mind (“the food is really terrible…and such small portions”), we armed ourselves with a pocketful of anticipatory antacid and headed over to the Tenement Museum’s “Appetite City” food talk and tasting this past Monday night. The topic was the soon-to-open Kutshers Tribeca, the news of which has many New Yorkers of a certain age buzzing.

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Yes, the restaurant is the brainchild of the same family who owns the legendary Catskills resort, the setting of which served as the inspiration behind Dirty Dancing (the hotel was known as Kellerman’s). Also known for borscht belt comedians (e.g. Woody Allen, Jackie Mason, Rodney Dangerfield) and an abundance of Eastern European food staples, Kutshers celebrated its heyday in the 50s and 60s. People still recall the food, but our culinary desires were different back then. More was more in those days, and if you were a guest, you told the waiters to keep the bagels, lox, gefilte fish, latkes and brisket coming.

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Zach Kutsher, a member of the 4th generation of Kutshers, is creating a new phase of the family business. Teaming up with uber-restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow and his son Zach, along with partner Alan Wizig and branding guru Richard Kirschenbaum, he is creating a “modern Jewish-food-inspired bistro.”

Upscale Jewish comfort food in Tribeca? We’re sure borscht belt veteran Jackie Mason will have a lot to say about that. We’d ask Joan Rivers, but we don’t know if she actually eats.

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The talk began amidst the delicious and unexpected scent of hot pastrami in the Tenement Museum bookstore. Moderated by Jane Ziegelman, food historian and author of 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement the panel included Kutsher, the younger Chodorow, Kirschenbaum and Wilzig, the latter reminiscing about vacationing at Kutshers with his family for 40 years.

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Ziegelman described the history of the Jewish Catskills, starting with Lower East side Jewish immigrants who took their farming skills from the old country, underutilized in the depths of Manhattan, out to the mountains. The farms spawned boarding houses, which morphed into the borscht belt. Describing how “traditional Jewish cooking met American abundance,” Ziegelman took the audience through the history of the Kutsher family starting in 1901, when Max Kutsher, his wife Rebecca and brother Louis had opened a farm guest house. Louis’ son Milton and his wife Helen took it over in the 1950’s, and transformed it into Kutshers resort, one of the few places of its kind still standing today.

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Zach Kutsher told stories of the celebrities who performed at Kutshers while he was growing up, including Jerry Seinfeld, who, at the time said he was working on a pilot for a “little TV show.”

Kutshers was known for serving over 1,000 guests at a sitting, and anyone who has been there can recall images of waiters balancing impossibly enormous trays with an inconceivable amount of entrees piled on top. Kutsher, who worked many jobs at the hotel, recalled how as a waiter, he was a bit in awe of the “more macho” waiters who could balance 16 – 20 entrees per tray. Another of his jobs was running the childrens’ dining room, an experience which may prepare him for the uber-picky Tribeca foodies who tend to exhibit tantrums of a whole ‘nother sort.

Growing up at the hotel, he said, was like being in a giant playground, but the family was also always in the public eye, because people wanted to chat up the owners. Wilzig recalled how sitting at the Kutscher family table in the dining room was “a bit like being in ‘The Godfather,’ with everyone coming over to pay their respects. It was fun, but hard to eat!”

When asked if there was indeed “Dirty Dancing” at the hotel, Wilzig said, “well, I think that expression came from the Raleigh hotel, which had ‘Mambo Night,’ which we would all sneak over to see.” (This reporter was too young to remember “Mambo Night,” but does fondly remember the beloved “Nuru Guru Room” at the same Raleigh hotel, a childrens’ nightclub geared towards the ginger ale set, complete with blacklights and trippy cover bands.)

According to Kirschenbaum, the Tribeca restaurant is inspired not only by the Catskills, but also by the Jewish restaurant scene in Miami Beach in the 50s and 60s. Less like delis and more like full service Jewish comfort food establishments, hot spots such as Wolfie’s and Rascal House were more elaborately designed, and boasted well stocked bars.

The Tribeca restaurant will still serve classics like latkas, knishes, kasha varnishka (made with organic quinoa instead of kasha, and wild mushrooms instead of the canned variety), matzoh ball soup, brisket and roast beef, but it will all be modern interpretations, made with fresh green market ingredients.

But fear not, there will still be a schmaltz rub rib-eye, accompanied by fries cooked in duck schmaltz. (“Frites schmaltz” has a nice ring to it.)

After the talk, the audience was invited by Executive Chef Mark Spangenthal to sample some of the magnificent pastrami (which Kutshers Tribeca will smoke, along with other meats, in-house), along with a new take on gefilte fish, substituting wild halibut for the traditionally tasteless carp. Kutsher explained that old-school gefilte fish was “generally disgusting,” and “basically a vehicle for the horseradish.” (Our review of the wild halibut version: Best. Gefilte fish. Ever.)

We left with a happy stomach, and no need for the antacids.

Kutshers Tribeca is set to open November 15th.

Writeup and photos by Lori Greenberg

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