For at least a decade, American Jews have been bemoaning the supposed disappearance of the Jewish deli from the culinary landscape. From David Sax's clarion call in his 2009 James Beard Award-winning book,
Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of the Jewish Delicatessen
, to the 2014
documentary--a cinematic paean to an endangered species--Jewish deli-philes have been scared out of their
that soon they will no longer be able to find blintzes, kreplach, smoked salmon, and matzoh balls at a Jewish-style restaurant near them.
Local foodie, chef, and entrepreneur Jake Schneider has some news for the naysayers among us: Reports of the Jewish deli's death are premature.
Schneider, who is in his early 30s, is pretty sure of this, because he is about to open his own Jewish-style-but-not-kosher eatery, Schneider Deli, this coming July at 600 N. LaSalle St. The deli, which will offer, at least initially, breakfast and lunch items--think corned beef and brisket sandwiches, pickles, bagels, latkes, and egg creams--is an outgrowth of his brainchild, Schneider Provisions, an online-oriented business Schneider started last year.
Schneider Provisions focused on pickling but soon morphed into a full-scale purveyor of fish and meat. Among customers' favorites was Eunice's Brisket, inspired by Schneider's maternal grandmother's recipe. (Bubbe Eunice has been a longtime resident of Highland Park, where Schneider himself was raised.)
The road to food intentions was paved a few decades back, Schneider said, when, as a budding chef, he took it upon himself to cook dinners for his family.
"I've always liked crafting things with my hands," he said, and "I liked to try my own things and make my own mistakes."
Not all of the family meals went well--"I remember the disaster with peanut butter ribs," Schneider said--but he honed his craft, assisted by cookbooks that family members bought him as presents.
"The first cookbook I got for Chanukah was Mark Bittman's
How to Cook Everything,"
he recounted. "It was my go-to."
Schneider was also strongly influenced by his family's involvement in Maot Chitim of Greater Chicago, a Northbrook-based nonprofit that delivers Jewish holiday meals to food-insecure individuals and families in the region.
"My brothers and I would eagerly help my dad at the warehouse on delivery days to aid the cause," Schneider said. "It was one of my first memories of knowing what it means to feed people and how powerful it can be."
By the time that Schneider went off to Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., he was sufficiently well versed in both dinner prep and kashrut to assume the role of chef at the college's Hillel, a post he held his sophomore and junior years. He credits Hillel director Bonnie Cramer as a "mentor" who "taught me about nourishing people with food, and how to cook Shabbat dinner for 50."
Armed with a degree in economics, Schneider returned to Chicago soon after graduation. Eschewing culinary school, he began making his way up the restaurant food chain, paying his dues as a line and prep cook at some of the city's upscale restaurants, including the Lettuce Entertain You group's Michelin-starred L20 and the Boka Restaurant Group's Perennial Virant, which are now defunct, as well as Wood in Lakeview and Daisies Chicago in Logan Square. These were tough, think-and-act-fast-on-your-feet jobs, Schneider said, but they served as critical steppingstones to career advancement. For the past five years, Schneider has worked for Tovala, the food delivery startup, as a culinary research and development chef and manager.
Now, Schneider is turning his attention to his own enterprise, ensuring a new generation of corned-beef-on-rye establishments.
"Everything starts from my joy of eating," he said.
Robert Nagler Miller is a journalist and editor who writes frequently about arts- and Jewish-related topics from his home in New York.