(Photos by Jesse Untracht-Oakner)
For Peter Shelsky, owner of Shelsky’s Appetizing Shop on Smith Street in Brooklyn, the inspiration for his namesake restaurant was inspired by the smells of his childhood.
“My Grandma lived on the Lower East Side and nearly every weekend we’d pick up a dozen bialy’s from Kossars and try not to eat one on the way home which is hard because the car smells so good when you have bag of bialy’s inside. Then we’d grab some smoked salmon, picked herring and sable and have our Sunday brunch at home.”
Now that Shelsky’s has been open for about five months in the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, it’s those same smells that keep him going.
“People walk and say, Oh that smell! I remember that smell, I love it! Meanwhile When I get home, my wife is like, Ew that smell, go shower!
After Shelsky graduated from Colgate as a dual anthropology and sociology major, he found himself, like so many of his generation, unsure what he wanted to do with his life. Having worked in a few kitchens frying buffalo wings for extra scratch, he decided to try culinary school, working in places like Café Wallse to pay his way. Once Shelksy graduated, it was time for him to blaze his own trail in the food world, but the road to appetizing wasn’t entirely direct.
“I had a different restaurant idea each week. I had this idea for a custom soup place where you pick your stock, your meats, veggies etc.”
Shelsky stayed afloat by running a catering company that gives private cooking lessons and instructional cooking parties in people’s homes, but he couldn’t ignore the message that was being telegraphed to him by friends and neighbors.
“There was need for a place where families could get their Sunday Jewish brunch without having to go into the city to Russ and Daughters.”
In conversation with people throughout his Brooklyn neighborhood, Shelsky began to get a sense that their was a palpable need for an old world-style Jewish appetizing shop on his side of river, one that took cues from the ebullient food movement in Brooklyn. The smells of his childhood came back to him, that feeling of togetherness that comes from a family getting together to eat bagels and lox, and his big idea was born.
“I have all the classic staples but I like to play, and because of my background I know how to do that. I do a traditional chopped liver with duck fat, but I also pickle my own herring, we’re the only appetizing shop in NY that pickles our own herring.”
Part of a new Brooklyn food scene that has put the nabe on the culinary map, Shelsky is passionate about the use of locally grown food. However, he doesn’t purport to be part of the healthy food movement.
“I fry my potato latkes in schmaltz which is the old school way of doing it, and it tastes good. Why use a flavorless vegetable oil when you could use schmaltz? Schmaltz is awesome. How many latkes are you eating that it really makes a difference if you have a couple that are fried in chicken fat?”
Admittedly, Shelsky is not especially religious, in fact, he is quite passionate about treyf and sports a sectioned pig tattoo on his forearm, however, Shelsky’s shop is not entirely devoid of religion. The shelves at Shelsky’s are filled with his own baked honey cake as well as bagels and bialy’s from Kossars and artesian mustards and grape juice.
“I sort of wanted to be the place where you can come for all your little Jewish needs. It’s amazing how many yarhzeit candles I sell, at least one a day which you wouldn’t expect. But where else are you going to get them around here?”
Shelsky isn’t without his critics. He recounts the weekly calls he receives, usually on Monday mornings from angry voices, shouting “How he can you call yourself a Jewish establishment if you’re open and Shabbos?” He also shares the story of the time he kicked out a patron (who may or may not have worked at a local synagogue) after numerous demands that Shelsky slice a paper thin piece of salmon “thinner.”
Since opening a few months ago, Shelsky’s has garnered many comparisons to Mile End another Brooklyn based restaurant that’s breathed new life into old style Jewish food. As to whether old-fashioned Jewish food has a achieved a new relevance in Brooklyn, Shelsky says,
“I think it’s just a part of the comfort food phenomenon, when the economy isn’t great, people turn to what makes them comfortable. There’s no question that this is New York comfort food, and it’s become as important to New York cuisine as a dirty water hot dog or a slice.”
Shelsky claims there’s certain line that he’s trying to walk, namely, “the line between cool, high end foodie products, and Jewish Kitsch.”
“For instance, Meshuggah Nuts walk that line perfectly,” he says grabbing a tin from in front of the register.
The nuts he speaks of look like the hot nuts they sell on carts throughout the city and taste like mandelbread-coated peanuts. He keeps them in front of the register for customers to sample. Shelsky has an obvious vested interested in all of his customers reactions to the food. A tall, thin, man in his early 30’s walks into the shop announcing his craving for a pickle and Peter proudly thrusts forth the one of his full sour pickles from Gus’s, anxiously waiting for the man’s reaction. As he watches another customer bite into the “The Great Gatsby” a sandwich made of Pastrami Salmon, honey mustard and horseradish cream cheese on rye, his look is that a of a old Jewish grandmother watching her boychick slurp up his first piece of lox, and therein lies his success. Aside from taking old style Jewish appetizing cuisine and revamping it with a nouveau Brooklyn local flair, he’s tapping into food’s ability to connect our earliest and most beloved memoires. Peter Shelsky is taking all of our childhoods and frying them up with shmaltz. He’s become a surrogate Jewish grandmother for all of Brooklyn, and it seems that for him, it’s worth smelling fishy for as long and a while longer.