When I was in my hometown Queens earlier this year, I had the opportunity to meet Chef Jay Parker of Ben’s Best Delicatessen, a New York City classic Kosher deli. Quintessential NYC cuisine right here. Parker’s family business serves up some of the best pastrami sandwiches, knishes, matzo ball soup, and more in NYC.
Ben’s Best has been located on Queens Boulevard in Rego Park since 1945. While New York City has changed throughout the years, Ben’s Best has continued to serve up its delicious and enduring dishes that have captivated NYCers for decades. “If you want authentic kosher delicatessen whose traditions have not changed for the last 71 years then you’ve come to the right place,” Parker says.
Chef Jay was nice enough to answer a few questions for us about Ben’s Best.
How did your family get into the deli business?
My grand parents were new immigrants and were looking for a way to support the family. After various ventures they opened up a deli in the Bronx. There was a tremendous need for food from the new immigrants homeland. My grand parents filled that need while living in the back of the store.
What is the inspiration behind the menu?
Tradition – everything is traditional and hasn’t changed in the last 71 years For the most part what is on the menu today is what you would have gotten 70 years ago.
How have you seen the neighborhood change after all these years?
Seventy-one years ago there were farms here. This could be considered a transitional neighborhood. The new immigrants settled in the Bronx and other areas where they were welcomed. As they prospered they sought out better neighborhoods and schools, more space and newer living accommodations – in the suburbs. Rego Park was the epicenter of this activity back in the 50’s and 60’s. We saw tremendous development with the Lefrak organization, Cord Meyer Industries and other apartment building developers throughout the area.
This area had the highest percentage of Holocaust survivors in the US.European foods were in high demand and Ben’s Best offered the European comport food that these people were familiar and comfortable with. As these families prospered their children graduated and became professionals seeking more land and suburbs.In our culture one generation sacrifices for the next. You live in an apt to sacrifice for your children so they can get a better education then the older generation. You want them to do better and move on.
Now we see a new immigrant class coming through It’s multi-cultural.
How have you seen the deli business change over the years?
We catered to the Holocaust survivors. We have had to get much more efficient. Marketing, product placement, layout of restaurant, sanitary conditions.There has never been a formula for deli ownership. There are no classes given in deli.Most people in the deli business never finished high school. Business itself has become more sophisticated. Demographics changed considerably.Marketing has been extremely important as the older generation has moved off and younger people are just being introduced to this type of food. Nothing has really changed but the customer. Who doesn’t like a good pastrami sandwich or a great bowl of hot chicken soup?
What were some of the challenges and advantages of going from working on Wall Street to working in the food industry?
There are some people who have to work for themselves and I’m one of them. It took me 19 years of education to figure this out. The market place tell ‘s me what I’m worth. The challenge is to orchestrate a successful way of promoting my business. We cater, anywhere and anytime within driving distance in order to establish ourselves as the go-to caterer for outside catering. It is my job to figure out how to deal with the changes in the industry. I got trucks to-go all over the city. There are a 1,000 ways of failure and only one for success but you must think things through. I consider myself a problem solver.
What is your personal favorite dish on the menu?
My favorite dish is stuffed cabbage with kasha varnishkes on the side