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Harris Mayer-Selinger On Inventing Jewish Barbecue At Pulkies

With a market hall kitchen closed by the pandemic, a bespoke delivery concept takes off.

Harris Mayer-Selinger is chef-owner of Creamline in New York’s Chelsea Market. Initially forced to close by the pandemic, Mayer-Selinger and his partners hit on a novel delivery-focused concept to run out of the Creamline kitchen—the Jewish barbecue menu of Pulkies.

Creamline is the full-service restaurant extension of Ronnybrook Farm, which has always been at Chelsea Market. We opened on September 28, 2015. Being in Chelsea Market was beyond my wildest imagination as a first-time restaurateur and operator. That was a tremendous opportunity.

When the pandemic hit, a lot of the particular pros and cons of being in Chelsea Market revealed themselves over time. But just like everybody else, the quarantine was ordered, and we shut down. My first priority was communicating to our staff. And then immediately—and this is always instinctual for me—taking care of the food that we had. I hate throwing away food. It’s not just a career thing. I hate it from an ethical standpoint, from an obsessive-compulsive standpoint. When you set a rule that you will not throw food away, it forces you to be creative and come up with stuff. I just live and die by it.

Chelsea Market put into place a donation annex where we could all collectively bring our stuff to be picked up. It’s always been a problem for New York City restaurants with minimums for City Harvest and all sorts of silly regulations. And then we gave most of it away to our staff. I remember thinking, “What does this pandemic mean? Our food supply is going to get shut down.” So we gave it all away. We froze what we could. And then a couple of days later we did a deep clean, and then we planned to let the restaurant stay idle.

Every time I talk about that time, I think about the Gabrielle Hamilton article on closing Prune. She’s such a good writer. She so vividly wrote about how eerie a closed restaurant is. And that’s where we were, just figuring out unemployment for all of our staff and making sure everybody was okay.

I don’t know if I’m an optimist or a pessimist. I think it changes day to day. But I think a lot of people are at the mercy of their lease terms and their capital reserves and who their partners are. This is one way where being in Chelsea Market was a pro. Being a small independent restaurant with an independent landlord, it could go either way. It can be a help, or it could be terrible. A lot of people don’t have a choice. And they are restaurants that were set up in a pre-pandemic world, and the cost to overhaul it, to adjust to the new reality, is too much money, or not worth the money, or they don’t need so much space. I think we were inching towards a very pick-up-heavy or delivery-heavy model as it was. We saw that even before the pandemic. Now this is really pushing that over that line.

Beyond the shock of institutions closing, the most shocking thing I saw was the Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare doing delivery. César Ramírez is in a league of his own. He is a genius. There is no other word. He’s a genius of his craft. He’s a genius of creativity. I ate there before he was reviewed by the Michelin Guide. He was just playing around at the old Brooklyn thing. Somebody invited me—I thought it was going to be some hipster cooking a tasting menu. I had the best meal and the best food I ever had. It was a totally new plateau of cuisine that I didn’t even know existed.

And now he is doing delivery. I just couldn’t believe it, especially because so much of his food is based on the service pieces. Forget that it’s Bernardaud china or whatever—he’s got these really creative service pieces, and the food is designed around it all. And not like in an Alinea way—in a way that’s like approachable and functional. Nothing for shock value. I have no doubt that if he’s doing delivery, he is doing something incredible. But everything was sold out when I went to do it. And then I sat on the idea longer, and the idea got too sad for me. So I haven’t done it.

The next phase for us was talking to my business partners about what we were going to do, and talking to our landlord, which is Google, managed by Jamestown. Having a big-name landlord and a big management company also has pros and cons. By the terms of the lease, there are minimums and base rents that you have to meet. If we weren’t hitting a certain target sales, we would have been responsible, according to our lease, for a certain base rent that was totally not feasible. In the past, hitting those minimums wasn’t an issue. But if they had enforced those terms in the pandemic, we would’ve been screwed.

Harris Mayer-Selinger prepping brisket in the Pulkies-Creamline kitchen. Photo: Noah Fecks.

Thankfully, our landlord did the right thing all across the board. They waived rent for that period. And then when they finally did kick rent back in, it was a straight percentage deal.

We were going to ride this out and wait and see what happened, and follow the news, and follow our fellow tenants, and wait for cues from our landlord. That was our plan. Then one of my more ambitious partners—another thing that has pros and cons—he can get a little, I guess “antsy” is the only word I can think of. He was like, “Look, let’s do something.” The operator in me was like, “If we crunch these numbers, this isn’t going to work.” But the creator, the chef in me was like, “All right, cool. Let’s try something.”

My partner called me and was like, “Let’s talk. I have an idea.” He always has an idea. And so he was like, “Let’s do a deli.” I don’t know where that came from. He’s not an operator. He’s not thinking about the kitchen facility, the crew, the cost, and what we’re designed to do. Out of hand, I was just like, “No. First off, I’m not inspired to do a deli. Second, I don’t see how that helps us in the pandemic and in Chelsea Market. Third, I don’t want to touch proper pastrami technique with a 10-foot pole. Not only is that not my expertise, we certainly don’t have the facility. I am not set up to smoke meats. Smoking meats is a big red flag with the Department of Health. I’m not going to do it half-ass. So deli is out.”

But his wife had a name for it. I should mention that my partner is Israeli—most of my partners are Israeli, which is another thing that has many pros and cons. Jerry Seinfeld did a bit on Israelis once where everything with them is either no problem, or impossible. There’s no middle ground.

But even that unbridled enthusiasm, when you’re the operator who has to be the pragmatist—it can be frustrating. Tal Simantov, my partner, has a wife who’s Jewish-American. Tal was like, “My wife even has a name for it. Pulkies.” Now, I consider myself well-versed in Yiddish words, and I’d never heard this word. I looked it up. Around this time, I was having these calls with my sleepaway camp friends, and most of the people on these calls were Jewish women with kids. And so I mentioned “pulkies” on one of these calls. They were all like, “Oh my God, pulkies!” They all knew that word.

Confit turkey wing. Photo: Noah Fecks.

A pulkie is an affectionate word for a fat baby leg. You know how a baby leg has these rolls and is chubby? It’s also a word for a poultry drumstick. So my then-fiancee, now wife, Claire Saffitz, was like, “Oh, pulkies. Sure. My grandma in the nursing home would always reject the white meat that the staff would bring her and say, ‘I want a pulkie.'” Of course, I sympathize because dark meat is so much better.

So when my partner mentioned the deli, and I rejected it immediately, we started talking about a pulkie. I said, “What the hell is that? Describe it to me.” Deli was on my mind at that point, so I’m thinking about brisket. Then he defined pulkie for me. And I swear to God, in a matter of like a minute, I arrived at this conclusion. I was just going like “Brisket, turkey … You know, it’s funny. That’s the centerpiece of Texas-style barbecue.” I have such a connection to that. Those are very much a part of Ashkenazi Jewish tradition. I grew up with them a lot.

I just blurted out, like, “What about Jewish-style barbecue?” The VP of my management company was on the phone, my partner Tal was on the phone. There was a little silence, and then Tal was like, “Wait, that sounds really … Whoa!” He’s a branding guy, and I think he saw the branding potential. My head was in the menu, and I just kept talking it out. And I was just like, “There’s something there. There’s this connection.”

I’m a proud American, I’m a proud Jew, And I love barbecue as a cook, as an American. And I also love turkey. It’s always been for me an underappreciated bird. I’ve always lamented that I only eat it a couple of times a year, with the exception of sandwiches. It’s certainly indigenous to the Americas and is a point of American pride.

So I said okay to the overall idea, but I didn’t want do pastrami. And I’m not about to get into the very dogmatic, tradition-based world of American barbecue, which is defined by indirect heat and smoke. Because, again, I couldn’t do that. But I said, “There are so many uses of the word barbecue that aren’t attached to that very rigid definition.” The example I used, which is another one of my big favorites, is Korean barbecue. I was like, “Look, Korean barbecue, at its core, is just a focal point of a meat—in their case marinated and grilled, and then adding homestyle, culturally relevant dishes to support it. In that sense, why can’t we use the word barbecue?”

Photo: Noah Fecks.

There’s Mongolian barbecue. There’s Chinese barbecue. A Pakistani friend of mine was like, “Yeah, there’s Pakistani barbecue.” And I said, “Well, time for Jewish barbecue. We don’t have it. Let’s do it.”

I looked at it a little bit, and I think it’s actually a really unique, never-been-done thing. Of course there’s kosher barbecue, which is where some Jew in Texas or the South does barbecue exactly as it is, but they use kosher meats and don’t mix meat and dairy and don’t use pork. But they’re still doing proper American barbecue.

This is more in the vein of Korean barbecue. From there, I spit the menu out in a day. It was just right there. This was all right on the surface for me. And I think five weeks from that call, we did our first delivery order.

Admittedly, we are still in the testing and data phase. I’m happy we’re slow getting it to the public, because the recipes aren’t perfect. But we were able to put together a brand and logo, and we’re open for business.

A big part of this concept was not just that I love the idea and it inspired me, but we were going to design and engineer it from the get-go for a post-pandemic world, which is to say make it designed for delivery. We have a concept called “ready to heat.” Not ready to eat. Ready to heat. And of course we also have ready to eat. That’s an important part of it as well.

We’re about to launch with cold deli. We found a guy that’s driving orders out to the Hamptons, which we’ve done a few of those, packing things on ice. The food is designed for that. That’s where my chef’s abilities and my love for and obsession with food comes into play, because I’m able to make these recipes and bring them to the five yard line and have empathy for the person that doesn’t know how to cook, or doesn’t want to cook. For example, to cook turkey perfectly, to package it and send it to reheat, then it’s not going to be perfect. You have to find a way to bring all these items to the point where when our customers reheat it, and it’s perfect.

Photo: Noah Fecks.

So we launched Pulkies, and we had some PR behind it, and then we got the attention of our landlord by doing that. They were like, “That’s great. Time for Creamline to reopen. That’s what we want.” I think they were worried we were abandoning Creamline. And truth be told, burgers are not the best business for delivery. But about three or four weeks after we launched Pulkies, we resurrected Creamline for delivery and pick-up only. Now we’re live with both. We’ve been able to bring back a few of our employees. We have a great team, a really loyal team. There is not anybody on our payroll who has been with us for less than a year and a half. I think most of them have been with us more than two and a half years, which I think is my proudest accomplishment, because you’re only as good as the people you have.

Pulkies is really a ghost kitchen in the Creamline kitchen. The kitchen facility in a space dictates the menu. I think a lot of restaurants, even pre-pandemic, and a lot of chef egos create bad restaurant businesses because they say, “Here’s the food I’m going to do,” and then they impose it on the space. You can only do what you can do. Pulkies was designed to work in our kitchen there. Granted, we’re not going to be in that kitchen forever, but basically the requirements for executing that food are pretty widespread.

I have to be very good at what I call “MacGyver cooking,” which is figuring it out. Part of the the premise of Pulkies is like, okay, you’re a person who lives in New York City, or in my case, a Jewish person in New York City who wants barbecue flavors, and maybe also the traditions of Passover or Rosh Hashanah or whenever you eat turkey and brisket. What do you do? You can go to a Hometown Bar-B-Que or Dinosaur Bar-B-Que and have proper smoked meats. But I’ve braised pork shoulders before, pulled the meat off, and then finished the braising liquid with barbecue sauce. Liquid smoke—I’m sure if you had a bottle of that in Texas you’d be run out of town, but it’s a valuable product. We never claimed to be smoked.

Our angle is that we’re doing fabrication in-house. We call it comb-to-tail turkey. We are using liquid smoke here and there, but mostly we’re priding ourselves on the fact that we’re fabricating the whole turkey and big briskets, and curing them in-house—no pink salt, just salt, sugar, pepper—and then trying to mimic the flavors and the look of proper American barbecue with other techniques, whether it’s roasting it at a certain temperatures, or using certain spices or braising.

With the brisket, we’re doing something really neat that I’m really proud of. Creamline has always prided itself on just doing American classics, but with really good ingredients sourced at local farms. We were using Rosenkrans beef, which is a pasture-raised beef farmer in upstate New York. Pulkies opened first, so he was our first call for briskets. We went from getting ground meat from him to getting briskets from him. His brisket, just like all of his beef, is just incredible, gorgeous. It’s double the price of commodity beef, but we’re happy to spend it and support him. It’s just like Ronnybrook is double the price of commodity dairy.

That beef was being sent to us with a lot of fat cap on it. We were braising it, we were slow-roasting it, so in my principle of not wasting anything, I was like, “Why don’t we confit this?” I love confit for fatty cuts. I’ve always been an advocate of confiting pork belly.

Obviously I’m not kosher. This concept is not kosher. We don’t have pork on the menu because it’s a cultural nod. We’re focusing on turkey and brisket, just like Texas. But that’s not to say that I wouldn’t put a pork special on it someday.

So basically, the brisket is cured. We put a lot of spices on it. We’re working with La Boîte. Lior Lev Sercarz over there, who did the book Mastering Spice—he’s got incredible spices. We render this fat, and then we are confiting it—you get a higher yield, and it keeps the intramuscular fat from leaching out, which is sort of the intent of real barbecue with the low heat. It also is just pounding it with beef flavor from all directions. Our brisket, for these reasons, is just extraordinary. I mean, it’s awesome. It’s super juicy. And then our turkey, while we’re not confiting it, there’s turkey fat everywhere. We have schmaltz everywhere, and gribenes. We’re just using every part of all the animal.

Brisket. Photo: Noah Fecks.

I’m a proud Jew, but I’m a self-hating chef. I have a saying, sort of in jest, which is that chefs are the worst thing that ever happened to food. Good cooks understand that the farmers are the ones making your food taste good. What makes you a “good chef” is just knowing what products to buy, and not messing them up. Man, when you get a tomato from Eckerton Hill Farm, do you really need to use tweezers to put microgreens on it? That tomato has been part of many people’s lives for a year, and you are in control of it for 10 minutes, and you pat yourself on the back because you drizzled it with olive oil?

The food is being made by the farmers. Understanding that, I’ve become very loyal with certain farms. The farmers and the producers that I was using back at 100 Acres and at Five Points and Creamline, they’re just tied to me. Wherever I go, they’re going to go. So, when we say we’re going to use honey maple syrup, there’s no debating where we get it from. It’s from Claire Marin at Catskill Provisions. And when it’s dairy, it’s Ronnybrook. There’s no two ways about it. When it’s beef, we’ve formed this relationship with Rosenkrans. Whenever I’m cooking, that’s where I get the product from. You follow that path. I’m going to work with my neighbors before I think of anyone else.

Before the pandemic, I was a week away from signing a lease on a whole different concept that was going to be with different partners. That went down the tubes, of course. On its own, my cooking leans very heavily toward the Mediterranean, and Italy specifically, even though it’s not my heritage. It’s just the food I love. That concept wasn’t Italian. It was Italian-inspired, but certainly only the type of food you would find in America. That was the culmination of myself as a cook. Pulkies is the culmination of me as a person. Every dish has a story. It’s a platform for me to talk about my heritage, to share my heritage, and also a vehicle to be a champion of American food, ultimately. I’m just super excited to be all in on it.