Often, when a Jewish son tells his parents he wants to go into the restaurant business, hand wringing and wails ensue. When Zach Kutsher, 37, gave his parents the news, there were tears, but of a different kind.
You see, Kutsher is that Kutsher, an heir to one of the storied Borscht Belt resorts that like Grossinger’s and Brickman’s were for decades the summer vacation destination of choice for Jewish families keen on sports, entertainment and the food of their Eastern European ancestors.
Kutsher had grown up at the place, working every job from bellhop to restaurant manager, but opted for law school instead of the family business, the operation of which was licensed to another party in 2007. Soon after, Kutsher realized that his career as a real estate investor was less than fulfilling and that what he really wanted to do was, well, open a restaurant.
“My father teared up when he read the business plan,” he said. “They were proud, and happy.”
Kutsher’s Tribeca, which opened last week, pays homage to the resort founded by immigrants Max and wife Rebecca — Kutscher’s great-grandparents — in 1907 after they saved enough money from tailoring to buy some land upstate.
The Catskills Kutsher’s served kasha varnishkes, matzah ball soup, roast chicken, freshly baked challah and, of course, borscht. So does the Tribeca joint, but different.
By Kutsher’s Tribeca, Friday Night Roast Chicken has black trumpet mushroom stuffing. The borscht is a salad, composed of not only beets but also marinated goat cheese and artichokes in a “broken beet vinaigrette.” And Mark Spangenthal, given two stars by the New York Times, has deconstructed everyone’s favorite, the pastrami sandwich, into a charcuterie platter.
“You can make a sandwich if you want,” said Kutsher. “We are Jewish-inspired, but accessible to all.”
Except for those who keep kosher. Kutsher and his partners — there are three major ones, including Jeffrey Chodorow, a boldfaced name in restaurant circles — decided against kosher certification, primarily because only 4 percent of Tribeca’s Jews keep kosher, according to the latest UJA-Federation of New York study. It’s a far cry from the resort’s latest incarnation, where the Orthodox caterer who operates it offered a “Tribute to Israel Shabbos” this past summer.
It’s not every restaurant that factors federation data into business decisions. Kutsher’s creators want the new place to be a neighborhood hangout, not just a nostalgia trip for former Catskills habitués.
Its design, which combines exposed brick and pipes with touches that refer to the architecture of the 1950s and ‘60s, reflects the restaurant’s dual identity splendidly, said investor Alan Wilzig, 46. Wilzig made his fortune by first doubling the value of his family’s bank business. Now he is a philanthropist and a collector of motorcycles and cars, which he also races. Wilzig frequented Kutsher’s as a child with his family and still has ties upstate, namely a 275-acre estate where he has built a private racetrack after defeating a local lawsuit on appeal.
“I can get someone in here from Tribeca who will read you chapter and verse about how ‘Tribeca’ it is, with the wood and metal evoking the neighborhood’s industrial past,” he said. “And then others will say it reminds them of the bunks at camp.”
On special occasions, the restaurant will put its roots front and center. Despite that Friday Night Chicken, there won’t be any explicit celebration of “Shabbos,” a la the upstate location. But there will be fancy latkes and Kutsher’s-themed dreidels at Chanukah, and a Chinese feast on Christmas Day.
After all, the restaurant’s Jewish past is what makes its future possible.
It fits into some broad food business trends, like the elevation of comfort food along the lines of Danny Meyer’s high-class egg cream at his new farm-to-table diner at The Whitney. But Kutsher doesn’t think he has any direct competition. Existing delis like Katz’s lack his place’s panache, he says, and no other upscale establishments boast its history.
“The hardest thing in starting a business is to build a brand,” Kutsher said.
Also, while any bubbe would be proud of his law degree and real estate background, those credentials also served him exceedingly well in the restaurant business. He even obtained an additional degree in restaurant management from the Institute of Culinary Education. Kutsher’s smarts were a big part of what persuaded Wilzig to go in with him, despite the fact that he’d sworn never to invest in Broadway, Hollywood or restaurants.
So when Wilzig told his mother about his latest venture, she had a slightly different reaction from that of Kutsher’s parents.
“My mother thought I was crazy,” he said.