As the larder master and wild foods forager for Trentina, Jeremy Umansky's handiwork touched every plate in that fine-dining restaurant. Working alongside chef and owner Jonathon Sawyer in the "food lab," Umansky amassed wild edibles, concocted vinegars, cultured yogurts and used Japanese molds to accelerate the curing process of meats and fish.
This past November, Umansky quietly parted ways with Team Sawyer to pursue his own goals. Already he has begun scouting the perfect location for Schmaltz Delicatessen and Bakery, a from-scratch Jewish deli that will utilize many of the practices and techniques he has been refining for years.
A perfect example is his innovative technique for making corned beef. This time-intensive procedure typically requires a week or more of curing time in the fridge — if you're making it from scratch, that is, and not simply opening a bag. By using Japanese-inspired koji culture, Umansky is able to make tender, umami-rich corned beef in 48 hours.
"To the diner, it will look and taste and feel like a regular corned beef sandwich," Umansky explains. "But if you want the story behind it you'll learn that the beef was bathed in an enzymatic soup produced by the koji."
That storyline also can be applied to the deli as a whole, he says. While there will be a whole lot of tinkering, experimentation and modern-day wizardry taking place in the kitchen, the knowledge of much of that activity will stay behind the swinging doors.
"If someone were to come in there and eat, a lot of the food would look, aesthetically, like what they're used to seeing at a deli," says Umansky, who lives in Cleveland Heights with his wife Allie and daughter Emilia. "But what is really modern about it is some of the techniques we'll be using to produce the food."
Like any respectable Jewish deli, this one will sell bagels and schmears, corned beef and pastrami sandwiches, knishes and latkes, and babka and rugelach. But just below the surface there will be a considerable amount of thought and preparation going into each dish that's designed to elevate this culturally significant food.
The broth for the signature matzo ball soup will be made from chicken feet in a pressure cooker, a process that produces intensely flavored stock. Stuffed cabbage will be made using fermented cabbage leaves, which creates a dish with a pleasant tang instead of usual cloying sweetness. Potato pancakes — aka latkes — utilize a multi-step process that involves time spent in a waffle iron, leaving them impossibly crispy and littered with nooks and crannies to cradle the applesauce or sour cream.
Of course, that sour cream will be cultured in-house and that applesauce might very well be made using foraged wild Ohio apples. There will be kosher dill pickles, made with local cucumbers when they are in season, but at other times of year other pickled produce might take over.
"And, of course, there's going to be lots of schmaltz and lots of gribenes," says Umansky, referring to the flavorful poultry fat and the crispy skin bits that are a byproduct of the rendering process.
At Schmaltz, schmaltz will be stabilized with vegetable glycerin so that it stays spreadable at room temperature. There will be various flavors like roasted garlic or sauteed onion, and they will be the stars of a bread-and-butter plate that might include assorted house pickles, whole grain mustards and non-pork charcuterie.
"We won't be kosher, we'll be kosher-style," explains Umansky, stating that no pork or shellfish will be served.
Umansky says the operation will be "more deli than restaurant," adding that it will feature counter-driven service and 20 to 25 seats. Customers can pop in for a quarter-pound of corned beef, a quart of matzo ball soup and a dozen rugalach, and be on their way. Or they can purchase a bagel and a schmear and enjoy it on-site.
As for the location, Umansky hasn't yet signed a lease, but he has narrowed his search.
"There are 85,000 Jews in Cuyahoga County and most of them live in the inner ring to mid-eastern suburbs, so that's the area we're currently scouting," he says. Cleveland Heights and Shaker are the two most likely candidates.
Interest in Umansky's skills and strengths is high, with the chef making culinary appearances in Pittsburgh, Chicago, Austin, Portland, Italy and Costa Rica. That education won't stop when he opens the deli, he promises, but the students will have to come to him.
"I'll be doing a rotating stage program," he says. "We want our guests to really enjoy the food, but we also want other cooks to take the things they learned here in Cleveland back home to New York or Miami or San Francisco."