Len Berk, 91, has been slicing lox behind the counter at Zabar’s on the Upper West Side for the past 26 years. A retired accountant, he freely admits that carving paper-thin, translucent slices from a side of smoked salmon is much more fun.
Berk, who has a dedicated following among deli regulars, has counted Jerry Seinfeld and Ben Stiller among his customers. He admits to having been apprehensive about returning after such a long absence. But when he picked up his 18-inch knife once again, it all came back to him. “It was like riding a bike,” he says. “I didn’t forget.”
His approach verges on the spiritual, transcending the preparation and sale of a commodity. “I found that slicing salmon is a very sensual experience,” he says. “I slide my hands across the oily surface of the fish, and it’s so soothing and relaxing — it’s a very pleasant feeling.” He feels that “you have to become one with the fish,” transforming himself in an instant from a Jewish nonagenarian into a pescatarian Zen master.
Located at 2245 Broadway, at 80th Street, the store was founded in 1934 by Louis Zabar, an immigrant from Ukraine. His son Saul, one year older than Berk, hired the lox slicer after a hands-on interview. While many other New York delis have gone out of business, Zabar’s has prospered due to a singular emphasis on quality and customer service.
If you can’t get to the Big Apple, you can score Zabar’s hand-sliced Nova (regular or double smoked) online at $59 per pound, along with whitefish, sable, kippered salmon and bagels. Berk, however, recommends the full experience as soon as possible. “I’m 91,” he says. “You never know how things are going to go.”
Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture, as well as three novels. His latest release, Impeachment, is now available on Amazon.