Chef Harris Mayer-Selinger considers himself “reasonably well-versed in Yiddish,” but when his business partner, Tal Simantov, suggested they open a Jewish deli called Pulkies, the word didn’t ring a bell.
Mayer-Selinger decided to poll a group of Jewish friends who as kids had also spent summers at sleep-away camp at Camp Wah-Nee in Torrington, Connecticut. He brought up the word “pulkies” during a semiregular reunion call on Zoom.
“There were 10 people on the call, and about seven or eight were Jewish women with children,” he said. “Every single one of them gushed with love for that word.”
Pulkies, they explained, is an affectionate term for a baby’s chubby thighs. (“Those pulkies are so adorable I could eat them up!”) It also means those particularly plump drumsticks found on kosher poultry. (“We know you love them, so we saved you the pulkies.”)
“Here I was a Jew, and I had never heard the word pulkies,” said Mayer-Selinger. “My mom prefers white meat. Maybe that’s why.”
But for Simantov’s wife, Abby—who first suggested Pulkies—the term was evocative. “To me, the word pulkies is happy and joyful,” she said. “I grew up in a house where Yiddish was spoken daily, and it always makes me think of a warm home with lots of love and old-school Jewish food. I thought if anyone else has these memories, the name would really hit home like it does to me.”
So they agreed on the name. But Mayer-Selinger, the chef behind New York City’s Creamline, the much-beloved burger-and-fries joint in Chelsea Market, had another problem: He had absolutely no interest in opening a deli. “I don’t know anything about making pastrami,” he said. “I wouldn’t touch that with a 10-foot pole.”
And besides, the idea of Jewish food brought him back to the roast turkey (and less often, brisket) that his mother used to serve at Passover and Rosh Hashanah. Memories of those meals got him thinking: “I remembered that turkey and brisket, they’re the same meats you find in Texas-style barbecue,” he said. “I said to my business partners, ‘What about Jewish barbecue?’”
The more he researched barbecue traditions from around the world—from Korea, Mongolia, and even Afghanistan—the more he realized that this country’s definition of barbecue is unusually rigid. In other countries the meat can be grilled or braised or cooked in any number of ways. The smoker with the stack of wood beside it is definitely optional.
On June 17, less than a month after Mayer-Selinger came up with the concept, Pulkies Jewish-style BBQ opened for delivery and takeout. It caught the attention of foodies with traditional dishes like borscht or charoset that have been updated for the modern palate.
Food writer and cookbook author (and Tablet contributor) Leah Koenig says Pulkies is arriving on the scene as Texas-style barbecue is having its moment. A handful of Jewish chefs are figuring out how to make it their own. “Pulkies is part of a trend, but it’s also kind of an outlier,” she said. “Kosher barbecue places like Wandering Que and Izzy’s Brooklyn Smokehouse have popped up in the last few years. They’re run by people who keep strictly kosher, but still want in on this trend.”
Koenig says that Mayer-Selinger’s embrace of Jewish Ashkenazi culinary traditions makes his barbecue unique. “It’s interesting to me, because in America brisket means two different things: Texas-style brisket and bubbe’s brisket,” she said. “He’s playing with the two sides of his identity as a barbecue guy and a Jewish guy.”
Mayer-Selinger says once they came up with the concept, the menu for Pulkies came together quickly. “I rattled off the basic menu in about an hour, to be honest,” he said. “Some dishes made the final cut, some didn’t.”
One thing that the former chef at well-regarded eateries like Hundred Acres and Five Points knew from the start is that the menu would center around turkey. He was adamant that he didn’t want to waste any part of the bird, hence dishes like the comb-to-tail turkey skewers. These include the oysters, medallions of delectable dark meat found on either side of the backbone. The neck is braised with kale, the wings are confited and served with hot honey, and the skin makes an appearance in several dishes as crispy turkey gribenes.
“I’m a proud champion of turkey,” Mayer-Selinger said. “it’s a magical meat. The dark meat is much richer than chicken, just a little below pork. It’s really underappreciated. I also happen to be a fan of brisket, and we do a delicious brisket, but I love the idea that we focus on turkey.”
Most chefs would be reluctant to open a restaurant at all during the pandemic. After all, more than 1,000 restaurants, including longtime favorites like the Sheepshead Bay kosher deli Jay & Lloyd’s, have permanently closed their doors since lockdown began in March.
Mayer-Selinger was pretty sure he could make it work financially. Without an indoor dining room to worry about, he could tailor the Pulkies menu to takeout and delivery; the city’s cap on the extortionate fees charged by delivery services like Grubhub and Seamless made the business model a little more viable. And they could use the existing kitchen at Creamline, which had closed temporarily, so build-out costs would be negligible. (Now that Creamline recently reopened for outdoor dining, takeout, and delivery, operating out of that shared kitchen has been a bit of a challenge—because, as Mayer-Selinger likes to say, they had to “MacGyver” the space so that his team could produce two completely different menus.)
“Does it make economic sense?” he asked. “How much time do you have? Because this is complex. I don’t think it actually can be answered without seeing into the future. For me personally and professionally, I’d say no for now, but I believe It will be lucrative in the future.”
Mayer-Selinger is so confident about the long-term possibilities for Pulkies that they already have a second location in the works. After Creamline opens a new location in Brooklyn’s Dekalb Market in September, Pulkies will follow with a separate space sometime in the fall.
Pulkies’ having its own brick-and-mortar location—not to mention its own kitchen—will allow Mayer-Selinger to expand the menu. It will become more of a “meat and three,” meaning it will serve whole meals consisting of a main dish and an assortment of sides, such as carrots and onions simmered in the juices from the brisket.
“Pulkies is the culmination of me and a chef and a person,” he said. “This is going to be my life’s work. It’s a way for me to talk about my heritage. I want to spread the gospel, so to speak, to as many people as I can. Maybe tikkun olam is a bit of a stretch, but I’m getting the word out.”
Mark Sullivan is a freelance writer and editor.