You’d be forgiven for thinking that Harry & Ida’s—a small, table-less sandwich shop in Manhattan’s Alphabet City—is another one of those trendy gourmet food shops that helped define neighborhoods like Williamsburg as “hipster.” It also bills itself as a “general store,” and while waiting for your sandwich (pastrami is the move) you can peruse shelves stocked with expensive dried pastas, small-batch jams, and very handsome sardine tins.
How could you know this is all a front?
Here are some hints: the container full of pastrami beef jerky. The other container full of skate jerky. The jars of sliced up, fermented cattails. The whole smoked eels, hanging by their necks in the refrigerator case. The assortment of golf pencil-sized birch twigs being sold individually as “chewing sticks.”
These are just a few of the many projects emerging from the kitchen and from the minds of chef/co-owner Will Horowitz, his partner and sister Julie, his partner Jonathan Botta, and chef Chaz Lindsay. Many more projects, not quite fit for sale, are fermenting, smoking, and curing in the back, and they couldn’t be done if Harry & Ida’s were a restaurant, and not a store that happens to sell sandwiches. That’s because restaurants have to answer to the New York City Health Department. Stores do not.
Horowitz is a merry ex-ski bum who’s also the chef/owner of Ducks Eatery in the East Village and the chef of Seamstress on the Upper East Side. He’s known in the restaurant world as a man who likes to experiment. For the past few years, as he admits, he has been doing these experiments—and serving some of them at his restaurants—illegally in an apartment near Ducks. Once he fed me a bizarre off-menu fermented corn on the cob, which had the lactic sourness of sauerkraut, but also notes of cheese and hot dog. Now, by opening Harry & Ida’s as a shop, and not a restaurant, he can move his surreptitious operations out in the open, free from the long arm of the DOH.
I visit Harry & Ida’s for the full, weird tour, and Horowitz explains why he’d rather, as a store, fall under the regulatory eye of the Department of Agriculture & Markets: “Restaurants are playing a giant battle with the DOH, and it’s getting worse, unless you have $200,000.” Chefs want to experiment, but the DOH casts a wary eye even on things like sous vide machines. For his part, Will is captivated by traditional ways of preparing and preserving food, which usually favor salt, smoke, or bacteria over refrigeration. He forages regularly for everything from cattails to sassafras roots, and preaches a principle championed by many a sustainable food advocate, that we’d be better off—healthier, less wasteful—if we ate like our grandparents ate. In this he has the support of chefs as influential as Alice Waters, who visited Harry & Ida’s on opening day. The DOH, on the other hand, is blind with fear that eating like this could make us become violently ill (which, if done wrong, it could). Trying to negotiate “is like trying to screw two screws together,” Horowitz says. Ag & Markets, meanwhile, is not so carefree that it will let you sell anything you make without it being tested and approved, but it will at least let you make it.
When I arrive, Horowitz is behind the sandwich counter, jovial as usual, and immediately starts pulling out things to taste. First a nubbin of hot pastrami. Then he dips a spoon into a plastic quart container half full of something off-white and creamy. “This is our smoked butter.” It’s fluffy like whipped butter, and tastes a little smoky, but also like cheese. “We cold smoke cream for a few days,” Horowitz explains, “then churn it into this.” The butter goes on several sandwiches, and is on the menu at Ducks. Horowitz also sells some to Hearth, his neighbor over on 1st Avenue.
He ushers me into the walk-in, which is cluttered with clear plastic Cambros filled with unknown substances. One holds liquid the color of pond water, with the stems of some plant suspended in it—smoked thyme oil. Other containers hold differently colored liquids, other flavored oils, and the buttermilk-fermented cucumbers that go on the pastrami sandwich. Horowitz reaches for a smaller plastic quart container, which holds a pile of plump little shellfish suspended in oil: cockle conserva. “We’ve been aging these for three months now,” he says, digging in a spoon and handing me a single cockle. That’s a terrifying thing to hear about a piece of seafood you’re about to put in your mouth, but it’s good—coated in oil, tender but not chewy, salty, and only a little pungent.
The entrance to the kitchen is guarded by an enormous aquarium filled with sea-foam green water. When Harry & Ida’s opened, this tank, which is supposed to contain live eels, got a mention in every news article. It was an easy tidbit to latch onto, the ostentatious display of weirdness (and by extension, coolness) that was supposed to tell you something about the character of the place. But on this particular afternoon, there is not an eel to be seen, just a couple of PVC pipes lying in the bottom of the tank, and a lone crawfish prancing around, waving its claws above its head.
Upon closer inspection, there actually are a couple of eels hiding in pipes, but this is not the tangled mass of creatures I had hoped for. “I have an eel guy,” Horowitz explains, who brings in eels caught from various rivers in the Northeast. “We get in about 200 or 300 at once, and I realized it makes more sense to just butcher them all at the same time.” He invites a bunch of chef friends and they make quick work of the pile, then he loads them into his homemade cold smoker (jerry-rigged from two fridges and an old-fashioned potbelly stove).
So a month into business, the dream of an eel tank has already evaporated. But Horowitz breezes past what could be called a lack of planning, or, put less delicately, a failure. “Now we’re building a ecosystem for aquaponics in it,” he says, “I want to grow the greens for all our sandwiches here.” This is how it seems to go at Harry & Ida’s. General plans have already been laid, but everything else is being figured out in the process. If it doesn’t work out, there are plenty of other projects waiting to be tackled. Like, for example, the fermentation lab.
“That’s our next big project,” Horowitz tells me, leading the way down to the basement where there is a tiny, child-size metal door attached to the back wall of the back room. As he crouches through he warns, “It smells pretty funky in here. We’re already making fish sauce.” The small room is lined with wire shelving, most of which is still empty. The fish sauce in question fills a large, clear bucket on a bottom shelf. It’s dark amber in color, and a drift of gray, decomposed fish sludge sits at the bottom. Next to it, more smoked oils are brewing, and a couple buckets of vegetables are fermenting. “I’ll do charcuterie over here,” Horowitz says, pointing to the shelves on the opposite side of the room, “and seafood here,” gesturing to a long stack of shelves in the middle. How does one ferment seafood? There’s that fish sauce, plus conservas like the cockles I tasted in the walk-in. Horowitz also plans to make dried squid, and cured, dried whole muscles like tuna loin. He’ll make bottarga, and try curing fish in ash. “Each culture only has one or two different ways of preserving fish,” he explains, “but I can do them all.”
Very little of this would be possible under DOH rules, which expect restaurants to keep their food either cold enough or hot enough to prevent bacteria from growing, not encourage it. Imagine the health inspector who finds a bucket of salted fish slowly decomposing at room temperature in a restaurant’s storeroom. But Harry & Ida’s has bigger goals than just sticking it to the DOH. Horowitz plans to take what he develops to research institutions like Penn State, which can help verify his methods for everything from fermenting to low-acid canning (where the risk of botulism is high). This will not only allow him to create products that he can actually package and sell, but also to document and share his methods with other chefs who might want to do the same. He’s also a partner in the juice company Juisi, so he just happens to have a whole factory near New Haven, which he imagines will be a good place for him and these chefs to package their projects. As he puts it, “We can be no different than a tech farm.”
How soon this will happen is up in the air, but Horowitz expects things will really be rolling a few months from now, some time between when he finishes the book he’s writing on traditional food preservation and when he harvests the acorns from the sidewalk tree out front.