Monty's Deli: Jewish soul food

Mark Ogus, founder of the Bermondsey street food stall, on making the move to become a bustling East End eatery


We started out as a market stall and became very popular very quickly. I ended up having to smoke some of the pastrami in my parents' back garden because it was the only space I could get – my mum helped me put chunks of brisket into the smoker. It gradually got more popular and then we were part of a TV show with Tom Kerridge, where he came to the stall and had a Reuben Special. After that it exploded. I took a slightly bigger spot on the market and had queues out the door. I couldn't keep up because it was just me doing everything from the music to the signage to the slicing and taking the money.

After it became so busy, I was lucky enough to meet Owen, who was working as a chef, through a mutual friend. Straight away, he was able to make the sandwiches exactly as I like to have them made, which had been my fear because we'd built up a reputation, but he was a natural, so we rolled on from there. Owen started baking bagels, babkas, we were able to do so many more things, we had a team of staff, and although they were friends, it was all done officially. We had a proper till system and that's what Owen brought to the business – not just cooking expertise, but a certain element of professionalism that might have been lacking in the previous years. My thing was more that I wanted to get the salt beef and pastrami absolutely right and design how it looked, sounded and felt.

We were there for a couple of years, always with an eye to finding a spot inside. It took a long time to find a site and then I was sent a photo of the insignia on the wall tiles. Owen had gone to see it and said it was great. From seeing that photo I didn't care what the rest of it was like, I wanted it. We had been looking for a place with a connection to traditions and history and this had been a family business. We wanted to have that element as part of what you see, to feel established, not some brand spanking new glass place.

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I have always loved Jewish delis and the London food scene has changed so much over the past 10-15 years, but with this kind of food, there's still a kind of stiff upper lip – small portions of overly salty dry meat, poor service and a generally dour experience. When I've been in the States, the experience has been so different – everything is laid out before you, it's bustling but relaxing and calm at the same time. And there's so many elements of that dining experience that were lacking here. One of the things I found when I started was that most of places that sell salt beef in the UK get it from one company, so it seemed to me that there was a space for something more homemade. The whole idea of this kind of food in my mind is that it comes from traditions and families and people eating together, so that effort has to go into making the food to make it worthwhile – that's where Monty's Deli comes in. The American influences are in the presentation of the food and style of service. But I see it as a British restaurant –some of the signage is in a classic Victorian style and a Monty Python style too. It's a melange of US influences and British eccentricities, humour and style.

I taught myself how to make the meat. I bought a smoker and played around with making pastrami. I experimented with rubs, cooking times, temperatures, holding times. Whether you're interested in making pastrami, learning the guitar, or whatever, if you're motivated enough, you can teach yourself. Once you learn the basics, you can then try and make it the best you can – a combination of a bit of arrogance and motivation.

We make pretty much everything here, from the bagels, rugelach, macaroons and challah to the salt beef, pastrami, smoked turkey and chicken, latkes, our house pickles, mustard and condiments. We think it's important because if you're not involved in the manufacture of those things, you can't claim credit for them or control quality. The sandwiches are hand-carved to order, which takes longer, but is important because it's a much better sandwich. Everything is handmade and that's one of the core values of the business. It's part of the experience – to offer it to you from our house.

We have three eat-in menus; brunch, all day and dinner. People can always come and get our sandwiches at any time. But we also have a broader range as well; we do a whole baked trout on a cedar board that comes with a watercress and pickled radish salad and a caper and dill mayonnaise and we do a smoked chicken that comes with house mixed pickles and coleslaw. For weekend brunch, we have three specials – salt beef hash, challah French toast and scrambled eggs and lox. On Fridays, we also do a Shabbat dinner: a nice sprawling meal that starts with challah rolls, which we make, with chopped liver and Kiddush wine, the blessing wine – not serious wine, but nice and part of the experience. It's followed by a tureen of soup with matzah balls served from the middle of the table and then a whole roast chicken with roast potatoes and house mustard, followed by a lokshen [baked noodle pudding].

Growing up, one of my main food memories was the Shabbat dinner every week – we'd go to my grandparents or they'd come to us and it was always the same. If my gran made a leek and potato soup, my brother would always insist on chicken soup, and she'd always have one in the freezer. It was a really nice time you knew was happening at the end of the week to catch up with everybody and there was a comfort and a beauty in that simple meal. Eating as a family is always important and that's what I want for people here. Something about this style of food brings together all sorts of different demographics. It's so nice when the kids are there as well. I want it to be a great neighbourhood place where everyone can come. We don't have customer Wi-Fi because I want people to be sitting around tables engaging with each other, I don't want a load of people with laptops doing work. I think eating should be communal, plentiful, nourishing, comforting, and enjoyable.

MARK OGUS is co-founder of Monty's Deli, with Owen Barratt. The deli named after Ogus's grandfather is on London's Hoxton Street;

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