Mark Ogus has come a long way from making salt beef with a rented fridge and smoking pastrami in his parents' garden. After founding Monty's Deli as a London sandwich stall in 2012, Ogus, along with chef Owen Barratt, has built a reputation for serving the best Reuben in town and recently opened the doors to his first restaurant. Taking over an old bakery in Hoxton, the bricks-and-mortar Monty's Deli still serves sandwiches and bagels, but has now added chopped liver, brisket, and latkes to its menu too.
"Jewish food is my childhood so there's a nostalgic element in every dish that we serve," says Ogus. "It means family, things made by hand, things made with care, and food that carries a historical weight. Every time we make challah or our salt beef in-house and it's made by hand, it's a continuation of history."
He gestures to the black-and-white tiled floor, hand-painted pickle sign, and fresh bagels strung up in the corner.
"Everyone remembers their salt beef story; their Jewish deli story. When we opened, people talked to me about places like Bloom's [a famous London kosher restaurant chain now closed], which holds significance in people's memories. That's why it's special doing a place like this and why it's important to put our own stamp on dishes."
Which is how I find myself on a Tuesday afternoon at Monty's for Shabbat dinner, the meal traditionally eaten on Friday evenings to celebrate the Sabbath (the Jewish day of rest.)
Well, kind of. Monty's will soon be serving a full Shabbat dinner on Friday nights, inspired by Ogus' childhood memories of enjoying the meal with his family. Today Barratt is showing me how they make one of the crucial elements: challah, a leavened bread similar in taste and texture to brioche. But before we start, Barratt has a confession.
"Developing dishes for Monty's was a steep learning curve for me because, while I'd been to New York and I love this kind of food, I didn't grow up with it like Mark did," Barratt explains, while bringing out a tray of dough. "A lot of it involves me having a go at making something Mark has described from a childhood memory. Fifty percent of the time, Mark will say, 'That's it.'"
Ogus chips in: "It's more than 50 percent of the time! He makes such accomplished chicken soup that in a blind taste test, you would think that it was made by an 89-year-old grandmother."
While Barratt flours a work surface and starts to shape short, fat rolls of dough, Ogus tells me about the memories that inspire the Shabbat dinner at Monty's.
"Growing up, it was the highlight of my week. My grandparents would come round for dinner and bring a copy of the Beano and Dandy for me and my brother and we'd eat whatever toffee bar was on the front," he remembers. "Prayers are said for the wine and the challah. Then, we'd tear bits off the challah and pass it around. They'd be chopped liver, chicken soup, roast chicken, and potatoes. It's a very family-focused meal that you would have in the home."
So, why serve it at a restaurant?
"I thought it would be fun to offer it here and give people the opportunity to experience it," explains Ogus. "We make all of the elements in house and offer them on the menu already. Like, Palwin No. 10 which is a Kiddush, blessed wine that's usually served at the start of a Shabbat dinner. It's not a fine wine (it tastes more like grape juice with an alcohol content), and is something I used snaffle a bit of when I was younger and wasn't allowed booze. But it's been one of the best selling drinks here already!"
I ask Barratt, who's now rolling the challah dough into longer strands that will be braided before baking, about the challenges of putting together a Shabbat dinner, having not grown up eating it.
"At the centre of the meal is roast chicken and I've roasted a few chickens in my time. One of the new things to me was chrain, which is a horseradish and beetroot condiment. That was one of my successes off the bat," he says with a smile. "The chopped liver we've been making for years. I take out the butter and put in schmaltz, which is the chicken fat skimmed from the top of chicken soup. I think it's actually the more traditional way of making it."
Barratt counts out six strands of dough and attaches them at the top so that the whole thing looks a bit like a dismembered, doughy octopus. He has another confession.
"The first challah I made was about a year and a half ago. It wasn't a great success," he admits. "I'd been playing around with it at home but was only when we got in here and met our brilliant baker, Amy, that it really became exceptional. She's finally taught me how to braid properly. You have to put everything out of your mind and trust your hands to do the right thing."
Brow furrowed in concentration, Barratt gets into the challah zone and expertly braids the dough.
"Patience and nerves of steel make the perfect challah," he says. "You need three days from start to finish to make a loaf. We use a natural ferment to leaven the loaf as well as yeast. And there are so many points at which it can go wrong."
I ask Ogus for his opinion on what makes a great challah.
Without skipping a beat, he replies: "Owen Barratt."
When a glossy-topped loaf baked earlier in the day makes an appearance, I conclude that Ogus is probably right.
Barratt sums up: "I don't have the family connection to Jewish food that Mark does but this is the kind of food I'm interested in. It's open and about doing something simple but in the best possible way. And it's also about what happens around the food."
Ogus agrees: "The food is simplistic by itself. You should just be able to eat some salt beef or pastrami on its own. You don't need all the bells and whistles. And above all, it's comfort, sustenance, family, and feeling full and content."
I'll raise a glass of Palwin's to that.