Friday, August 26, 2016

Better Bets by Rhonda Erb

At lunch with Paul Neuman: A New York Food Story

Paul Neuman

Paul Neuman sits in a reception area of the new, Long Island City facility that houses his catering company, Neuman’s Kitchen. He is enjoying a Miso Glazed Cod entrée prepared in his kitchen. “This is the first time I’ve had it, it’s Alaskan cod, it’s very light,” he says, picking at the beautifully presented plate in front of him.

Neuman moved his catering business to its latest location earlier this year, but his family’s history in the New York City food scene dates back several generations to the early 1900’s.

Photo: Tanya Blum

“The first relative that I can trace back to the food business is Sandel Lowenthal. He was a chef at the Merchant’s Club, which was a club in the Wall Street area, for people in business. He then owned and ran some restaurants, including one in Harlem called The Auditorium; I think it might have even been a hotel. I think that eventually he went out of business and died right around 1941. My grandfather, who was his son in law, Cornelius Neuman, started the Rosedale Fish Market in 1906. He bought an existing fish market, on Lexington Avenue, from someone named Moe Goodman called the Sea Bright fish market, and renamed it the Rosedale Fish Market.”

Mini fried artichokes with Champagne aioli
Photo Jen May
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The Rosedale Fish market was one of countless fish markets in New York in the early twentieth century. Neuman’s grandfather ran it until 1937, when he passed away, leaving his widow to run it with the assistance of her teenage son, Neuman’s father, Robert.

“One of My Grandfather’s mantras was that no one would ever be able to run the fish market like he could, so my Dad spent his entire life disproving his claim. He started working in the market as a teenager and never went to college…Dad went off to war in August of ‘42, when he was 22. He faked his hearing test, he was deaf in one ear, and got himself into the Marines, he served two tours until 1945.  I don’t know much about his service except that he was injured in an accident on a garbage truck and earned a Purple Heart. It sits on my bedside table right next to where I sleep.”

After the Marines, Neuman’s father returned to run the family fish market with his mother. At that time, fish markets still dotted the Manhattan landscape at approximately five block intervals. “ My grandmother signed the business over to him in 1951, it was located at 1132 Lexington Avenue.”

Photo Jen May

By 1965, the number of fish markets in the city had started to dwindle rapidly and the landlord for The Rosedale Fish Market informed Neuman’s father that he would not be renewing the lease on the market when it expired in two years. Times had changed and the landlord no longer wanted a fish market in his building. In a strategic move to save his business, Neuman’s father bought the building across the street at 1129 Lexington, which housed a competing fish market, and did a complete gut renovation creating a beautiful new retail space for his fish business.

After relocating across the street, Neuman’s father still had some time left on his old lease and was offered an interesting business proposition.

“At this time, there’s William Pole, William Greenberg and my dad and a bunch of butchers, but you had very little prepared food in New York City. This Frenchman approached my father and said he would like to take his old store and turn it into a French charcuterie and my dad agreed. So my dad goes in partnership with this French chef and they open a store called Chez Daniel, and Chez Daniel is almost my father’s ruin because the chef is dishonest and has substance abuse issues and the place is bleeding my father dry at the time that he is just paying off the debts after having moved across the street. So my father is a wreck, he has essentially a nervous breakdown and can’t get out of bed for I don’t know how long. He was basically incapacitated”

However, Neuman’s father did finally get back on his feet in time to save his business. He shut down Chez Daniel and concentrated on the business he knew best: The Rosedale Fish Market, and as Neuman says, “The rest is history.”

“My father basically outworked and outperformed everybody else. Fish markets started to close in the sixties and seventies. The neighborhoods couldn’t support 30 fish markets, so it went from 30, to 25 to 15. Finally, it was down to about 3 fish markets and he was one of the survivors.”

Roasted Kabucha Squash Soup
Photo Jen May

While Neuman has some recollection of his father’s struggles to save his business, he describes himself as having been blissfully ignorant of what a career path in the food industry would be.  In the seventies he enrolled at Alfred University in upstate New York, to study ceramics and glass.

“I wanted to be an artist, I was in the Ceramics and Glass program at Alfred University, I graduated in 1977. Actually the stained glass window you see out there (gestures toward the building’s entryway), I made to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the fish market. I went to work for dad, just to sort of earn a little bit of money and then I discovered that I loved to cook.  Now, I cooked as a kid and I had always made food for myself and in college, my apartment sort of turned out to be the social nexus of the art school. When I graduated from college, Dad flew up with clams and steamers and we had a clambake for about 300 people in our back yard. So the seeds were sown for me cooking for large numbers of people, I just didn’t know it.”

Deconstructed Caesar Salad in Rice Paper Pocket
Photo Jen May

After graduation, Neuman had a studio in Brooklyn, dividing his time between his work in the fish market and trying to make it as an artist. While in the Hamptons one summer, he experienced a culinary epiphany at the Amagansett Farmer’s Market.

“There is a mussel salad there that’s made with mustard with vinaigrette, pimentos and parsley and I look at the salad and the mussels are plump and gorgeous and say: I can make that. Monday I go back and I take some mussels, I cook them up, I make some mustard vinaigrette, I put pimentos and parsley on it and it starts to sell. Now up to that time we had made Manhattan Clam Chowder, Cod fish cakes, deviled crab, Coquilles St. Jacques, and we made halibut and salmon salad and I think that was about the extent of the cooking, so Dad realized early on that there was more money in scraps than in selling fish. So in other words, if you could take salmon pieces and turn them into salmon salad then you could change your yield. If you could take all of the pieces that no one wanted to buy, cook them up and sell them, then this was the best thing that you could do.”

Poached Halibut with Heirloom Beans
Photo: Jen May

Neuman’s father had figured out that there was a lot of money in prepared foods and from his experience with Chez Daniel, he knew that there was a lot of money in prepared salads.

"He gave me room to play,” says Neuman, “but he didn’t really want me pushing him out of his own business. The fish market was his theater, his battleship, you know whatever analogy you want to use, and he used them all. It was his playground and he was in control. Citerella was a major competitor at the time and it eventually became this amazing business with prepared foods. Dad didn’t have the patience or inclination to do that, so when I left to start Neuman and Bogdanoff, he was more than happy to have me leave. It wasn’t as if he was pining for the next generation to take over, he was just happy to have us out of his hair. He just wanted to sell fish. He was frozen in time”

The Rosedale Fish market closed in 2003, two years after Robert Neuman’s death in September 2001. Paul Neuman started Neuman and Bogdonoff, a retail store on the upper East Side, in 1981 at 1385 Third Avenue, selling gourmet prepared foods (Neuman would eventually leave retailing in 1996 to concentrate on catering). Bogdanoff is the name of his ex-wife and former partner, a classically trained chef and a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America whom he met in 1979. He describes her as being grounded in the culinary arts while he was essentially “a fish guy.”

It (the early eighties) was an exciting time for food and foodies in New York. We had The Silver Palette, Dean and Deluca, Citerella, and Word of Mouth. Sun dried tomatoes came in and sun dried tomatoes were enormous, it was like kale on steroids. Whatever kale has become, sundried tomatoes were. They came in these 2 kilo jars and it was just tremendous. We were constantly looking for what people wanted.”

Neuman was introduced to catering in the seventies, while still working for his father. He originally worked with an experienced caterer named Susan Holland. At that time he and Susan would go to someone’s home and cook dinner for them. He relates the story of his first experience cooking alone in the home of a famous TV producer around 1979.  The client wanted rack of lamb which Neuman had never cooked before:

I read in a cookbook how to make it, I didn’t test it or anything. I just show up at her apartment with my vichyssoise and my racks of lamb and whatever the vegetables were. I have my instant meat thermometer and I throw the racks of lamb in the oven. Later, I test the temperature of the lamb with my meat thermometer. The temperature is 140 degrees, where it should be. I pull out the racks of lamb and I go to the carve them and they are raw. It is now time to serve dinner. It’s a seated dinner, one of the guests is Walter Cronkite, and I look up and say just get me out of this mess. I throw the racks back in the oven, I turn it up to 500 degrees or whatever the maximum temperature is, and the (client’s) server is standing there watching it all happen. She can tell I am in deep mud. Fast forward, I give it as much time as I can and I serve them beyond rare, rare would be generous. Needless to say, I never got a call back and I promised that I would never cater again.”

Luckily, Neuman did not keep that promise, but he learned a lot of valuable lessons from that experience that he remembers to this day. “You learn to limit risk and you don’t promise anything that you don’t have complete control of. Never leave too many variables to chance… A good sized cocktail party for us is 800 to 1000 people so the logistics are what are you serving, how to make sure every corner of the room gets served and serving from multiple kitchens with each kitchen delivering different food.”

Neuman’s Kitchen works primarily in New York City throughout the year, but they are gradually expanding their reach out to the Hamptons and New Jersey. “One of our initiatives is to have a larger footprint out there.”

When asked about food trends he has noticed, Neuman mentions their current obsession with inverting sweet and savory. Their kitchen makes a palm sized dessert, that looks like a small hamburger.

“Being playful is very important to our relationship to food and our relationship to the client. We try not to take ourselves too seriously. We want to make food that gets your attention. It’s not overly trendy, it’s not pretentious and it’s not gratuitously anything. It’s not trying to be something it’s not. It’s true to our food, true to our beliefs and true to our presentation.  Pushing ourselves and pushing you a little bit. We want to be mindful of where food is going.

Neuman is currently delighting in his newfound ability to entertain current and prospective clients in the spacious, new, state of the art location of Neuman’s Kitchen.

“We spent so long in a tiny space, overcoming obstacles and never really inviting many people there, because it didn’t show that well (prior to the move, they were located on Chrystie Street). There’s a lot we plan to do with these rooms.”

Not bad for a city kid who calls himself “a fish guy”.

Neuman’s Kitchen Miso Glazed Cod

8 Servings


8 (5oz) pieces black cod

For the Marinade:

4 tsp Yuzu juice

½ cup Sake

½ cup Mirin

6 Tbsp White (or yellow) soybean paste

4 Tbsp Granulated sugar

Instructions:Simmer sake for 2 minutes in a small pot. Whisk in mirin, soybean paste, and sugar. Simmer for an additional 4 minutes, making sure to not allow the sugar to burn. Allow to cool. Once cool whisk in yuzu juice. Marinate fish for 2 hours.

Cook under the broiler for 3 minutes. The outside of the fish should be nicely caramelized.

- Rhonda Erb
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