Manhattan is all about the bright lights, big city, and when it comes to restaurants – a ton of exclusivity. But born-and-bred here or not, one can always find a home at the all-day bistro Jack's Wife Freda, in Nolita and West Village. They've won over a cult following on Instagram, but those who've had the chance to dine in-person know that the success of Jack's Wife Freda isn't driven by the double tap – but the humbling warmth and soul that its owners, Maya and Dean Jankelowitz, manage to create for their diners every day. In our very first conversation At the Table, we chat with Maya about how she and Dean nurture that whole experience, their upcoming cookbook, and how her own culinary personality manifests itself within the realm of Jack’s Wife Freda.
Jack’s Wife Freda turns five in January. Is this what you envisioned back in 2012?
I can't believe that – it doesn’t feel like it’s been 5 years. It feels more like one really long day since we opened, and I don’t even know what we envisioned back then. It's been kind of like a big Broadway theater production ever since – you can have this sold out show that gets great reviews, but you have to repeat that same performance every day. So that's the way we feel every time we wake up each morning. Sometimes we do have a “pinch me” moment, where we take a step back to look at our two little restaurants – and that’s when we’re just in awe and can’t believe it. It feels like such a blessing and a miracle. But otherwise we're so in the moment, and we don’t take the busy-ness for granted. We still wake up every morning with a list of things we need to prioritize to make it even better.
Both locations of Jack's Wife Freda are undeniably cozy and homey – how did you create that energy?
When my husband and I go out to eat in the city, it can be really hard to get a table or to get someone to even look at you in some places. It’s those simple, human, basic things that matter – just doing those every day in our restaurants is what fills up the room with that warm energy. Every person that walks in – we want to look at them and make them feel welcome, and feel like it’s okay to be whoever they are. It’s like I’m having a big dinner party where I’ve invited my friends, and they’ve invited their friends, and there is a big mix of people in one room. Even though we are all different, I just want to make sure that everybody feels like we do share something in common – that we just want a space to sit and chill, and be ourselves.
What’s your favorite dish on the menu?
I love the French fries, and I also have the Mediterranean breakfast every morning. In Israel, that’s pretty much what every household has for breakfast – some eggs, chopped veggies, and some yogurt. It used to be our staff meal every morning, and they loved it so much – we realized it might as well be on the menu. It’s very simple, but it speaks to everyone.
Do you have a culinary muse?
Our chef consultant, Julia, has been with us since we opened – we did the cookbook together with her. She’s just great. When we were interviewing chefs, we found out it was a very ego-driven job. But Julia came along with absolutely no ego, and made it so seamless and easy, to take those menu items that we were dreaming of and simply bring them to life.
So how did the cookbook come about?
You know, we never really thought about doing one. The editors from Penguin have breakfast here every day because their offices are around the corner – and they came up with it. We decided to play around with the idea because we really love having fun with all the graphics and illustrations that go into our menus. And it was such a fun experience. There was all this talk about having to rent a kitchen studio for the food photography, but we just brought our photographer friends into the restaurant during the day, while we were open, and took all the pictures on the communal table. We really stayed true to who we are.
Is the whole menu featured?
Pretty much, plus a few extra recipes. There's a lot of nostalgia in it – we included some of our favorite foods from childhood and from dates that we used to go on in the city when we were younger. There are some items that were specials over the years that didn't last but were personal favorites. But each dish tells a part of our story – we like to call it our immigrants' love story. The introduction is my favorite part of the cookbook. It was written by a colleague of ours at the restaurant, and when we saw her write our story on twenty pages, we had such a "wow" moment where we saw all that has happened to us. It's the story of our grandparents, Jack and Freda, and of us being immigrants in New York City. I’m really happy it’s in the book. It was a moment where I got to step back and be a witness to my life, and it gave me this bit of inner peace.
How do you think your cookbook will
There are little technical how-to’s and tips throughout, in terms of making the dishes. But I think the cookbook and the recipes will also connect with readers on a deeper level because it really reads like a story – our story, of believing, and work ethic. We really came from nowhere and nothing, and we worked really hard to get here. I really believe anyone can get to wherever they want, so I think through the stories behind the recipes, the cookbook sends a little bit of that message – and I think that message is something that all of us humans need, of just believing.
How would you describe the tabletop aesthetic at Jack's Wife Freda?
We were always going for super simple and practical. When we opened the Lafayette location, we still had other jobs and barely had time to put the place together. So everything was done locally within a mile radius. We’d be running to the Bowery kitchen supplies stores and texting each other pictures of plates and silverware. Now we have a woman on the Bowery who knows what we like – so there’s a relationship there. But our wine carafes and steak knives come from a store in Paris and you can’t get them in America. So every time a server goes on vacation, we ask them to bring some back.
So the tableware is super simple - because it's just a café. I think the menus that double as placemats are everything. They’re always on the table. I just love them. They're paper, so we print them monthly and we play around with the illustrations at the design studio. They’re definitely part of the aesthetic of the room – those same illustrations are on the sugar packets, our matchboxes, our coasters, everything. That same aesthetic also translated into the cookbook so beautifully.
How would you describe your culinary lifestyle at home?
We have two little boys, and we live on top of Whole Foods, so we pop in there every day to get fresh ingredients to make dinner. We also love going out when we can. Part of our passion to open the restaurant was our love for the city, and all its cafés and restaurants. We love taking the boys out, but I’m not sure if they see the magic in restaurants the way we do. We see such magic in the fact that when you want a hamburger, someone will press a button that says "Hamburger" on a computer screen, and then minutes later, a hamburger on a plate leaves the kitchen doors for you. Because we know how much work goes into getting that plate to you. There’s so much work that goes into getting you that burger – including the guy who comes in from the Bronx at 5am to chop all the onions. It's a really long day of a lot of people involved to make that one burger.
And as for me and Dean – because we work all day and don't go out much at night, we do try to have lunch dates. We love going to restaurants in the neighborhood during the day.
Kitchen Snapshot - Maya Jankelowitz
Go-to homemade meal for guests: pasta Bolognese and a nice Greek salad.
Culinary quirk: after we bake our mini chipotle-chocolate flourless cakes, I love to snack on the bits that bake outside the rims, washed down with a tiny glass of milk from our manager, Patrick.
I can't live without: a garlic crusher - I put garlic in everything.
I never use: the box grater - it's too bulky to get out, so I always end up shredding stuff by hand!
Pre-order your Jack's Wife Freda Cookbook here.