Russ & Daughters is my idea of brunch in New York City. One of the greatest pleasures in life is going down to the Lower East Side early on a Sunday morning to pick up an assortment of smoked fish and bagels from this world-famous appetizing shop and New York City icon. I’m not talking about just any bagels and lox here. I’m talking about a full spread including caviar, wild western nova, sturgeon and sable. It’s the ultimate in quality and standard by which I judge everything else.
But you don’t become legendary overnight. Russ & Daughters is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year with a new restaurant and forthcoming PBS documentary chronicling the family’s legacy. Josh Russ Tupper is fourth-generation co-owner of this cultural landmark. He sat down with me to talk about his new venture, the Zen of slicing, and chemical engineering degrees.
Nick Santora: I assumed you spent your life in the store, but you grew up on an ashram? What was that like?
Josh Russ Tupper: A bunch of hippies. It was unique in the sense that I was exposed to Hindu culture, Buddhist culture, American Indians. I did yoga from the time I was two or something. It wasn’t so structured, so it allowed people to explore their spirituality any way they wanted to. There was a guru, an Indian dude. A lot of people from the city moved up there to get away from their upper middle class structured lives. I have two sisters. One older and one younger. They were born on the ashram. I was born in the hospital. We’re all OK. It’s still there [the ashram] for yoga retreats, music, and other cool things happening. It’s nice. A lot of people I meet are like, ‘Yeah I’ve been there.’ I go back once in a while.
Tell me about your new restaurant. I’ve heard the announcements but really haven’t seen many details.
There hasn’t been a lot of info released. We don’t have an exact date but we hope the end of April. We’re still finishing up construction and some permits and inspections, but it’s getting there. People constantly ask when we’re opening and I don’t know for sure. Things get delayed like any other restaurant project. It’s all happening.
How long have you been planning this project?
A long time. We’ve been looking for spaces for a couple years. My cousin and I own and run the business now since 2010 and what’s the next step? We could have the store and chill out and it’s fine, but what about opening a place for people to sit down and enjoy their salmon and have our experience in a sit-down environment? It is a logical next step.
My cousin and I both came to the conclusion that we had to stay in the neighborhood and make the restaurant there. For one, we can be at both places at almost the same time. It’s just a couple minutes walk. It also solidifies our presence in the neighborhood where our great-grandfather started with a pushcart. He started on Orchard Street. We’re opening the restaurant a block or two down from where he was hanging out with his pushcart.
I assume you’re doing the sandwiches, but what else can we expect to see at the new place?
Breakfast, lunch and dinner. Same menu but we’re expanding a little bit. The caviar service is cool. There will be a full bar. You can sit down and order fifty grams of caviar with champagne. We’re not trying to get crazy. We know fish. We’ll have chopped liver like the store. Eggs. Salads. Mostly like a dairy restaurant, but with chopped liver.
Our cocktail program is going to be pretty awesome. I have a friend Yana Volfson, who is the Beverage Director at Freeman’s and she’s developing cocktails and a Bloody Mary program, along with champagne. We’re trying to stick to what we know. Eggs doesn’t sound too crazy, but it’s a bit of an expansion, so we have chefs working it out. The tastings were fantastic.
How many seats?
Around sixty-five. Some seats at the bar. Some high-tops. With the whole design and build process, I worked with some guys I’ve known for a while. It’s going to be very interesting. My cousin and I were very involved in how it should look. It’s coming together. We didn’t want to duplicate the store, but it’s taking a lot of elements from the store and creating something a little different. We want it [the restaurant] to feel the same. When you walk into Russ & Daughters you get a sense of history and friendliness.
How do you evolve without changing?
That’s the biggest challenge. Our customers want consistency and want everything to be the same as it always it. We have a hard time hiring someone new behind the counter. Some people will come in and say, ‘Who are you? You’re not cutting my fish. I’ll wait for the other guy.’ With doing a different thing, it’s one thing we have to consider. How do we maintain the experience from the store in a completely different environment? It’s challenging. We’re training the staff and management to understand how we want to represent ourselves and our food. Everything. The beverage program too.
The look will have some references to the store. Along with the customer service and experience when you go in. We’re trying to bring the same sense of old world meets new world. We’re a super old place but we don’t want to look old. That’s why everything is spotless, shines, and looks new. You got all these people building restaurants and bars now aging their mirrors to make it look old. I know it’s not old. They just opened.
Did you see Jiro Dreams Of Sushi?
That movie made me want to open a place with just a little bar and ten seats. I would just sit back there slicing fish and making delicious bites like a sushi bar. That’s not going to happen, but something similar to that; the care of making an egg. We’re going have very good eggs. Attention to detail in everything we do is very important.
I assume slicing is extremely important?
Slicing is an art. Slicing is not easy. We have employees that have been here over thirty five years slicing. You learn the look of the fish, the feel of the fish, the feel of the knife… I’ve been training people how to slice a lot lately. I have to train them to not rely on their eyes. They have to rely on their other senses, like the feel of the salmon. You’re slicing the salmon with this long knife and if you look at one side of the fish, you’ll fuck up the other side. It’s about the thinness and consistency of the slice. I keep getting asked, ‘Where should I look when I slice?’ and I say, don’t look anywhere.
It’s like when you’re driving. You’re not looking at the lines in the road. You see everything. It’s beautiful when you figure out how to slice. It takes people three months sometimes. It took me a little bit less. It’s Zen. It’s a meditation. Once you get the feel for it, it’s relaxing in a way. There may be a customer yelling at you that you’re not doing it right or they don’t want that slice, but it’s still a good experience. We have challenging customers. Your wife is one of them. My grandma too. One of “The Daughters.” She’s down in Florida and she’ll order something and I’ll hear about it. She’s like, ‘Who cut my fish?!’ I did, Grandma.
I’ve been expanding my horizons from the salmon to sturgeon and sable. What’s up with those fishes?
You know miso cod? That’s actually sable. Sable is black cod. Sable is smoked, but not hot smoked, so it’s crumbly. It’s super moist, oily and rich. Smoked with paprika and garlic and has that red coating. It’s delicious, very rich. Sturgeon is also rich, but milder. People describe it as meaty or like turkey. It’s delicious. Sturgeon is the fish caviar comes from. The old school sturgeon we sold in the store was lake sturgeon, which isn’t the exact species caviar comes from. Caviar comes from Caspian Sea sturgeon or from rivers. There is saltwater and freshwater sturgeon. Sturgeon can be big too. Up to 2,000 pounds. In my opinion, sturgeon should be eaten with butter on a bagel, or rye bread, or pumpernickel. Toasted with a little butter. Awesome.
What should I know about caviar?
Caviar is roe from sturgeon. Then there’s salmon roe, trout roe, whitefish roe. Those are roe’s but people call them caviar. Basically, caviar is the more expensive stuff, often black, sometimes grey and more refined.
What’s the deal with people dropping those herrings into their mouth head first? I’ve only really seen the stuff in the cream sauce and I’m not sure I’m into that.
The herring in the cream sauce is pickled herring, which is interesting. It’s pickled in vinegar. The Holland herring is just cured in very little salt, it’s almost like raw sushi. It’s buttery, super soft, and delicious. You can eat it straight or a lot of times they do it with chopped onion and cornichon. You can put it on a challah bun.
You’ll have this stuff at the new place?
The Holland herring has its season in June and July. So we will have specials for the Holland herring. We have it at the store all year round, but that’s the peak and it’s spectacular.
Oh man. There’s so I much I still haven’t tried. What am I missing on the salmon front? I’ve had Scottish, gravlax and my favorite might be the pastrami…
There’s Irish. Western Nova is the one wild fish we have. It’s a softer texture. It’s a richer flavor. It’s different depending on the fish and where on the fish. It’s my favorite one. The color is how much krill they eat. They take on the color of their diet. The fattiness is sort of random.
So if you didn’t grow up in the store, when did you learn about the business?
I started eleven years ago on the counter. I grew up on the Ashram and then rebelled and got a chemical engineering degree.
How did you end up at Russ & Daughters if you’re a chemical engineer?
I was in the Pacific Northwest as an engineer with semi-conductors and I heard that my uncle was looking to figure out his retirement. There was a possibility that he would sell the business. I started talking to him. “Look, you shouldn’t sell the business. You should keep it in the family.” I didn’t even know what I was talking about at that point. I was just like, “I feel strongly about this and I will leave my career to come back and figure it out.” Over the course of a couple months I pleaded my case. His story was he wanted his daughter to get into the business and just realized she wasn’t going to do it. I called at that exact same moment, so he was like, ‘Fine. Come back.’ I came back and learned everything from the ground up. I figured out how to slice and do everything else. Niki did end up coming back to the business after all (of her own volition), to fulfill her duty as a Russ. It worked.