In the bustling lunch rush at Jack’s Wife Freda, Maya Jankelowitz is a calm, brilliant presence. Even as the Carmine Street restaurant began to fill up, with Maya there sipping Moroccan mint teas with us, the restaurant maintains a cozy, comfortable feeling of being over at a friend’s house for dinner. And that’s exactly what Maya and Dean have been accomplishing with Jack’s Wife Freda since 2012 – a restaurant that’s simple, delicious, and welcoming to everyone. We got to catch up with Maya on the story behind the restaurant, how she keeps her effortless cool, and how to make the classic Jack’s Wife Freda spicy beet dip.
Steven Alan: I know you from your Balthazar days, so let’s start there: what was the impetus leaving Balthazar, and how did you get the confidence to leave and start your own thing? What was that early process like?
Maya: My husband Dean and I worked there for almost 12 or 13 years. It takes a lot of stamina to work in a restaurant. I think we were always believers and dreamers, and meeting all these people at Balthazar and getting to see artists and other creative people just gave me faith and hope that I could do something myself.
SA: How old were you when you came to New York?
M: I came when I was 21. I was fresh off the boat, very naive and excited, and I loved working in the restaurant business. It always feels like you’re hosting a big dinner party with your friends – you get to put all these people together and make sure that everybody’s having a good time. And I always got pleasure from that.
SA: What were some of the challenges you faced at first and now, five years later, how have these challenges changed?
M: In life, everything’s changing all the time. When you’re younger, you don’t realize that things are going to keep changing. Every day a crisis will happen and we’ll go through it very calmly. I always remember that five years ago this would have been a panic attack, a really big fight. But when we’re dealing with things now, we know that everything will eventually work out. Having all the stress and the panics and the crises at the beginning – if we didn’t respond to them so strongly, I don’t think I would have learned how to get to the calmer place we’re in now.
Dean and I were doing everything by ourselves at the beginning – we only had the help of a small group of people when we were first starting out. I still remember doing literally everything – I was involved with every single part of the restaurant. I’ve even served tables with a baby strapped to my chest. But slowly, as more and more people responded to how we work, our team has taken on the things I used to have to do myself. I used to be near tears doing everything, and finally all this stuff started to happen. I think that’s the natural place to start – you really have to do it all, on your own, or else no one’s going to learn to do it the way you want things to be done.
A lot of people like to assume that it’s easy from the beginning, and it wasn’t – it was really hard. And I think it’s important to have the same energy now that you once had in the beginning when you were standing in an empty restaurant. That’s really important.
SA: Is there a dish that shined in the beginning and has continued to bring people in to this day?
M: People have always loved the Green Shakshuka. It was written up by The Infatuation - it was very emotional when that happened. I did see a reaction to those things, where people would say, “Oh, we saw this dish in Time Out” – and it truly helped that the Shakshuka was in all of the places it could be.
A lot of our dishes are the kind of dishes that people love to say, “oh, we can make this at home.” I love that. It’s great to have a cafe where you can sit and have something simple every day. It’s really not a special occasion place, but it can be.
SA: What do you hope someone dining at your restaurant gets out of the experience?
M: I think what we try to do, even if it’s full or hard to get in, is to make sure that people feel like it’s okay to be themselves and relax. You can come in with your parents, on a date, by yourself, and you can do whatever you want. We teach the staff not to judge anyone – we’re all really subjected to judgment these days. You can come in, you don’t feel like you have to order a three-course meal – you can just be.
Spiced Beet Dip
Yields 2-3 cups.
1.5 pounds beets (roughly 3 medium beets)
8 garlic cloves
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup tahini
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon za'atar
2 tablespoons crumbled feta
Pita, for serving
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Peel the beets and cut into quarters. In a small bowl, toss with the garlic and 2 tablespoons olive oil and place in a baking dish. Cover with aluminum foil and roast for 30 minutes. The beets will be very tender when a small knife is inserted in the middle (be sure to test out a few larger pieces); if the beets are not easily pierced, roast for an additional 10 to 15 minutes and test again.
2. Once the beets and garlic cool slightly, place them in a food processor and process until combined. Add the tahini, lemon juice, and salt and blend again, scraping any bits off the sides. Process again, pouring the remaining 1/4 cup olive oil in a slow stream into the food processor while the mixture is blending. Once all the ingredients are added, process for 3 minutes or until the mixture is very smooth. Transfer to a plate for serving or into a container and refrigerate.
3. To serve, sprinkle za'atar over the dip, add the crumbled feta cheese on top, and finish with a hefty splash of extra-virgin olive oil. Serve with pita for dipping.
Maya and Dean Jankelowitz have collected their experiences and recipes in the new Jack’s Wife Freda cookbook. Learn more about the book here.
Photos by Heather Sten