Schmatzek's Delli

November 6, 2014




Frank Schmatzek has had one job his entire life, working behind the deli counter at Schmatzek’s Deli. He is now eighty-five and the recent documentary, Frank Smells Like Smoked Meat, examines his life, devoted to making sandwiches. The film, like the delli itself, is a long wait for a salty treat with a little bit of spice.

In New York City, pastrami is king, and smoked meat is its twin brother who has been locked away in a tower and forced to wear an iron mask. Frank, who has spent sixty-eight years in the business, will assure you that smoked meat is better. “You give it a name, pastrami,’ he says, spitting on syllables, “What is that?”

It turns out that it’s of Turkish origin and that it’s one of the earliest foods, but I had to google that information, something that Schmatzek—who still uses an ancient upright brass cash register—would not do. Perhaps the filmmakers clearly aren’t comfortable with Frank's possible xenophobia, so in a scripted reenactment, we see Schmatzek at age seventeen with his stickball buddies. Frank announces he has just taken a new job working at a delli. The scene, in black and white, the color palate of memory, plays out something like this:

“Hey Frankie! Be sure to save me some pastrami at your new job!” says a friend.

“You mean smoked meat?” asks Frank.

And they all laugh at him. “Go back to Canada!” one of them yells.

If you can survive this kind of schmaltz, you're on you’re way to at least tolerating Frank Smells Like Smoked Meat, but you’ve also got a long way to go. By the way, about that title, it’s not hyperbole. In an interview with the podcast Studio Cinematico, filmmaker Dan Roosevelt describes:

“He doesn't just smell like smoked meat after work. He smells like it after a shower. After he's put on cologne. He smells like smoked meat when he's on vacation. And I think, even if he was to walk away from the business, and if he lived another twenty years, he would still smell like smoked meat. There's a sincerity and authenticity to that, something that you can’t buy."

I am unclear as to why this is such a great thing. Throughout the film, there are the talking heads to bolster the predictable claims that Schmatzek is a rebel, a maverick, or at least a little bit nuts. Painter Chuck Close seems to remember sketching a painting there at some point in the 70s, but his story is not about the food, it’s about Schmatzek's intense curiosity as to what he was drawing.

"He keeps asking me if it's Lou Reed, and I keep telling him it's Phillip Glass, and he says, "No, the other Lou Reed.' So I said, " Writer Carlman Stack discusses the different ways that Schmatzek can slice a sandwich, with photo documentation. “Look at that bevel,” he says, “That's a Schmatzek bevel.” And the bassist of long-forgotten ice-rock band KANG to talk about how much he liked the sandwich he bought in 1996, amid so much profanity.

Throughout the film, Schmatzek talks about the honesty of smoked beef, how he can look at a cow, walking around, and imagine what it will taste like after it's been smoked for about forty hours. This kind of obsession and dedication is meant to be inspiring, but really, it's a bit worrying.

But the thing is, in the non-documentary side of things, I’m with Frank. Look, pastrami is a young man’s game, or at least a young stomach. If you can find a good cut of beef that's been smoked properly, then put it between two slices of decent bread, you’ve succeeded where others have failed. So I did what I promised myself I would never do: I ate at a restaurant whose quality and service may have been affected by the success of a documentary.

The checkered formica counter, black and white tiled floor, and the IOUs from the 1960s tacked to the wall are pleasing. There's the feeling that you've been there before, even if you haven't. The menu with three items (Roast Meat Sandwich $5, Pickle $1.50, Cold Soda $1) and no sign of bottled water anywhere—this might be the restaurant that you find in heaven. And it really does smell like smoked meat.

But the smoked meat itself, the stuff of films and of much impassioned discussion? It makes very little of an impression. Go back to Canada, Frank.


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