New York Food and the People Who Make It

James Nieves/The New York Time

James Nieves/The New York Time

by Sam Roberts

Ina Yalof’s initiation to the culinary arts was her father’s Bumble Bee salmon patties on Sunday nights and dinner at Wolfie’s or Junior’s coffee shops in Miami Beach. She never worked in a restaurant or wrote about recipes, but after marrying a New Yorker she became expert in one food-related subject: eating.

She applied three years of expertise as a journalist to compile an appetizing oral history titled “Food and the City: New York’s Professional Chefs, Restaurateurs, Line Cooks, Street Vendors and Purveyors Talk About What They Do and Why They Do It”(G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $28).

Ms. Yalof was inspired by wandering into a butcher shop on Amsterdam Avenue (after a vegan lunch) where Alan Tony Schatz regaled her with his biography (he was going to California to become a singer, but his father died and he returned to run the family’s Bronx meat market) and with his spiel about organic hypocrisy (“an organic chicken is out in the backyard and the chicken is grazing on pure organic grass, and a bird flies over the yard and poops on the grass. Is that grass still organic?”).

A good listener, Ms. Yalof parses this movable feast into its vital ingredients: the power of memory and of the media, of passion and perseverance, and of the vitality wrought by the continuing infusion from everyplace else.

Ms. Yalof talks with Mohamed Abouelenein, who runs the Halal Guys food cart on West 53rd Street and immigrated from Egypt with a doctorate in veterinary medicine, and introduces readers to Ghaya Oliveira, a former stockbroker who moved from Tunisia to care for her dying sister’s baby son and struggled to rise meteorically from a dishwasher to executive pastry chef at Daniel.

We meet Amy Rubenstein (wife of the public relations guru, Howard), who, with her sister Marilyn Spiera and niece Judy Storch, runs Peter Luger Steak House, which her father, a metalware manufacturer, wound up owning because he worked across the street and ate there every day and was the only buyer who showed up when the restaurant and its real estate were auctioned off in 1950. (Her mother, who had a master’s degree in music from Columbia, became a meat expert and handpicked all the beef until she was 80.)

Jeb Burke, Rupert Murdoch’s personal chef, reveals a regular white lie by the Fox News boss Roger Ailes (“He’ll call down and request a fried chicken sandwich or a hamburger, and he’ll say, ‘Jeb, if my wife calls, tell her I ate the fish today’”).

Lenny Berk, 85, recalls that he was a certified public accountant for 40 years before he sold his practice and became what Ms. Yalof describes as the last Jewish lox-slicer at Zabar’s.

“Some of my colleagues say, ‘Oh, I only have an hour to go and I’m off,’” Mr. Berk says. “I say, ‘I only have one hour to go, but thank God I’m coming back tomorrow.’”

Paulette Johnson isn’t concerned about her customers’ not coming back. An assistant city correction commissioner, a Jamaican, she oversees a 40,000-square-foot kitchen on Rikers Island, where most of the 47,000 meals served daily to city inmates and jail guards are prepared. On any given day, Ms. Johnson says, the inmates “probably eat much healthier than most people.”

As proof that they sometimes eat even better, Ms. Yalof includes the recipe for the commissary’s acclaimed carrot cake. It’s not worth the price of admission to Rikers, but might turn a profit if it were sold commercially off the island. Imagine the potential for a product made in a New York City jail and marketed as Just Desserts.

A version of this article appears in print on June 12, 2016, on page MB7 of the New York edition with the headline: Food People of New York.