Oy vey! A shaygetz in the kitchen in Aspen | AspenTimes.com

Oy vey! A shaygetz in the kitchen in Aspen

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

Jim Paussa/paussa.comCarl Menyhert opened the Jewish-style deli, Oy Vey Caf, in Aspen earlier this month.

ASPEN – After Carl Menyhert found a suitable space in Aspen, he got what the Jews call shpilkes – nervous energy. Menyhert had the spot for his restaurant, but he still didn’t know what kind of place it would be, what kind of food he would serve.”After I signed the lease, I went and had a pint of beer to start thinking. And I couldn’t sleep for two nights, thinking, ‘This could be just right, or maybe that would be right,'” the 52-year-old said. “When it finally hit me – a Jewish deli! – it was like Moses parting the waters. Everything fell into place.”Maybe it shouldn’t have been such a struggle to arrive at the concept for the Oy Vey Caf, which Menyhert opened earlier this month, a new addition to Aspen’s restaurant row. Menyhert lived his teen years on New York’s Upper East Side, and landmarks of Manhattan Jewish life like H&H Bagels and the Carnegie Deli became part of his routine. In a cooking career that zig-zagged from a Texas bistro to a jazz club in the Poconos, from catering for private clients and rock bands to a health-food spot inside the Aspen Club, Menyhert had always dabbled in Jewish cooking, building a repertoire that included knishes, pastrami and lox. And Menyhert had a belief, akin to that of the stereotypical Jewish grandmother, in the transformative value of Jewish food. “It invokes contentment and conversation,” he said. “It’s a universal food. Even if people don’t know it, they can relate to it once they put it in their mouths. There’s nothing like turning someone onto a good matzo ball soup.”Perhaps if the idea of a Jewish-style deli didn’t come to him immediately, it is because of one small tidbit: Menyhert isn’t Jewish.”But my whole life, I’ve had that persona, people asking, ‘You’re Jewish, right?’ Especially when I went bald,” Menyhert, who has the Jewish traits of story-telling and loving to feed people, said. “When I catered, people would say, ‘Why don’t you open a Jewish deli? You do that so well; you know how to cook those meats.'”A childhood spent schlepping from France to Texas, Germany to Panama, thanks to his father’s career in the military, gave Menyhert a love of food and cooking. “I liked how food brought people together. And I saw how different cultures use garlic, or how they assimilate wine,” he said.But it was his high school years on the Upper East Side that indoctrinated Menyhert into Jewish traditions. As a teenager, he worked as a tutor; all of his students were Jewish. He also worked for the family of a prominent rabbi, and occasionally found himself preparing the meal for the Passover Seder. For birthdays and holidays, instead of gift-wrapping presents, he would cook, experimenting with recipes for knishes and rugelach. Spots like Zabar’s, across town, filled him with a special feeling.”You go into a restaurant, you smell apples or wine. You go into a Jewish deli, you smell pickles, the meats roasting – the whole atmosphere puts a smile on your face,” he said. “If you saved up the money mom gave you for two days, you could buy a knish.”College pulled Menyhert away from Manhattan, all the way to Texas A&M University. While studying geology, Menyhert took a job at the Backstage – “a bistro, when everyone else was doing barbecue and chicken fried steak,” he said. “I just wanted to learn the basics of restaurants, like how do you know how many burgers to make each day? It was a mind game for me.”After Texas, Menyhert bounced from one cooking gig to the next. He catered for rock stars in the Poconos, in Pennsylvania; he opened an organic juice bar in New York’s trendy W Hotel; he established an eclectic, country-style eatery, Kingston Cooks, in upstate New York, where the menu was created anew each day on a blackboard. In Aspen, he was employed as a private chef by one Jewish family, then another.After all those jobs, Menyhert considers Oy Vey Caf to be an emphatic arrival. “All of that history led to a culmination. It seemed like destiny,” he said. The Oy Vey menu features the Jewish deli standards: New York-worthy pastrami and corned beef cooked in-house, whitefish salad, potato pancakes. (Menyhert is closing in on perfecting a pickle recipe; cheesecake is turning out to be a longer-term project.) Breakfast is given proper attention: bagels flown in from H&H, four varieties of smoked salmon, Challah French toast. The dcor is appropriately kitschy: a purple-and-green color scheme, memorabilia from his past chef projects, a list of Yiddish phrases posted at the entrance to the kitchen.Menyhert hasn’t given up on the idea that he might, in fact, be Jewish. His heritage is Hungarian-German, and he knows that the family name was altered at some point in the past. And if he isn’t Jewish, at least he’s got the recipes.”I’m spoiled. I know what good Jewish food tastes like,” he said. He ends with a line that could have worked on the Borscht Belt comedy circuit: “Before I convert, I wanted to make sure I could make the food.”stewart@aspentimes.com