By Vanessa Packer
Photography by Sasha Israel
CLAD IN JUNYA WANTANABE DENIM AND PLAID PANTS, leopard Celine espadrilles and a basic gray tee, Maya Jankelowitz greets us at the cafe she started with her husband Dean. The matriarch of Jack’s Wife Freda is as well-known for her quirky sense of style as she is for the friendly atmosphere and delicious food. The menu takes cues from her life growing up in Israel and her husband’s childhood in South Africa. The result? Approachable, unpretentious cafe fare at its finest. A credit to Jankelowitz’ many years spent working in Keith McNally’s famed hotspots, Jack’s Wife Freda has become a go-to in a neighborhood at the crossroads of Soho and Nolita, where artists, fashion darlings, and downtown families mix and mingle in comfort. Harking back to classic Parisian cafes with a nod to the ‘simple and nice’, the husband and wife Jankelowitz team have created what can best be described as a modern day Salon.
From where did the concept for Jack’s Wife Freda originate?
We never really talked about a concept per se, but we knew what we wanted the cafe to feel like, and we knew what we liked to eat. We really tried to bring it to life. It’s very scary because when you are building a place, you can do everything but control the energy once it is open. We are very happy with the vibe but it comes from knowing what we liked to feel when we dined at a restaurant.
What was that feeling?
I think that everybody has to feel comfortable when they go out. Feeling like you belong and it’s ok to be who you are. A lot of times you go to a restaurants, and you think, “Oh these types of people sit here, those types of people sit there.” We want everyone to feel accepted. Everyone from the rude people to the happy people, the young to the old, the somebody people to the nobody people can all mingle in the same space. It’s also important that the food is nice and fresh.
How do you like to eat?
We like to eat simple whole foods. We used to go to the same few places on a regular basis because we like how we feel when we are eating there, and after a few years we reached the point where we were just thought, “There is nothing for us to eat here anymore.” Simple and fresh is what we go for, something that showcases both our backgrounds, Israel and South Africa. Every single item on the menu is something we have been eating for a long time.
The Greek Kale Salad is one of my favorites. Kale is in demand right now. People love it, so we do a revisited version in a salad where we would normally do romaine or something more traditional.
Do you source a lot of local ingredients?
We work with purveyors, some provide local produce. The fish and the meat is local. Sometimes the vegetables are too, but it depends on how much they have and how busy we are.
Do you have a favorite dish?
It changes all the time. When I work the morning I love to order the Mediterranean breakfast. It was originally our staff meal, and until six months ago, wasn’t on the menu. It consists of eggs, salad, pita, labneh cheese and avocado. You get a taste of everything. The waiters were the ones that pushed us to put it on the menu and it does really well. Obviously, the shakshuka and the eggs with the grilled haloumi are big sellers but a lot of people order the Mediterranean breakfast. That’s my example of something simple. When the kids come here, they love the fries, the burger and the fish.
Were you born in Israel?
I was born in the US and moved to Israel when I was eight years old. I lived just outside of Tel Aviv before moving here when I was 21. I finished the army and came here with a ticket for three months. Now I have a restaurant and three boys.
Where did the name Jack’s Wife Freda come from?
Jack and Freda are Dean’s grandparents and we just loved it for the name of our restaurant. Everybody told us it was ridiculous. It just worked because I think it’s one of those names that is really hard to remember at first, but then you remember it and it’s hard to forget
When you were growing up in Israel, how did the food influence you?
The food in Israel is fresh even when you go to the equivalent of a crappy diner. Everywhere you go, you can get the salad and the Mediterranean breakfast. That’s why I made it a staff meal, it’s considered the cheap breakfast in Israel. The ingredients are fresh everywhere and you don’t have to source locally. Everything tastes the way its supposed to taste there, it’s really delicious. When I moved here, it was a little bit of a shock. I worked at Balthazar for twelve years and there is so much butter in French cooking. I love it,but eating it everyday I realized I don’t need all this to make something taste good. Basic flavors and healthy food was becoming a trend, but we’ve always like food like that. It’s nice to see that these ingredients are being welcomed, and that people appreciate the simple flavors.
What did you eat while you were serving in the army?
They would have a nice buffet in the morning with chopped salad, a pile of hard boiled eggs, a pile of cucumbers, a pile of tomatoes, a pile of cheese. It’s basic ingredients like vegetables and cheese and you just put it together.
What is a typical day like for you food wise?
The first year we opened the restaurant, I didn’t eat anything. I was stressed with the opening and I was so busy. Now that’s not the case. I’m more comfortable, I can eat and enjoy it. When I’m in the restaurant, I eat little bits of whatever I see. I try to sit down at the end of a shift, and have a real meal, but there is usually so much going on so it’s hard. Already this morning, I’ve have five pieces of challah bread that we get from Amy’s. I have a decaf Stumptown latte every morning with whole milk. I’m not fancy, we don’t even have soy milk here yet.
Do you cook at home with the family?
We have one day a week that we stay home. We shop at Whole Foods, and run into a lot of customers that think it’s so funny we are cooking. The other night we made fish, which the kids love, rice, snap peas and other vegetables and always a nice salad. On the weekends we make “eggy in the middle” and french toast for the kids. They love Schnitzel and mashed potatoes.
Jack’s Wife attracts a lot of downtown artists and influencers, why do you think that is?
Sometimes I have to pinch myself when I see how busy it gets. I think it get’s back to how people feel when they come in. I try to go around and acknowledge every person that sits at our restaurant. We never take it for granted and we make friends with so many of our customers. I feel like it’s a bonus that the food is nice.
How do you chose the artwork?
Dean would love that you brought that up. We actually have four more pieces getting framed at the moment. When we opened, one of the waitresses’ dads gave us a piece. She worked for Dean at Schillers, and when she left, she gave him a painting. He said, “One day, I’ll hang it in my restaurant.” The other piece is from a man who does drawings for the New Yorker, he was a bar regular. We met Curtis Kulig the day we opened, and he eats here three times a day now. He gave us the Love Me piece. Everything is personal. There is another pieces that a customer gave us, she runs a gallery. Also, there is an art studio around the corner, and the owner is a regular. They all keep introducing us to artists, and one leads to another, so now we are getting more pieces framed. It’s happened very naturally in that way.
How much thought did you put into the design?
We wanted to keep the space simple. We didn’t have an architect, we did it all ourselves. People love sitting in booths, so we wanted as many booths as we could fit. I gathered a lot of inspiration from Parisian cafes.
What’s with the gnome on the bar?
The gnome is from our rockstar waiter. We have a regular who lives upstairs and happened to hate the gnome, so one night he had a party and we left it in his bed. He never brought it back, so the rockstar waiter bought another gnome. Dean loves playing jokes on the customers. We don’t take ourselves so seriously.
What is your philosophy on keeping fit and well?
I walk to work, I used to do Pilates, but I’m on my feel all day and I don’t have as much time anymore. We try to eat healthy and our kids eat healthy. They love coming here and helping. We try not to overeat. But of course we indulge. Mentally, it’s an amazing learning process to open a restaurant. You learn so much about human relationships. I’ve learned how to keep my cool during a busy brunch. I’ve learned to not get frustrated. Alone time is important. I love taking walks in the city–no kids, no restaurant. Therapy always helps too.We also try to take trips, even getting away for four days energizes us.
Have you traveled to inspiring places recently?
The Round Hill in Jamaica. We rent a little house on the mountain. It’s private with a private pool. We have a new routine where we go to Paris every year without the kids. We stay in the Marais. It’s nice to be anonymous there. I hope to go back to Israel and to South Africa.
What do you indulge in?
Bread. I indulge twice a week. I eat whatever I want all day or I eat a lot of what I’m craving. If I separate the meals and have full meals, then I’m good. It’s only when I snack and peck all day that it’s bad.
How does Dean’s South African background influence the menu?
I think a little more then the Israeli. There are the Prego rolls, which are Portuguese sandwiches, and when South Africa was under Portuguese rule, Dean was a child, so that’s a comfort food from his childhood. Peri Peri is from Mozambique but it is also commonly found in South Africa.
Breakfast, lunch or dinner, what is your favorite mealtime here?
I love them all. They are all magical and I love the way it changes from morning to afternoon to evening. The lighting, the menu, we are open all day so sometimes people come in twice a day.
How do you balance keeping a healthy life with owning a restaurant?
The first year of the business is the hardest, but I had to give what the staff and the restaurant needed. Eventually, you find a rhythm and you become OCD with imaginary check lists in your head. Also, you learn to expect what the will happen the next day, which takes away a little bit of spontaneity because you know what you have to do the following day. The kids come first, and then the restaurant. Sometimes it feels like they are the same, but I can take the kids away on the weekend, I can’t take the restaurant.
For Maya’s Green Apple…