Rebecca Minkoff RM Edit

He was a waiter, she a maître d’. Dean and Maya Jankelowitz met in Balthazar’s front-of-house, flirted over fire hydrant-side cigarettes on Crosby Street, and fell in love on the Fourth of July. That was nine years ago, and since then the restaurant romance has led to two children, now five and one-and-a-half, and one restaurant: Jack’s Wife Freda.

Jack’s Wife Freda Owners Dean and Maya Jankelowitz with their two kids. 

A bustling evening at Jacks Wife Freda

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, we met the casual-cool couple at their SoHo cafe to discuss food, love, and the love of food over a mug of steaming Stumptown coffee (served with a truffle) and a spicy bowl of Green Shakshuka (Maya’s favorite, $10).

Green Shakshuka, Maya’s favorite dish

So, your relationship began at Balthazar?

Maya: Yeah, I worked there since the late 90s, and the first day he worked at Balthazar he knew that I was the one. He told his sister and his father that he met his wife, and we had never even spoken yet. He used to just be very awkward … and clumsy.

At what point did you leave Balthazar and start your own restaurant?

Dean: We always used to dream about it. We knew we didn’t want to work the whole time, and all we knew was restaurant life was good, so it was kind of natural to open our own place. When I was at Balthazar, Schiller’s [Schiller’s Liquor Bar] was opening, so I went over there and worked for 8 years. And during that time we had one baby, then we had another baby, and then we opened this place.

You two obviously aren’t Jack and Freda, so where did the name come from?

Maya: That’s his grandparents. Freda was just a great host and cook, and we wanted to translate that kind of feeling in the restaurant.

Dean: Yeah, it’s about being very gracious and welcoming and entertaining and comical—all those good words that you think about when you’re relating to somebody that was loved not only as a grandmother but by a larger community.

Maya: And it sounds fun. It’s hard to remember, but once you remember, it’s hard to forget.

What was your vision for the menu? Were you heavily influenced by your international backgrounds? [Dean is South African, and Maya grew up near Tel Aviv, Israel.]

Maya: It’s a little bit from our backgrounds.

Dean: But it’s also from living and eating in New York and seeing when people go out what they like to eat and when we go out what we like to eat. My favorite dish is on the dinner menu, the Peri-Peri Chicken ($18). It’s insanely good. I eat it six times a week.

What is the best way to create a Valentine’s Day centered around food?

Dean: Just go to your favorite, most comfortable place. Don’t try too hard, especially on Valentine’s. I’ve worked so many Valentine’s Days and 90 percent of people try too hard. It should be the day you’re most comfortable and enjoying the love in the air, not trying to create the love in the air.

Maya: There’s that cliché of making every day a Valentine’s Day. Poor girl if she has to wait for Valentine’s Day. Or boy.

Dean: Yeah, to make it exceptional just really be loose and in love.

 

Credits: First photo courtesy of Dean and Maya Jankelowitz; second photo via immaculateinfatuation.com