King of schmaltz

At General Muir, Ginsberg elevates traditional Jewish cooking to superstar status


Schmaltz is simply rendered chicken fat. You may save and freeze uncooked chicken skin until ready to use; ask a butcher or farmer to save it for you; or buy fresh chicken and pull it off yourself. Chicken thighs work well; a whole bird is even better because it has all the fleshy skin around the neck. You should be able to get about a cup of schmaltz from a large chicken. Chop the skin into small pieces; the finer the chop, the quicker it will cook. (It’s easier to cut if it’s frozen or partly frozen.) You can use chopped onion, garlic or even paprika to season the schmaltz if you like, although chef Todd Ginsberg’s chopped liver calls for plain schmaltz. Place chopped skin in a pot, add just a little water to get it going, and cook over low heat until the fat has been released and the skins are crispy. This will take from 90 minutes to several hours. Stir occasionally to keep the skin from sticking to the pan. Drain and reserve the skins. The crispy skin, or gribenes, makes a nice garnish for chopped liver, soup or salads. Just sprinkle with a little salt. The gribenes are also good for sauteing greens.

Todd Ginsberg takes juicy pink chicken livers that he’s sauteed in schmaltz (aka chicken fat). He plops them on a cutting board and tops them with caramelized onions (also cooked in schmaltz). And with a large chef’s knife in each hand, he begins to chop … and chop … and chop.

With arms working fast, he cuts in pieces of cold butter slowly, using a technique he borrowed from superstar chef Thomas Keller. When the chicken liver is smashed, he pours in the juices from the saute pan, seasons with kosher salt, adds a few aggressive grinds of black pepper from a mill, and drizzles brandy over the messy brown pile. After chilling the chopped liver in a bowl dunked in ice water, he takes a tiny bite from a spoon.

“It’s not horrible,” the Atlanta chef says impishly.

Well, that’s an understatement.

Ginsberg’s chopped liver has become a star attraction at the General Muir, the Emory Point restaurant he opened just a little over a year ago with partners Jennifer and Ben Johnson (who also own West Egg Cafe) and Shelley Sweet. The General Muir — named for the ship that brought Jennifer Johnson’s mother and grandparents to New York in 1949 after they survived the Holocaust — is one of the more remarkable Atlanta restaurant success stories in memory.

At breakfast and lunch, the General Muir serves classic New York deli food: Reubens and matzo ball soup; bagels schmeared with scallion-caper cream cheese; platters of lox, nova and sable; latkes with applesauce and sour cream.

At night, Ginsberg — who previously worked with celebrity chefs Joel Antunes at Ritz-Carlton Buckhead and Alain Ducasse in New York — gets to show off the playful contemporary flair that he brought to his previous gig at Bocado, on Atlanta’s West Side. His brisket is cooked sous vide style, which he says gives it a tenderness worthy of bubbe. (That’s Yiddish for grandma.) His fried chicken is steamed so that the crust and skin separate from the bird into a solid layer of crunch after the frying.

With his scruffy black beard, butterball physique and laid-back style, Ginsberg is a mensch among Atlanta chefs. His food — at once comforting yet refined, classic yet experimental — has made him a rock star of the city’s vibrant food culture.

It’s safe to say that Ginsberg, a New Jersey-born guy who grew up “eating deli,” is the first Atlanta chef to make Jewish food hip. John Kessler, chief dining critic of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, put Ginsberg’s Reuben on his top 10 dishes of 2013. Atlanta magazine named the General Muir 2013 restaurant of the year. And Bon Appetit ranked it among the top 50 new American restaurants last year.

“When I opened the restaurant, I had a vision of doing it this way,” Ginsberg says of the chicken liver he’s just hand-chopped in the General Muir’s kitchen. “I didn’t know I was going to be making 50 pounds of liver a week.” The sheer demand for his unctuous, mousse-like dish has forced him to use a machine to chop the liver.

Ginsberg says he always thought he’d buy pastrami and salmon from a New York purveyor. But when he tasted their offerings, he knew he could do better. So pretty much everything the restaurant serves — bagels, pastrami, corned beef, lox, sable, dill pickles — is made in house.

Now it’s gratifying, the chef says, to cook the cuisine of his heritage and have people come up and say it’s something they thought they had lost forever. Invariably, diners tell him, “I moved from New York or I moved from yada-yada 30 years ago or 20 years ago or 50 years ago, and I have been waiting for a place like this. Thank you.”

For a chef, those words are as rich and golden as schmaltz. “It’s a great honor to be able to do this food,” Ginsberg says, “and to be one of the first people to bring this style of cooking to Atlanta.”

Making great deli food at home

Here we offer three recipes by General Muir chef Todd Ginsberg — chopped liver, a vegetarian Reuben that replaces corned beef with beets and a pecan-encrusted French toast that's sweet enough to serve as dessert. Don't know much about schmaltz? Our sidebar provides easy instructions.

Chef Todd Ginsberg’s Chopped Liver

Hands on: 50 minutes

Total time: 50 minutes

Yield: 1 1/2 quarts

The only challenge to this dish is finding schmaltz. See sidebar (“How to Make Schmaltz”) for instructions. You also may use store-bought duck fat in place of the schmaltz. Serve with bread, crackers or crudites.

1 large sweet onion, julienned

3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon schmaltz, divided (see note, or may use duck fat)

2 1/2 pounds very fresh chicken livers (preferably from a local farm)

Salt and fresh cracked pepper, to taste

1/4 pound unsalted butter, cold and cut into pieces

1 tablespoon cognac (or brandy)

Cook onions with 1/4 cup schmaltz over low to medium heat until the onions are caramelized and soft, about 20 minutes. Reserve.

Clean membrane and extra fat from livers. Heat two large saute pans over medium heat. Add 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon of schmaltz to saute pans. (You are using two pans so as not to crowd the livers. They will cook more evenly that way.) Add livers very carefully to the pan, as the livers will pop hot fat onto you. When the popping subsides, season with salt and pepper. Cook livers until medium well, about 15 minutes; they will be just slightly pinkish.

Remove livers from pans and reserve cooking juices. Place livers on cutting board. Sprinkle onions on top of livers and, using one or preferably two large knives, begin chopping livers and onions. Slowly add cold pieces of butter into the mixture as you chop. Transfer to mixing bowl. Add reserved cooking juices, a little at a time, to mixing bowl and incorporate. (You may not need all the juices.) While it is warm, the chopped liver should be a looser consistency than expected. It will firm up as it chills. Season with cognac. Taste and adjust for salt and pepper.

Note: Ginsberg recommends using a lot of pepper and chilling the chopped liver for a day before serving, so that the color and flavors become homogeneous. He likes the dish to have a luscious, whipped texture. If yours gets a bit firm after chilling, he suggests adding a little water, hot water or schmaltz.

Per 2-tablespoon serving: 73 calories (percent of calories from fat, 78), 3 grams protein, trace carbohydrates, trace fiber, 6 grams fat (3 grams saturated), 102 milligrams cholesterol, 62 milligrams sodium.

Chef Todd Ginsberg’s Vegetarian Reuben

Hands on: 10 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

Makes: 2 sandwiches

Ginsberg's vegetarian answer to the classic Reuben substitutes beets for the corned beef. He adds flavor by sprinkling on smoked salt, but using a smoker will give the beets even more oomph.

For the Russian dressing

1/4 cup mayonnaise

1 tablespoon ketchup

1 tablespoon pickle relish

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper, fresh cracked

For the sandwich

2 large beets

Extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher salt

Black pepper, freshly cracked

Smoked salt

Coriander, freshly cracked

Butter (for spreading on each piece of bread)

4 slices rye bread

6 tablespoons sauerkraut, warmed

4 slices Gruyere cheese (may use Comte or Swiss)

To make the dressing: In a small bowl, mix the mayonnaise, ketchup, pickle relish, lemon juice, salt and pepper until well combined. Cover and chill until ready to use.

To make the sandwich: Trim tops and bottoms from beets. Wrap beets tightly in foil with a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast at 350 degrees, approximately 1 hour, or until tender. Let cool and peel as soon as you can handle the beets. (They get harder to peel as they cool more; you should be able to rub the skins off with a towel easily.) Slice beets into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Dress liberally with olive oil, smoked salt, pepper and coriander. Reserve at room temperature.

Butter each slice of bread on one side. Griddle the bread in a nonstick pan over medium heat, buttered side down, until golden. Place on a cutting board. Spread 1 tablespoon Russian dressing on each slice of bread. Arrange 4 slices of beets on two of the bread slices. Top beets with 3 tablespoons of warm sauerkraut and 2 slices of cheese. Put open-faced sandwich under the broiler until the cheese melts, about 3 minutes. Remove from the broiler and top with the reserved bread slices. Cut sandwiches using a serrated knife. (You want to cut through the sandwich on the first try to avoid the beets slipping out the sides.)

Per sandwich: 724 calories (percent of calories from fat, 72), 21 grams protein, 32 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams fiber, 60 grams fat (19 grams saturated), 77 milligrams cholesterol, 1,485 milligrams sodium.

Chef Todd Ginsberg’s Pecan-Crusted French Toast With Roasted Bananas, Spiced Butter and Maple Syrup

Hands on: 40 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Serves: 2

This show-stopping brunch dish is a great idea for a romantic meal for two. Keep it in mind for Valentine’s Day (or perhaps to wow mom on Mother’s Day). “The cornflakes really add a nice pop factor” to the pecan coating, Ginsberg says.

For the spiced butter

1/2 pound unsalted butter, slightly softened

Zest of half an orange, grated with a microplane

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Pinch of salt

For the French toast

1 1/2 cups coarsely ground cornflakes (not too fine, not too pebbly)

1 1/2 cups coarsely ground pecans (not too fine, not too pebbly)

4 eggs

1/8 cup heavy whipping cream

1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract

4 (1-inch-thick) slices challah (may use brioche)

2 ounces clarified butter (may use half butter and half canola oil)

1 large banana, peeled and quartered lengthwise

2 tablespoons dark brown sugar

Maple syrup for drizzling

To make the butter: Place butter in the bowl of a stand mixer with paddle attachment. Mix at medium-high speed until smooth, about 3 minutes. Add orange zest, cinnamon and salt. Mix at high speed until thoroughly combined, about 2-3 minutes. Pack the butter into a ramekin. Cover and chill until ready to serve. (Note: Leftover butter can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 1 week, or frozen indefinitely.)

To make the French toast: Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Place ground cornflakes and pecans in a small bowl and toss to combine. Dump onto a pie plate or flat bowl and set aside.

Crack eggs into a small bowl. Add cream and vanilla and whisk until frothy and well combined. Pour the mixture into a bowl flat enough for dipping the bread. Dip each slice of bread in the egg mixture, making sure to coat evenly on all sides. (To get a thorough soak, you may need to let the bread rest in the egg for a minute or two per side. You want the bread to be soaked but not overly soggy and gooey.)

Place the bread into the cornflake-pecan mixture and press gently so that it’s coated on all sides.

Heat clarified butter in a large ovenproof skillet over medium heat. Brown the bread on both sides, about 3-4 minutes per side. Place the skillet in the oven and bake until the bread puffs up and is just cooked through, 5-8 minutes.

Place bananas in a medium-size ovenproof pan or baking tray and sprinkle with brown sugar. Broil under high heat to melt the brown sugar and caramelize the bananas, about 5 minutes. If the sugar runs off, you may need to spoon it back on top of bananas. (Note: You may also use a brulee torch to caramelize bananas.)

Place two slices of French toast on a plate. Top with banana slices and a generous pat or two of the spiced butter. Drizzle with maple syrup. Serve with more maple syrup on the side.

Per serving: 1,310 calories (percent of calories from fat, 63), 22 grams protein, 102 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams fiber, 95 grams fat (34 grams saturated), 442 milligrams cholesterol, 923 milligrams sodium.