New Yorker Spotlight: Maya Jankelowitz of Jack’s Wife Freda on Creating Restaurants That Feel Like Home

January 23, 2015

If you’re an Instagram-loving New Yorker, then you’ve likely seen, or maybe even posted, photos of the salads, egg dishes, and even the menus at the downtown restaurant Jack’s Wife Freda. Through the app, diners at Jack’s Wife Freda have been spreading the word about the establishment’s food and polished-yet-relaxed atmosphere. These sepia-toned photos certainly caught our attention, especially the beautiful meals plated on crisp white dishes.

The visionaries behind the restaurant are husband-and-wife team Dean and Maya Jankelowitz. The pair opened Jack’s Wife Freda three years ago on Lafayette Street in Soho, and just opened a second location on Carmine Street in the West Village. Together, the two restaurants are designed for New Yorkers to sit down and enjoy simple dishes that remind Dean and Maya of their families and respective countries, South Africa and Israel. For the couple, it’s only a perk that they are getting so much attention on social media, as their primary goal has always been the two H’s: hospitality and happiness.

We recently spoke with Maya at the new Carmine location to find out about running two restaurants in the city with her husband and what it means to give New Yorkers a restaurant to call “their spot.”

Maya Jankelowitz, Jack's Wife Freda
Maya at the bar of the Lafayette Street location

You moved to New York in your early 20s. What brought you here?

I was born here and moved to Israel when I was eight. I finished the army in Israel, and I had a passport and a ticket, so I thought I would come to New York for a few months. I remember having the ticket to go back home. A lot of the friends I was living with came for a few months and were going home. I just felt I didn’t get enough of the city. You have to give it a lot to get something. Dean has the same kind of story. He came with a short-term ticket. Now, it’s been almost 20 years for us.

You were the maître d’ at Balthazar where you met Dean, who was working as a waiter. Why did you start working in the restaurant industry?

The truth is, out of default. Being 20 years old, it’s the easiest job you can get. I lived uptown and then in the East Village, and I needed to pay rent. Dean and I worked for almost 14 years for the same person. We learned about work ethic and the inner workings of a restaurant, but we also learned what restaurants mean to us. We found a few places that made us feel that it was worth staying in the city just to sit in those restaurants where you felt on top of the world because you were comfortable, people knew you, it felt warm, and there was this gathering of people who were just like you.

Jack's Wife Freda

What inspired you and Dean to open a restaurant?

We had our first son and we just knew. I think a lot of people have that moment in their lives when they’re ready for the next thing, to take on more responsibility. You want to find a few other people who believe in you, but you mainly have to believe in yourself and take all the risks. It took a long time for us, but we did it.

What’s the story behind the restaurant’s name?

It’s Dean’s grandparents, Jack and Freda. He has memories of how it felt in Freda’s home. There were always gatherings of people at her house, and she always had food out and was very hospitable. Even if you didn’t know anyone, everybody had six degrees of separation. Before we opened, a lot of people thought the name was ridiculous. We knew it was really hard to remember, but once you remember, it’s hard to forget.

Jack's Wife Freda

How did you and Dean come up with the menu?

We knew what we liked to eat. We narrowed it down to simple foods with the idea that you can have a really quick meal for a decent price. A lot of the dishes on the menu are what we enjoyed eating in our 20s, when we were falling in love and becoming a couple and going to a different restaurant every day. Dean and I are from two different countries, but it’s all kind of the same with food. We wanted to feed everybody the food that we enjoy.

We also went back to foods that his grandma made and my mom makes. My grandma and his grandma had the same matzo ball soup recipe. We managed to get something that reminded both of us of that. Matzo ball soup is tricky because a lot of people come in and compare it to their grandma’s soup.

From the writing on the sugar packets to the drawings on the menu to the details on the plastic cups, every aspect of the restaurant has been thought out. Where did the idea for these fun words, designs, and drawings come from?

I think everything happened very naturally. We didn’t put too much thought into it. We knew what we wanted the place to feel like, and that’s the most important thing, the soul of a place. A lot of people tell me, “Oh, Instagram is probably so helpful for your business.” I feel like it’s a bonus. If the restaurant didn’t have a soul, Instagram would be meaningless.

Jack's Wife Freda

Jack's Wife Freda

Speaking of Instagram, were you surprised at the amount of photos of Jack’s Wife Freda?

I remember not even knowing what Instagram was, and then I googled the restaurant and saw other people posting pictures, and I found it fascinating. I can see what the food looks like when I’m not there. The food is very photogenic, but it was not planned. It was a real pleasant surprise, but it’s also a work in progress. You see what people take to, what they like, and you have to grow and work at it all the time. You never take a day and say “oh, we did it, it’s done.”

When you and Dean were hunting for a space for the second location, were you specifically looking in the West Village, or for a space that felt right?

We were looking for a space that felt right. We looked on the Upper East Side, in Soho, Tribeca, the East Village, and the West Village. People say a restaurant’s location is very important, but it’s tricky. I asked so many of those people, “Ok, so if you could choose the prime location in the city, give me a corner of two streets. Where is that location?” And no one could tell me. I love the block of the Carmine location; it reminds me of a Woody Allen movie, old school New York, what you would think a neighborhood should feel like. I love and believe in it, but you really never know. So many obscure places are packed in New York. There’s no recipe for success.

What are some of the differences between Soho and the West Village?

Soho has a lot of foot traffic between work, shopping, and tourists. In the three years we’ve been there, I’ve seen it get busier and busier. Over here in the West Village, what I really love is how much of a neighborhood it is. Every day a different person tells me, “Oh, we live on Leroy Street. We live on Morton. We live on Downing Street.” So many people of different ages live here from grandparents to grandchildren. It has this “it’s for everyone” vibe here, which I like.

Maya and Dean Jankelowitz, Jack's Wife FredaThe Jankelowitz family celebrating the three-year anniversary of Jack’s Wife Freda on Lafayette Street

You and Dean have two children. Are your sons already learning the family business?

They’re both in the restaurant enough that they know there’s the ice machine, the health department, and they know that kids get crayons. It’s cute, they’re learning.

If you could select one dish on the menu that epitomizes New York, which one would it be?

The matzo ball soup is not my favorite, but my husband always says, “Matzo ball soup isn’t Jewish.” He thinks it’s a pure New York dish. New Yorkers know what matzo ball soup is. Chinese New Yorkers and French New Yorkers eat it. I also feel like our Prego roll is very New York. It’s a Portuguese steak sandwich. There was a Japanese magazine that wrote that it’s like Katz’s pastrami sandwich. So we’re getting tour buses of Japanese tourists ordering it.

Maya and Dean Jankelowitz, Jack's Wife Freda
Maya and Dean being interviewed for a TV segment

Why are restaurants so important to New Yorkers?

Everyone who lives in the city needs restaurants–starting with those who have small apartments and small kitchens who just need to eat out and moving to those who maybe have big kitchens, but really busy schedules and don’t have time to cook. Also, a lot of people are lonely in the city, but not in a negative way. I feel lonely in the city, and I love it; I just want to be left alone. We are around so many people all the time. Eating out is a natural extension of everyone’s living room. We all have tiny living rooms. Everyone should have a few places at which they feel like they’re regulars.

What does feeding New Yorkers mean to you?

It means everything. It means so much more than who the chef is. It’s the way to everyone’s heart. I’m a mother, and I need to know that everyone is taken care of. A lot of people who are new in the city, and even those who aren’t new, are shy when they walk into a place, They don’t know if it’s the place for them and they feel a little insecure. We really want to make everyone feel comfortable. It doesn’t matter who the person is, we want them to feel looked after and taken care of. I’ll refill their coffee. I’ll get them a dessert if they are happy. A lot of people need that extra attention and extra warmth, and we love to be able to give that to them.


[This interview has been edited]

Jack’s Wife Freda
224 Lafayette Street
50 Carmine Street

Photos via Jack’s Wife Freda

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