Nobody schools Matt Fern on mayonnaise. He smiles mischievously. Fern, the owner of (ish) delicatessen in Raleigh, recalls the “Duke’s or die” guy who showed up one day insisting that
Nobody schools Matt Fern on mayonnaise. He smiles mischievously. Fern, the owner of (ish) delicatessen in Raleigh, recalls the “Duke’s or die” guy who showed up one day insisting that only one type of mayonnaise belongs in a North Carolina deli case. “Haven’t you heard of Kewpie?” Fern asked the man, placing a container of the Japanese mayonnaise on the counter as if he were throwing down the gauntlet.
Fern loves describing his playful confrontations with diners who come in with strong feelings about what belongs between two slices of bread. Another story involves a woman who considered it a crime to put mortadella on an Italian sub.
Fern can poke fun at these people because they are his people; no one takes sandwiches more seriously than he does. He’s been refining his recipes for years, and his experiments will never end. But delis are nostalgic spaces, where expectations are often shaped by childhood memories. So Fern frequently explains the origin of the name of this deli that he opened on Person Street in July 2021: The food he serves is a little bit Jewish, a little Italianish, and a little Southernish — a jumble of influences, always with an unexpected twist. Even seemingly familiar fare offers surprising flavors. (ish) is a mash-up of cultures and cuisines — impossible to categorize, alive with innovation. It’s a place where excellence dances with experimentation, and where humor always keeps the tempo.
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Fern’s deli shares space with Person Street Pharmacy, founded in 1910, and it’s as unpretentious as the long-gone soda fountain where customers once pulled up to the counter for a fizzy drink and a homestyle sandwich. Nowadays, there are ’50s-style diner chairs in sunny yellow, bowls of salad in the deli case, and notes of appreciation taped on the wall like kids’ art projects on a refrigerator. One wall features framed and autographed photos, including a few faces you might recognize — Snoop Dogg, Jon Bon Jovi — but the rest you probably won’t. Instead of a wall showing off solely celebrity customers, like some delis have, Fern has created one displaying the surrounding community, adding in a few random photos like a shot of an Internet-famous cat. The space radiates ease and humor, and so does Fern — in his lively eyes, his contagious smile, and his self-deprecating jokes. This is a place to take a load off, be yourself, and eat some good food.
Fern’s love of comedy, he says, comes from growing up an overweight kid in upstate New York. Adopted by Italian Americans who looked nothing like him, he avoided being bullied in school by poking fun at himself before others had the chance. He discovered that humor turned his vulnerabilities into strengths. Pulling his phone from his pocket, he suggests a game: Find the adopted kid in the family photo. Twice as broad and more than a head taller than anyone else, he towers over his siblings and parents — but his radiant smile matches theirs. He is undeniably different — yet obviously belongs.
He tears up as he talks about his parents. Dick and Mary Fern gave him the unconditional love and support that every kid deserves, and when he thanks them, they insist that they are the grateful ones. Now in their 80s, they drive in from Wake Forest every Thursday and Sunday. They sit at a four-top in the corner — his petite, well-groomed mother; his dad in shorts, long socks, and sandals — beaming with pride.
A mishmash of influences inspires Fern’s recipe innovations as well as his uncanny ability to create community wherever he goes. The flip side of not quite belonging anywhere is belonging almost everywhere. A Level 2 sommelier who once flew to Europe on wine-buying trips and mastered comfort-food classics as manager of nearby Poole’s Diner, Fern knows fine cuisine. But he always dreamed of starting a restaurant or two. First up was a no-fuss deli where community could come alive. When he opened (ish), he faced an unexpected challenge: how to ignite human connection in the midst of a pandemic.
If anyone could make a smile felt even behind a mask, it’s Fern. As the deli gets busy, he moves between the kitchen and seating area, joking with staff and greeting guests with a hug. He never describes his customers as customers. Guest is inked onto his forearm to remind him of his relationship with the people who walk through the door. Customer interactions are transactional, he says; guests receive hospitality and connection. The tattoo reminds Fern to really see people — to notice the weather patterns moving across their faces, to sense when they are delighted or disappointed. And he pays equally close attention to his colleagues.
Melissa Douglas, an (ish) regular whom Fern once hired to work with him at The Longleaf Lounge, recalls his mentorship as a rare combination of precision and playfulness. Fern brought a similar spirit to Test Kitchen, his impromptu dinner parties where he tested recipes, inviting friends to sample his latest experiments. After he noted their feedback on a whiteboard and in a recipe book, the evenings would open up for games and laughter.
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Like the atmosphere inside (ish), the deli’s menu is unpretentious. A cartoon of a cook with a matzoh ball head graces its cover. Inside, several sandwich options feature “melty cheese.” At first glance, some offerings seem standard, but a closer read reveals Fern’s signature twists. There’s the fried pickle grilled cheese, with pickled Swiss chard stems and lemon-dill mayo. And the Smoked F(ish) Melt, based on a Jewish deli staple. Fern cures and smokes his twice-weekly deliveries of bluefish or mullet. Then, inspired by the tuna melts he loved as a kid, he dribbles cheese on top, adds a little braised Swiss chard sprinkled with just enough red pepper to warm your throat, and puts it all on toasted sourdough.
Describing his latest inventions, Fern’s eyes light up like a kid who just discovered how to pop a wheelie. His creations are fun but also complex, incorporating not just his own history but all of ours. For his newest concoction, he consulted with Marcie Cohen Ferris, an American Studies professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina. Inspired by her book Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South, Fern will offer a mashup of a po’ boy sandwich and matzoh ball soup — something he calls a Matz’oh Boy. His research revealed that po’ boys eaten by striking dock workers in 19th-century New Orleans were, at times, filled with potatoes instead of fried seafood.
Fern won’t say more about this upcoming menu addition except that it will be a starch sandwich the likes of which the world has never seen: a gut bomb smeared with schmaltz and dripping with rémoulade. For now, his warm Reuben sandwich on rye from Boulted Bread or his chicken salad saltimbocca on a sub roll will leave you sleepy and satisfied. Whatever comes to mind when you think of a deli — Katz’s Deli in New York, the corner bodega, the sandwich counter at Harris Teeter — (ish) is not that. But if you’re ready to leave behind the past and bring along your appetite for good food and easygoing community, you’re in for a great surprise.
Want to make your own deli-worthy sandwich? The No. 1 most important element is the bread. We talked to three talented North Carolina bakers to find out how to master the art of baking sourdough and other loaves in your own kitchen.print it