If I were to ask for a show of hands among Bay Area foodies to see how many people know what smoke meat is, it could be a question that might stump even this worldly food crowd. But chances are that number would have increased in the past six months, thanks to Alexei (Lex) Gopnik-Lewinski and Augie’s Montreal Smoke Meat, his business that began popping up and selling out smoke meat sandwiches at Beauty’s Bagels in Oakland during the months of August and September.
For the uninitiated, smoke meat is a staple Jewish deli food that is unique to Quebec, particularly Montreal. If you know what smoke meat is, chances are you’re either Canadian or you’ve visited Montreal.
Although smoke meat is made from brisket, smoke meat is not pastrami. Smoke meat is not corned beef. It is, as Lex says,
As if pastrami and corned beef got together, had a couple glasses of wine, turned on some Barry White and made a baby.
And if that doesn’t entice you to want to try smoke meat, I don’t know what will because as Lex also says, “Who doesn’t like a pastrami or corned beef sandwich? Smoke meat combines the two.”
Who doesn’t indeed?
But why bring smoke meat to the Bay Area? Because every time Lex would try to bring some back from Montreal after family visits, U.S. Customs would confiscate his smoke meat.
“It was illegal to bring it back from Canada. The customs agents would take it away when I’d bring it back for my friends. I had $100 worth of meat confiscated by customs!”
Born in Toronto, Lex’s family moved to Berkeley when he was 11. But most of his extended family lives in Montreal, and he attended Concordia College there.
“I have a dual passport. I’m Canadian. I stand at the Canadian national anthem. My family still has strong Canadian roots,” he said.
Visits to family always consisted of trips to Quebec, where he grew up having Montreal’s famous smoke meat. Although many people associate smoke meat with the famous Schwartz’s Deli in Montreal, Lex thinks the best smoke meat to be had anywhere is at Smoke Meat Pete, a smoke meat shop in Ile Perrot, a suburb of Montreal. (There is some debate by the way, even among the Quebecois, as to whether it should be referred to as “smoked” or “smoke” meat.)
After having his smoke meat confiscated by customs one too many times, Lex decided to try to make his own. He had a friend in Montreal find a recipe for him, and he started making it at home for his family and friends, experimenting with different flavors and spices. They liked it so much, they suggested he start selling it.
“I was making it for about two years, perfecting it at home. When people were so into it and liking it, I said, what the hell, I might as well see if I can sell it,” he said.
Lucky for Lex, there was already a growing fan base for Montreal deli food in Oakland thanks to Beauty’s Bagels, a Montreal-style bagel shop that opened last year. According to Lex, Beauty’s customers had already been asking owners Blake Joffe and Amy Remsen whether they planned to serve smoke meat on their menu. When Lex approached them about serving his smoke meat, it was a no-brainer for the couple. Since Beauty’s is closed on Mondays, they graciously turned over their kitchen to Lex on Mondays throughout this past August and September for a series of smoke meat pop-ups.
“I sold out five times on those events. I had almost 1000 pounds of meat and it sold out in an hour. I was making poutine, too.”
(Poutine, for the uninitiated, is another Montreal staple—french fries topped with cheese curds and slathered with gravy.)
According to Lex, there are many more expat Canadians, like himself, in the Bay Area than one might think. So when he makes his poutine, for example, he purposely uses the classic St. Hubert gravy mix from a package that everyone in Montreal uses to make poutine. And he makes sure to use cheese curds that are “nice and squeaky” because “people want that comfort from home,” he says. It’s this that makes people come out for the pop-ups, bringing their friends and telling others. Word of mouth is a powerful thing.
“It kind of blew up,” Lex said.
Lex’s professional background is actually in audio and sound. He’s both a musician and he mixes sound at Comcast Sports Network as his day job. Although Lex never thought he would be making and selling smoke meat, he has always liked to cook, he admits. Still, he says, its not like he comes from a family of restaurateurs. (In fact, he comes from a family famous for other things—his uncle is Adam Gopnik, who writes for The New Yorker, and his mother is Alison Gopnik, a prominent professor of psychology and philosophy at UC Berkeley.)
“I like to cook a lot, I always have. I’ve always enjoyed doing it to chill out and relax. My mom taught me there’s nothing better to impress the girls! I’ve always been into smoke meat—for years—I always said someone should make it in the Bay Area.”
Lex believes the excitement he’s generated is due both to the Canadian community here and also a shift toward more meat-oriented menus in the Bay Area right now (particularly in Oakland).
“People want to enjoy food a bit more. They’re not going to eat smoke meat every day, but they want to enjoy what they eat again.”
There also seems to be a revival of good Jewish deli food here, something that has been sadly missing in the Bay Area until recently. Witness Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen (which Lex describes as “super supporting and helpful” and where he sources his rye bread from for his smoke meat sandwiches) and their quick rise to three storefronts in San Francisco. With more people migrating to the Bay Area from the East Coast, Lex says, they are missing food from home. But there aren’t many people making smoke meat in the U.S. As far as Lex knows, there is one other place in Brooklyn that is making it right now and his closest competition is a place in Redondo Beach in SoCal.
“No one’s doing it up here,” he said.
According to Lex, his challenge right now is having the capacity to meet demand. That was a challenge during the pop-ups, as well, especially in serving so many people. He’s thankful that everyone who showed up was really supportive, despite some inaugural hiccups.
“We just want people to come and enjoy it. It’s something new, but it’s not too different. We want them to enjoy it the way we do and bring this flavor to the Bay Area, which could definitely use it.”
Developing the particular flavor that sets smoke meat apart from pastrami takes time. Making smoke meat is a labor-intensive process consisting of a combination of slathering, curing, flipping, soaking, rinsing, and smoking a piece of brisket over the course of seven days at a kitchen Lex rents in Alameda.
Recently, Lex has had to take some time off from making the meat over the past couple of months because he’s also been in the middle of a house renovation and he and his wife are expecting their second child, which was due this week. August—Augie—their first son, is who the business is named for. As of the time we spoke, Lex expects to have some sliced smoke meat available for sale at Beauty’s Bagel in late November or December, and he’s hoping to begin another series of pop-ups in January.
And that word of mouth thing that has worked so well for Augie’s thus far has started to reach beyond Oakland and the Bay Area. Lex has also been getting inquiries about sourcing his smoke meat from across the country. A woman who owns a poutine truck in Arizona recently contacted him about buying some smoke meat. “The Internet is an amazing thing,” he says. He is also contemplating opening a brick and mortar location sometime next year.
“It was a fluky day how this started, and I just said, ‘I’m going to try it.’ That’s kind of how it started. It’s taken off in ways I’d never imagined. I never imagined we’d have this type of response. We’ll see what happens. I’m thankful for the job I have currently, but if things keep going this way, I think that’s what I gotta do.”
What drew you to food?
I wanted to give people a taste from home.
Why smoke meat?
Because it wasn’t being done out here.
Where does your food inspiration come from?
Smoke Meat Pete in Ile Perrot, Quebec.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten along the way in building your business? What advice would you have for others?
You don’t know until you try—give it a try. I think also there’s some really good people out there that are eager to help, aren’t going to screw you over and that really want to help you get what you want.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
Making enough for all the demand.
What is the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
The appreciation—the appreciation that you get from people either trying smoke meat for the first time or who have had it before and they’re just appreciative of what we’re doing.
What’s your favorite item on your menu?
Both [smoke meat and poutine]! We also do our own pickles and a lot of people have been really into them. They’re really vinegary, and they go well with the meat and people really like them. They’re called Uncle’s Famous Pickles because my brother helped make them.
What other local food artisans/workers to you admire? Why?
Blake and Amy at Beauty’s. They’re doing something difficult to do and doing really well.
Josie, my wife, has been really supportive and helpful as well with all the time away.
If you had to choose your last meal, what would it be?
An Augie’s Montreal Smoke Meat sandwich, poutine and a pickle!
Let me take that back and be honest. A Smoke Meat Pete sandwich. He’s the man. If I do half as good as he does, I’ll be in good shape.
Favorite Bay Area food/resto/chef?
It’s so hard in the Bay Area because everything’s so good. I don’t really have one—the list would be too long!
Augie’s Montreal Smoke Meat
Photos courtesy of Augie’s Montreal Smoke Meat