Jay Morjaria is clutching a box. To the casual observer it would appear to just be a small, somewhat weathered Tupperware container, but the way he’s gripping it suggests the contents hold a far greater value.
“I can’t lose this,” he says, quietly, adding to the intrigue. I ask for a peek inside. A brief glance around the pub we’re sat in and Morjaria gently lifts the lid to reveal what lies within. A golden-hued rub of herbs and spices meets my eye, and with it comes an intoxicating aroma that’s rich and complex – notes of smoke and chilli are perceptible, as are some pronounced earthier tones.
As he gently replaces the lid and returns the box to his bag, I ask Morjaria what’s in the mix. He smiles, pauses, and then with a gleeful sense of satisfaction responds: “I can’t tell you that, it’s a secret.”
Morjaria can reveal that he spent ‘a very long time’ perfecting the proprietary blend for his rub, which is a fundamental element of the brisket preparation at Mamma Pastrama; the pastrami-focused sandwich restaurant he’s just launched close to Carnaby Street in London’s Soho.
“We went through so much meat during the testing and development,” he recalls. “It’s been a massive learning curve; I wanted to honour traditions of the meat curing process but have a rub that allows for a unique flavour.”
For a chef who is best known for specialising in East Asian cuisine – through his eponymous consultancy business he’s worked with restaurant brands including Marugame Udon and Wasabi; and he also operates a permanent residency under his Korean concept, JAE, at Untitled in Dalston – opening a restaurant that puts Jewish deli meats front and centre feels like quite a leftfield decision for Morjaria. However, he describes it as the realisation of a long-held ambition.
“Mamma Pastrama is me being an adult. It’s letting go of certain things I held to on for a long time; probably longer than I should”
“I’ve been talking for years about wanting to open my own sandwich place,” he says, enthusiastically. “Mamma Pastrama encompasses everything I love about going out to a good, casual restaurant: it’s very humble, not pretentious, and has an ingredients-led approach.”
Building the concept
The story behind Mamma Pastrama begins with Morjaria’s appearance on BBC’s Million Pound Menu back in 2018. At the time the chef was trying to secure funding for Dynasty; a modern-Asian brand that was something of a pre-cursor to JAE. He impressed on the show, and was offered an investment of £500,000 by Lydia Forte, group director of food and beverage at Rocco Forte Hotels, to grow the concept. But – not unlike a number of other ‘successful’ participants on that show – the money never materialised.
Through the show, though, Morjaria met Darrel Connell, a partner with Imbiba and another of Million Pound Menu's investors, who in turn introduced him to Stephen Finch, founder of self-serve wine bar group Vagabond. The pair got on well, and Morjaria was later hired by Finch as chef consultant for Vagabond’s expanding portfolio.
“Even back then I was talking about opening my own sandwich shop,” he says. “It was the restaurant I wanted to open before I came up with Dynasty. I had this idea of an Asian-focused brand that served a range of sandos.”
The sando concept may never have come to fruition, but it was thanks to those conversations that Finch eventually broached the idea of Mamma Pastrama to Morjaria. It came about after he and Kieran Sherlock, property consultant at Imbiba, visited Mogg, a renowned deli restaurant housed within a former Jewish girl’s school on Berlin's Auguststrasse that specialises in pastrami sandwiches and beer.
“Stephen and Kieran really liked the concept and thought it could work over here. So, they approached me with this embryonic idea to develop. It was different to everything I had been working on and really caught my imagination. And I just started writing a menu.”
Working with Finch and Sherlock, Morjaria designed the concept as fast-casual restaurant that would serve a concise range of traditional and modern reinterpretations of pastrami-based sandwiches, alongside a small selection of salads and sides. “Anyone with some time and a piece of paper could write a menu for a sandwich shop they would love to visit and that’s what the menu at Mamma Pastama is to me,” he says.
The launch menu features six sandwiches in total, including the ‘classic’ that sees pastrami topped with an in-house deli mustard and sauerkraut, served on rye bread with a pickle on the side; and a traditional grilled Reuben served on marble rye with pastrami, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, Russian dressing and mustard.
Sherlock secured Mamma Pastrama’s debut restaurant location on Ganton Street, on the former site of Sacred Café. Over two floors it holds around 60 covers in total, and features an interior design that’s stripped back, modern and minimalist.
From the start, scalability has been key for the three founders. “We don’t want to make mistakes and go too fast, but we do have plenty of ambition,” adds Morjaria. “Myself, Stephen and Kieran are all avid restaurant goers, and we like to think we know what people want to eat and the experience they want.
“There’s a huge appetite for a concept like this at the moment, it’s what people are looking for. You can’t go wrong with sandwiches and beer.”
Finding the cure
Perfecting the curing process prior to Mamma Pastrama’s launch has been crucial to Morjaria. Each brisket is brined in salt and spice, dried, and then rubbed with the secret blend using a bespoke technique developed by the chef during the development stage. Next the meat is smoked lightly with hops, and finally steamed before being prepared for carving.
“We’re not taking anything away from the traditional method for producing pastrami,” says Morjaria, explaining the process. “It’s about working out how to put our own stamp on it through the flavours, not just in the brine and the rub but also in the smoking and steaming. Nailing the technical element of the preparation was vital, and it’s taken a lot of time.”
One area of difference that Morjaria does point out is that at Mamma Pastrama the briskets are not trimmed prior to being brined. “Traditionally you would trim your brisket before preparing it to remove excess fat, but early on we chose not to do that. Fat is flavour, after all. We’ve also chosen not to square off each joint and risk losing meat that way.”
He adds that while the decision can make some of the slicing more uneven, it has allowed for the creation of side dishes including loaded poutine fries topped with pastrami offcuts, bechamel sauce, smoked gravy, pickled cucumbers and onions.
All of the production process will take place in a centralised London kitchen, which is intended to benefit the business as and when it looks to grow. And it’s not just pastrami being prepared there. Chickens will also be smoked, primarily for the smoked chicken BLT, which Morjaria describes as a cross between a French dip and club sandwich with triple-stacked smoked chicken slices, bacon, shredded lettuce, pickled red onions and mayonnaise, served on marble rye with a gravy-soaked slice in the middle and an extra pot of the brown stuff on the side for dipping.
Elsewhere, the team has also worked with London Smoke & Cure to develop a pastrami salmon that’s served with cream cheese, rocket and a caper and chive dressing – a nod to New York’s Russ & Daughters. While vegetarians and vegans are catered for with the beet-Reuben, featuring beetroot that’s been smoked with the same spice rub used on the meat, sauerkraut, Russian dressing and optional Swiss cheese.
“We didn’t want to go overboard on pastrami,” says Morjaria of the menu development. “The salmon sandwich is a collaboration between us and London Smoke & Cure that uses our rub and their curing process. It involves a light bark, which doesn’t overwhelm the spices or the meat.
“Getting a plant-based option on the menu was important too. We didn’t want to go down the route of using fake meats, so put a lot of effort into seeing what vegetables could carry those spices, and that’s what the beetroot does.”
The price is right
Much has been written about how much a sandwich should cost in the capital. While the market continues to be dominated by the likes of Pret A Manger where you can come away with change from a fiver, the success of James Ramsden and Sam Herlihy’s Sons + Daughters in King’s Cross, Max’s Sandwich Shop in Finsbury Park, and Ana Gonçalves and Zijun Meng’s Insta-famous katsu sando concept TŌU has proven there is very much a place for higher-priced sandwiches in the capital.
“We want the customers to be thinking about that sandwich for the rest of the day; to dream about it, even”
Mamma Pastrama is certainly pitched at that premium end of the space, with a classic coming in at £12.50 and the Reuben topping out the menu at £14. A lunch menu featuring half sandwiches served with a pickle and some fries is also set to be introduced further down the line, to help entice those not wishing to break the £10 mark.
While Morjaria accepts that some may see it as expensive, the quality of the product and generosity of the sandwich will help break down those barriers. “We all said from the beginning that the sandwiches have to be generous. When that sandwich is put in front of the customer, it’s got to be stacked; and when we were pricing the menu we thought about that a lot, and pushed the portion to be as big it could. We want the customers to be thinking about that sandwich for the rest of the day; to dream about it, even.”
Morjaria won’t be drawn on how big he thinks Mamma Pastrama could grow in terms of sites, but he’s clearly confident about the brand’s future. “Between myself, Stephen and Kieran we’re always thinking about where to take this next, but we’ve got to get this first site right first. We know it’s scalable, and the initial response shows that we’re going hit the market in a great way.
“What we don’t want to do, though, is rush. We have a proprietary product that’s craft led; we want to grow organically and honour what we’ve created, not dilute it.”
Anyone who watched Morjaria’s appearance on Million Pound Menu will know just how much it means to him to be opening his first bricks and mortar restaurant. While he spent much of his early career working as a retail buyer, he grew up in hospitality – his parents running a number of Indian vegetarian restaurants.
“When I came into this industry, I had this dream of having somewhere with my name above the door. And for years I was obsessed with having that. But I’ve grown a lot in the last four years since appearing on Million Pound Menu, and part of the process has been realising that what’s really important to me is being part of a stable restaurant business that’s financially secure.
“Mamma Pastrama is me being an adult. It’s letting go of certain things I held to on for a long time; probably longer than I should.”
Morjaria is clear to add that this doesn’t mean he no longer wants to open his own solo venture one day, but there are many other opportunities he’s also considering including further projects with Finch and Sherlock. “I love working with these guys,” he says, fervently.
“They’ve given me so much scope to develop my own ideas, and taught me about the financial and investor side of the business; stuff you need to know that I think a lot of chefs miss out on. As well as growing Mamma Pastrama, we’re already talking about potential projects further down the line. There’s no knowing where this partnership can go, and that really excites me.”