It is a Saturday afternoon at Sadelle’s in the Soho neighborhood of Manhattan. Tables at the smoked-fish mecca are packed with brunchers savoring silky salmon on house-made bagels. But the real action, for those in the know, is at a glass-fronted counter where Silverio “Jay” Benitez expertly slices what is arguably the most delectable cold-smoked salmon in New York City. Sadelle’s sources its melt-in-your-mouth specialty from smokers that get no hotter than 90-some-odd degrees.
Regulars stop to check out Benitez as he concentrates on each incursion into the glistening fish. He nudges in with the center of his knife blade, then blazes through with a swift sweep of steel. Each translucent swath (a thousand on a typical Saturday) falls away and takes its place amid the other fresh cuts. “I like when people enjoy watching the salmon being sliced,” he says. “It’s something that drives me.”
Working with a small arsenal of thin-bladed knives, Benitez sizes up his glistening fish from multiple angles. “Every salmon is different,” he says. “I pay attention to the control of the knife, to the grain of the salmon, to how the dynamic changes with each slice.”
Over his decades-long career (which includes a stint at Petrossian, where he snagged his job by slicing each piece so thin that the New York Times could be read through it), Benitez has taken on all forms of salmon. The most popular include Nova Scotia (lightly smoked, not very salty), Scottish (rich, fattier and a little sweeter) and Irish (lean, smoky and slightly on the dry side). These are not to be confused with gravlax (salmon cured with sugar and salt, not necessarily smoked, also available at Sadelle’s), kippered salmon (hot smoked and flaky) or lox (salt cured).
Benitez likes Scottish salmon for its balance of flesh to fat. When it comes to smoking cigars, he prefers Cubans: a range of Romeo y Julietas and Montecristo No. 2. Back on the subject of smoked fish, he offers an insider’s tip: “Toward the tail is drier and leaner. Toward the collar, it’s richer. Most sought after is center cut” (a balance of both) “but you have those who want the belly for its high-fat flavor. Whatever the case, people who are into salmon get it from someone they trust, who knows what they like and slices it right. That is why people value their salmon slicer.”