Working in Jerusalem: The salami effect

From pickling to smoking to sausage-making, the Hess establishment was handed down from generation to generation.

salami 88 (photo credit: )
salami 88
(photo credit: )
Kosher ham, salami and sausages may sound about as likely as vegetarian veal or fat-free French fries, but for Dutch-born Marcel Hess, owner of Hess the Sausage King on Rehov Heleni Hamalka, it's an award-winning business that has been in his family for six generations. From beef pastrami to goose liver pate, all of the kosher meat products available in Hess's restaurant and in-house deli are prepared by the king himself. With 200 years of family recipes behind him, he clearly sees no point in rushing things. "We cook our soups for 24 hours and every steak must be allowed to mature for at least three weeks," he declares. His obvious passion for food, mixed with a generous helping of rigid culinary doctrine, has certainly earned him an impressive clientele - not only in Jerusalem but also at his former restaurant in Ra'anana and before that in his hometown of Basel, where he lived and worked until moving to Israel with his family in 1998. Gently puffing away at his cigar, he recalls one of his most memorable customers - the late cabinet minister Yosef Burg. "Burg was a client for 40 or maybe even 50 years. Each time he would take a vacation to Switzerland, he would call us up, asking us to deliver all kinds of meat delicacies to his hotel where he used to stay in the mountains. When I got to Israel and opened up in Ra'anana, he came to visit me with his driver but he could hardly get up the stairs to my restaurant to have his lunch. Three weeks later he passed away. His son told me it was the last trip he had made outside of Jerusalem." Lost in his thoughts for a moment, Hess soon resumes his persuasive bid to gain yet another devotee, quickly adding that all his customers are, of course, celebrities to him. "It makes me happy just to welcome people into the restaurant who are hungry and looking for a place to feel at home," he says. Squeezed in behind one of the immaculate tables in his restaurant, sporting a suitably majestic spotted bow-tie, Hess takes a minute to explain why he, as The Sausage King - the nickname given to him by his customers back in Switzerland - owes his success to a whole string of sausage makers in the Hess family. Beginning with Nathaniel Hess at the very end of the 18th century, the dynasty began in a small village in the depths of the German countryside. Initially the business consisted of pickling kosher meat for the Jewish families in the area, but it was not long before orders were coming in from Frankfurt, from Jews and Christians alike, as word spread about the quality of Hess's cuts. From pickling to smoking to sausage-making, the Hess establishment was handed down from generation to generation and in 1929 Hess's father, Hermann, made the move to Switzerland. "I was 12 when I first started helping my father," Hess recalls. "He had to go into hospital for major surgery and so he asked me to come into work to help my mother for six weeks in the summer vacation. It was very hard for me, and my father wasn't exactly satisfied with my work when he got back, but the business kept going all the same." In many ways, it is a wonder that the Hess tradition has survived as long as it has. Working alongside his father in the family meat factory was by no means a childhood dream. Having studied hotel management at Cornell University in the US, Hess had set his sights on opening up a new resort hotel in Switzerland. However, it was the strong words of his wife, Suzanne, that finally convinced him to choose a more family-oriented career and take over his father's business in 1974 - a profession and a lifestyle that he has since grown to love. He was not exactly short of career options either. Anyone who cares to take a look at his resume will be bemused, if not a little unsettled, to find out that his other principal professional position was that of a paramedic. Assisting his father with sausage-making in his spare time, Hess undertook a six-month placement in the emergency department at the Basel University Hospital. From that moment on, Hess explains, he would carry a medical kit with him wherever he went, and often came to the aid of the general public, earning himself medals from the Swiss police and the president of state. In his 20s, he even used one of his butcher's knives to perform a life-saving operation on a young man at the site of car accident. It was these medical skills, as well as his cold cuts, that initially won him the affection of the local community in Israel. Moving to Jerusalem in 2002 from his restaurant in Ra'anana, which he has since closed, he worked two shifts each week for the ambulance service which was struggling to cope with the growing number of suicide attacks on the city. However it was the central location of his restaurant that allowed him to be of most use to the victims of Jerusalem's bomb blasts. "As my place was in the middle of town I was always there within two or three minutes. When it happened, I'd hear the bang and I'd just go there," Hess explains quite simply. With more time to concentrate on his restaurant business nowadays, Hess is setting his sights on the next generation of sausage royalty. With one daughter working as a fashion designer and another as a psychologist, the intentions of his only son, Doron, to take a more compassionate approach to the meat business by becoming a vet cannot have gone down so well. However, Doron has since had a change of heart and at the age of 21 is now busily preparing himself for the throne. At a time when family businesses are becoming a rarity, the chance to inherit a slice of family history was just too good an opportunity to turn down, his father explains with satisfaction. "I don't want this tradition to disappear," Doron had assured his father. "There will be a seventh generation and I can tell you now that there will also be an eighth generation!" Marcel Hess, it seems, is by no means the last king of sausages.