Menus often double as memoirs of the chefs who pen them, so before I tell you about Joe Schwartz, let’s see if we can glean some information from the dishes at his forthcoming Durham restaurant: Latkes smothered in duck gravy. Hushpuppies stuffed with barbecue coleslaw. Matzo ball Brunswick stew. Burritos filled with red wine-braised brisket and charoset, a chunky apple and nut mixture.
Ring any bells?
If you’ve gathered that Schwartz is a Jewish man with Southern roots, mazel tov. It’s a fairly rare cultural blend but one that lends itself well to culinary fusion—both Jewish and Southern cuisines reflect a history of “making do” in the face of adversity, with dishes that inject huge amounts of flavor into cheap ingredients like liver, brisket, and cornmeal.
Jewish-Southern fare will be one pillar of the menu at Max Jr’s, a sausage bar and biergarten slated to open off Main Street in the Brightleaf District this fall. To launch the concept, Schwartz has joined forces with The Federal owners Fergus Bradley and Josh Wittman, whose Irish and German backgrounds, respectively, will also shape the restaurant’s cuisine.
Schwartz, a Durham native, spent the first chunk of his professional life as a journalist, working stints as a reporter at INDY Week and a social media manager at local sportswear distributor soccer.com.
“During the pandemic, [the soccer.com job] became a ‘Zoom all day’ situation,” Schwartz says. “I took a buyout because I was just like, I can’t be clocked in doing nothing.”
He spent the next year bartending at The Federal—where Bradley and Wittman eventually approached him with an idea for a sausage bar—and has since honed his culinary chops in the Saxapahaw General Store kitchen.
“I thought, for a while, that to be a chef you needed to go to the [Culinary Institute of America], to do a stage in New York, and, like, be treated horribly for a year,” Schwartz says. “And then I realized—and this is partly the pandemic that helped with this—all you really have to do is love to eat food, cook honestly, and serve humbly.”
In coming months, Schwartz plans to study the art of sausage production in preparation for the banger-heavy menu at Max Jr’s, where a rotating selection of six sausages will be offered in buns, over cabbage, or as “waffle dogs,” a creation Schwartz encountered while living in Thailand.
“I was at a temple on top of a mountain,” Schwartz says. “And they were serving these things—waffle dogs—that were corndogs but instead of cornmeal, it’s waffle batter.”
Some Thai-Jewish mash-ups, like Banh mis with chopped liver, will likely make it onto the menu, as will a few items that pay direct homage to Schwartz’s Eastern North Carolina heritage, like bologna burgers and peanut platters.
Max Jr’s is named for Schwartz’s late grandfather, Max Meyer Jr, who owned and operated a grocery store called Meyer’s Super Market in Enfield for a number of years. The store, which Schwartz’s great-great-grandfather launched in 1873, changed ownership 25 years ago, but Schwartz plans to keep the legacy alive with a food truck—Meyer’s Fine Foods & Good Times—that will act as an itinerant companion to Max Jr’s.
The brick-and-mortar restaurant will include high tops and bar seating for around 50 to 60 people, an outdoor biergarten, and a bottle shop, with carefully selected decorations that hearken back to mid-20th-century grocery stores.
“Since we’re doing a 40s and 50s theme, it’s really important to remember that for a lot of people, that wasn’t a happy time,” Schwartz says.
Until the 1960s, the Jewish-owned Meyer’s Super Market was the only place where Black customers could buy groceries in Enfield, he says. If there’s anything his grandfather would’ve wanted to see at Max Jr’s, it’s an inclusive approach.
“I’ve always said I’m more ‘plastic chair’ than ‘white tablecloth,’” Schwartz says. “I want to serve meals that everyone can afford. There’s so much coming up in Durham that’s not accessible. Max Jr’s really will be.”
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