After success in Ashley Christensen’s restaurant group, this hospitality pro has opened a sandwich shop with Jewish, Italian, and Southern influences
by Catherine Currin | photography by Joshua Steadman
“I’ve always wanted to own something fun and creative,” says Matt Fern, whose much-anticipated new restaurant on Person Street combines some of his favorite foods and best dining memories from growing up in upstate New York. “My vision for (ish) delicatessen is kind of an amalgam of cultures and cuisines: Jewish, Italian, and Southern.” If Fern’s name seems familiar, it’s because he’s a fixture in Raleigh’s food-and-drink scene — if you’ve toasted on The Longleaf Hotel patio, sipped wine with your fried chicken at Beasley’s, or celebrated at Death & Taxes, he’s been the man behind the beverage.
Fern moved to Raleigh in 2003 (he also lived here for a brief stint in 1995), bouncing around as a server at restaurants like 518 West and Vivace before landing a gig selling wine at Seaboard Wine Warehouse. “Seaboard was a huge springboard for me — I started to get the bug,” Fern says. Part of his job included traveling to Europe for wine buying trips, and it sparked something.
“I remember sitting at a winery and watching the winemaker get so excited and passionate about wine. I thought, Wine is going to be something I work with for the rest of my life.”
This love and knowledge of wine —Fern is a Level 2 certified sommelier —plus his natural warmth led to a connection with chef Ashley Christensen. In 2003, when he was working at 518 West, she was cooking nearby at the now-closed Enoteca Vin. “I used to take meetings and lunches there, and Fern was the most welcoming hospitality pro,” says Christensen.
“He knew when to give you space and when you needed to feel a little more at home at his bar. That’s a gift.” That friendship led to bartending a Christmas party for the staff at Poole’s Diner (like any good restaurant holiday party, Fern says, it took place in April).
After that, Christensen says, she had to have him on the team at Poole’s. “I couldn’t get it out of my brain… and from that point on, I was determined to try to get him to come work at Poole’s,” she says. “Or at least, to figure out, how do we make people feel as welcome at Poole’s as Fern made people feel at that party at my house?”
She got him to take on a few shifts as a server at Poole’s, and soon he was curating their wine list. By 2009, Fern was named general manager of Poole’s, followed by beverage director for AC Restaurant Group, then as a partner in Poole’s. Fern says one of his proudest moments while working with AC Restaurant Group was training the Beasley’s staff.
“I got the staff at a fried chicken joint so excited about wine, and now a few of them have passed the Level 2 sommelier,” Fern says. “You can’t teach people everything about wine, you have to teach them what’s possible and get them excited.”
A close second, he says, is the wine cellar he designed alongside Christensen at Death & Taxes, in a space that had previously been a bank vault. Christensen credits his influence in the success of her restaurant group.
“Fern running our beverage program helped folks to understand that Raleigh has what it takes to be a part of the broader conversation,” says Christensen. “Nothing has made either of us prouder than the cooks and bartenders and managers who took a chance on this city we love. It’s the good stuff.”
Despite his successful tenure with Christensen, Fern couldn’t get the delicatessen he’d been dreaming of out of his head. Soon after leaving AC Restaurants in 2016, Fern started to work on the first iteration of (ish) delicatessen — one that would replicate some of his favorite dining experiences from growing up.
“A deli’s never stuffy, it always feels like you’re home,” says Fern. “That’s what I’m excited about making.” In Fern’s mind, the word (ish) aligns with his idea that there are so many different versions of a deli or delicatessen: “Some people think a deli is Katz’s, some think it’s the corner bodega, others picture the sandwich counter at Harris Teeter or a chain like Jason’s.
And no one is wrong!” he says. “I’ve always felt the playfulness that (ish) provides lets us make it whatever kind of delicatessen we want to. The goal has always been to mix the classics with something a little off the wall — and these two words together, (ish) and delicatessen, really allow for that.”
But the first two locations fell through— one at the investment stage, another when the building had to be torn down for structural reasons. “Good thing we chose the name (ish) — if we were to have named it after a street or address number, the name would have changed four times by now,” Fern laughs.
Meanwhile, Fern got looped into working on the beverage program for The Longleaf Hotel, where he created the menu and ran the Lounge at The Longleaf. Then the pandemic hit, and a beloved spot in Oakwood, The Pharmacy Cafe, closed its doors (you can now find the folks from Pharmacy at the Farmhouse Cafe in Wendell).
For Fern, it was the opportunity he’d been waiting for: “I’ve lived in the neighborhood for years, and there’s just such neat stuff happening over here. It’s pretty cool to be right near so much history.”
The initial (ish) delicatessen menu consists of lunchtime fare like sandwiches, salads, soups, and sides, plus a few starters and desserts. A Fern-curated wine and beer list is also on offer in the 30-seater joint.
The menu mashes up various food traditions, including Southern staples, Jewish classics, and Italian-American favorites. There’s the Matzo Boy, a twist on the Southern Po’ boy that swaps fried seafood for matzo balls, best known in the Jewish tradition for their role in the Passover seder meal. “This is our spin on a starchy sandwich,” says Fern. “The matzo ball will be seared in chicken fat, covered in cheese and a lemony-herb remoulade, all served on a crusty bread.” And the Sloppy SPO, a hybrid of a Sloppy Joe and the American-Italian classic combo of sausage, peppers, and onions. “The pork stock is thickened like gravy — it’s bonkers,” he says.
Or consider Fern’s riff on the Reuben, which uses corned ham (an eastern N.C. tradition), chow-chow
to replace sauerkraut, plus local cheese and a homemade Russian dressing. “I love being a sounding board when he nerds out on these amazing ideas,” says Christensen, “and trust me, they are amazing.”
The menu also includes some classic deli items, like a traditional pastrami-and-sauerkraut Reuben on custom rye from Boulted Bread, homemade potato chips, chicken salad, and three types of potato salad. “There’s no one formula for a deli,” says Fern. “It’s an amazing hodgepodge of things that go in between two pieces of bread or get scooped onto a plate.”
The fast-casual joint spent the summer staffing up and building momentum with pop-ups around downtown and Person Street, and will eventually serve three
meals a day.
Fern also plans to provide the food program for The Longleaf Hotel, including bar snacks and breakfast items. Fitting with its name, the delicatessen means something different to everyone— but Fern’s main ingredients, the care and passion that he puts into any hospitality experience, are sure to shine through.
“Fern has been diving so deep into creating the deli experience that has been missing from Raleigh,” says Christensen. “I believe (ish) will quickly become a national culinary treasure.”
This story originally appeared in our August 2021 issue.