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A gefilte fish out of water

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Pictured at Buzzy's Luncheonette are, from left, Hannah Busgang, her parents Howard Busgang and Melanie Weaver, Buzzy's cook Kimberly Tutkaluk and regulars Sid Filkow and Curt Firestone (Linda Barnard photo)

Howard “Buzzy” Busgang says he’s living a “gefilte fish out of water” tale by opening a Montreal-style deli on Salt Spring Island, B.C., a place he claims has “more bears than Jews.” But there’s an unexpected punchline to this Montreal-born standup comic and TV writer-producer’s gags.

When he and wife Melanie Weaver relocated from Los Angeles, opening Buzzy’s Luncheonette a year ago without any previous restaurant experience, it quickly became an unofficial Jewish community centre for locals hungry for more than meltingly tender smoked meat.

“We have a constant stream of people and we always get asked the same question: ‘Do any Jews live here? Are there Jews on Salt Spring?’ and I say, ‘Don’t you people talk to each other?’” Busgang says.

He and Weaver have done more than fill a brisket-shaped hole for islanders of all backgrounds. Buzzy’s has created a Jewish community hub where none previously existed on Salt Spring, population 10,000, and about a half-hour ferry ride from Victoria. (The closest synagogue, Congregation Emanu-El, is in Victoria.)

As soon as the tiny deli opened, Salt Spring’s Jewish residents started showing up to eat and kibitz. Weaver says they could form two minyanim on an average Saturday. “We don’t belong here!” Busgang, 60, says of the decision to open a Jewish deli on the island. “It makes no sense. It’s almost like a joke, but it’s not a joke. It works.”

In fact, they do belong here and were quickly embraced by locals. Sure, some customers have to practise their pronunciation before placing an order for The Rabinowitz, Busgang’s take on a Reuben. They may fail when they take the “Yiddish word of the week” multiple-choice quiz on the blackboard, or be loudly teased for not knowing what a knish is. (It goes both ways. Weaver admits she once suggested smoked salmon on a bagel with a shmeer to a customer looking for a vegetarian lunch option.)

On a Tuesday morning when I dropped in, customers started showing up as soon as the door opened at 11 a.m., standing on the “Oy” welcome mat at the cash to order an Old School smoked meat sandwich or The Hungry Jew – a smoked meat sandwich packed with coleslaw, two perfectly crisp latkes and a generous shpritz of horseradish sauce.

Weaver is the latke maker. It’s her mom’s recipe. No, you can’t have it.

Buzzy’s is tiny, located along with a variety of small eateries and shops behind the Ganges Gas station at the centre of Salt Spring. The cheery décor is classic deli. Framed jokes fill a wall, from classic puns to Henny Youngman and Phyllis Diller chestnuts. There’s Black Cherry Soda in the cooler and a stadium seat from the beloved old Montreal Forum.

Sid Filkow is working the cash. He’s part of a growing circle of “celebrity guest” chefs, aka unpaid staff, who came for a nosh and end up pitching in. “This place is like a cult,” Filkow says. “You’ll meet people from out of town, locals, people from New York and L.A. drop in.”

When friends arrive, they’re handed an apron. The guy making your sandwich could be a Los Angeles producer or a standup comic visiting from New York. Buzzy’s only employee is cook Kimberly Tutkaluk.

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Regular Greg Middleton, a retired crime reporter, is often recruited to work the cash and clearly loves it here. He’s sipping coffee from a china teacup, sitting at one of three tables in the luncheonette. It has a sign that reads: “Reserved for Barbra Streisand.” Hey, it could happen. Rumour has it she’s among the boldface who enjoy a Salt Spring getaway.

The deli is in a part of Canada more associated with organic farms, artisans, well-heeled retirees and a couple of generations of laid-back hippies than Jewish eats. Weaver says she’s astonished how enthusiastically locals are rooting for them to do well, adding that this is the first time she’s truly felt at home somewhere.

Busgang may not have known anything about the restaurant business, but he knew how to make great Montreal smoked meat. He’d been feeding it to friends in L.A. for years.

He dry brines large slabs of Alberta brisket for eight days, gives them a “bath” to remove the surface salt, then covers them in dry spice rub. They’re smoked over hickory for eight hours, finishing with a couple of tenderizing hours in a steamer imported from Montreal. The bagels are from Mount Royal Bagel Factory in Victoria. But in this land of artisanal bread and whole grains, finding proper chewy-soft oval rye has been a challenge.

“Do you know what it’s like to find rye bread in British Columbia?” Busgang moans. “It literally doesn’t exist.”

He opens the lid on the steamer and the seductive, spicy smell of smoked meat rises as he drops a chunk into the slicer. “Alexa, play klezmer music,” he tells the robotic assistant. The sound of clarinets fills the room. Busgang seems pleasantly surprised. It’s not a surprise, however, that Busgang, who worked on hit shows like Boy Meets World and The Tournament, puts on his writer-producer’s hat and sees the potential for a sitcom set in the world of Buzzy’s Luncheonette.

So, is he making a living? Busgang thinks it over. “Making a living? We’re making a life. Even better.”

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