Meet the Chef: Bruce Weiss' unlikely entry into cooking and the mentor who made it happen

Chef Bruce Weiss stands in the dining room inside River Street Deli.

Bruce Weiss is one of those people who can turn a simple sandwich into a work of art. Take, for instance, his Elena Ruz - nothing more than cream cheese, strawberry preserves and turkey on bread. But under Weiss' touch, it blossoms into one of the most-popular items on River Street Deli's menu.

Weiss never imagined himself owning a restaurant when the deli became one of the first eateries to open on the North Shore more than 20 years ago. The Bronx, New York, native got his degree in the visual arts and came to Chattanooga as creative director of a corporate turnaround team that had a contract with Signal Knitting Mills (now closed).

But he'd always liked cooking, he says, so he changed career paths, undertaking an apprenticeship under chef Neville Forsythe at Chef's Underground that lasted almost two years.

Weiss is mourning the loss of his good friend and mentor. Forsythe was killed in a traffic accident near Adairsville, Georgia, on July 8.

The apprenticeship with Forsythe came about after Weiss' corporate job ended and he was deciding what to do next.

"Chef's Underground was one of the places I frequented, and I went in and asked him, 'Do you need an apprentice?' He said, 'Show up Wednesday.' And I did. I stayed almost two years with him."

Then realizing the potential of the North Shore - "I had prior knowledge of the building of Coolidge Park and was witnessing the gentrification of the North Shore," he says - he set out on his own, opening River Street Deli in 1998.

Q: While many other restaurants in the North Shore area have come and gone, you've stayed in business. What's your key to success?

A: I've stayed true to my original mission of offering quality food and good service.

Q: How have you seen the North Shore grow and change over the years you've been there?

A: There have been so many new businesses, both retail and restaurants, open. And the establishment of the Northshore Merchants Collective has helped tremendously by promoting our businesses.

Q: What's the most-popular thing on the menu at River Street?

A: It's a toss-up. The Elena Ruz certainly is, but the Brooklyn-Style Brisket, the muffalettas and the bagels and lox are also very popular.

Q: What's your personal favorite?

A: The prosciutto and fresh mozzarella sandwich with baby arugula and Spanish fig jam or the Philly Reuben.

Q: What's been the most memorable meal you've ever had?

A: About 20 years ago at a little restaurant in Poggibonsi, Italy, that had the freshest ingredients and great service.

Q: What cookbook do you turn to for inspiration?

A: Jacques Pepin's "Technique." He has such a vast knowledge and love of food.

Q: What three people would you invite to your dream dinner?

A: Chefs Neville Forsythe and Jacques Pepin and Auguste Escoffier (a French culinary artist, known as "the king of chefs and the chef of kings," who earned a worldwide reputation as director of the kitchens at the Savoy Hotel in the late 1800s).

Q: What was your relationship with Forsythe like?

A: I had the utmost respect for him. You spend two years, basically, in a small kitchen, back to back, you work hand in hand. Working with him was like the inspiration for me to keep going in that business. The cooking skill I have, the passion [for cooking] I have is a tribute to him.

Q: Coolidge Park is right outside your door and is one of the city's top spots for a picnic. So what would we find in your picnic basket?

A: Any of the sandwiches on our menu along with the Country Greek-Style Salad and, for dessert, baklava. And oh yes, a bottle of Fiorre wine.

Here's the recipe for River Street Deli's Country Greek-Style Salad, perfect for packing in your own picnic basket this summer. Or pick some up at the restaurant.

Country Greek-Style Salad

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup (or to taste) red wine vinegar

1/4 cup dried oregano

10 Roma tomatoes, medium diced

1 large red onion, medium diced

2 red or green bell peppers, medium diced

2 large cucumbers, medium diced (leave skin on)

12 whole pepperoncini peppers

Kalamata olives, to taste

Feta cheese, to taste

Whisk together olive oil, vinegar and oregano; set aside. Combine remaining ingredients. Drizzle salad with dressing; season to taste with salt and pepper, and sprinkle with extra oregano, if desired. Let sit, or serve immediately. Makes about 4 servings.

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