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A Life Spent 'Working Toward The Perfect Slice'

Len Berk slicing salmon at Zabar's food emporium in New York City.
Cosima Amelang
Len Berk slicing salmon at Zabar's food emporium in New York City.

Len Berk loves lox, the salt-cured salmon that goes so well with bagels. The 85-year-old New Yorker is a veteran salmon slicer at Zabar's, the gourmet food shop in Manhattan.

But it wasn't always that way. For nearly four decades, Berk was an accountant.

"I never loved it, but accounting provided a decent living," he said to his friend Joshua Gubitz, during a recent visit to StoryCorps. "And it was very important for me to take care of my children. So after I retired I looked for something to do next."

One day, Berk got a call from a friend who said that she saw an advertisement that a large gourmet food store was looking for a lox slicer, and he thought,"I could do that."

"I had been a customer of that store for many years and I used to buy chunks of salmon and take it home and slice them myself because I've always enjoyed slicing salmon," he said.

Berk says he didn't really have any lox-slicing credentials, but felt very comfortable with the salmon.

"So I applied for the job. I sent the owner an email listing 10 credentials: uh, I've been one of your best customers; I'm reliable; I've always been a fish person."

The owner called him immediately asking, "What kind of a CPA wants to slice lox?"

Berk has been slicing ever since.

Len Berk, right, and his friend Joshua Gubitz during a recent visit to StoryCorps.
/ StoryCorps
Len Berk, right, and his friend Joshua Gubitz during a recent visit to StoryCorps.

"When I started one of the things that I loved was my ability to deal with the most difficult customers," he said. "Customer would say, 'I don't like that slice.' I would say, 'Oh, I'll be happy to take that slice off, and not only that I'll give you a free slice.' "

That was a long time ago, though.

"Now I have a hard time controlling myself," Berk said. "When I'm slicing, I'm slicing. Very often I get lost in the lox. Somebody will say, 'Do you hear what I'm saying?' And I would say, 'Yes I do, but I'm very involved in slicing your salmon now.'

"I would say fish in general is in my blood, and now that I'm there for a while and I feel my oats, I want my slices to have more style, more character," he said. "More panache."

Recently Berk's wife asked him how he wanted to spend the rest of his life.

His response? "I want to spend the rest of my life doing exactly what I'm doing. I'm working toward the perfect slice. "

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Liyna Anwar.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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