Berkoff, borscht and bagels

Berkoff, borscht and bagels

Playwright and actor Steven Berkoff eats all the way through his first documentary. Over salt beef on rye he tells Brigit Grant why.....

Brigit Grant is the Jewish News Supplements Editor

5,454 miles is a long way to go for a bowl of soup, but Steven Berkoff isn’t fazed by the distance. Not if it gets him to Canters Deli in West Hollywood which has been his favourite Tinsel Town eaterie for the past thirty years.

Who knows, it could even be longer as time escapes him when he loses himself in an American-size serving of Canters golden chicken soup laced with lokshen.

“Tastes just like Ma’s” says Berkoff softly between slurps at the start of his nosh-laden documentary Eat Dollink! which premieres at the Genesis Cinema on Mile End Road on January 24.

To hear one of the most influential writer/directors in British theatre emote about a latka is rather left-field and certainly not what you expect from the man revered by drama students the world over – as well as actor Tom Hardy – for his pioneering performance techniques.

Outside of theatre Berkoff is best known as the villain who took on Bond and other big screen heroes which makes the sight of him brandishing a chunk of New Green and not a kalashinikov all the more amusing.It was a plate of new green and a bowl of chicken soup that the actor ordered the moment he arrived at Harry Morgan’s in St John’s Wood for our interview.

Steven Berkoff doing signature villain in Bond's Octopussy
Steven Berkoff doing signature villain in Bond’s Octopussy

“The food is very good here and I come a lot. Particularly in the summer when I can sit outside “says Berkoff settling on a banquette which is nowhere near as generous as the one at Canters Deli.

Canters first opened in 1931 in Boyle Heights, LA , but when the Jews moved en masse to West Hollywood in 1948, the deli relocated. Ironically 1948 was also the year Harry Morgan opened his doors, though Blooms had been dishing out deli in Whitechapel since 1920.

“Blooms had a charming, eccentric piquancy once you were inside,” notes Berkoff who like all of us remembers the impatient waiters in white jackets. “But there are so few old school London delis now, “ maligns the thesp who clearly hasn’t been to  the chopped herring hub that is Borehamwood. Evidently Mr B only has eyes for American delis.

“So much choice..” he insists. “ So many types of bagels. You can’t get a decent pumpernickel bagel here.” Having thrown down the gauntlet to British bagel makers across the capital, Berkoff goes on to talk about the many hours he has spent at Canters which is open 24 hours all year (except for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) and how it proved to be a good space to work.

On a banquette at Canters Steven has penned poems and prose

“I wrote stories there…. poems… a whole book in fact.” That book is Sod The Bitches ( available on Amazon) which is about an out of work actor and the trials and temptations a theatrical life presents. Berkoff is constantly writing, though it was the work of Eugene O’Neil and not his own that kept him in LA for much of last year when he directed the play The Hairy Ape to huge acclaim. He wants to bring it to the UK this year if he can fight the right venue and as it has been four years since he directed On The Water Front, his return to the London stage will be appreciated.

Berkoff is keen that Eat Darlink! his first documentary also gets some attention.

“The film is about the history of the Jewish people through food. How the very creation of the dishes came out of poverty and the struggle to survive.” Unscripted and garnished with historical facts, it is Berkoff’s veneration of borscht and love of latkes that dominates and like all Jews he believes nothing gets close to his own mother’s chicken soup. He does make his own and shares his recipe with me over our shared salt beef sandwich.

“It’s all about the leek,” he says after listing the obvious other ingredients. “Got to have leeks and at the end a bit of paprika, pinch of cayenne pepper and a squeeze of lemon to add a bit of tartness.”

Doubtless chicken soup makers will agree to disagree, but Berkoff hopes his film will tempt visitors to LA to try Canters brand of Jewish penicillin. There are other delis in the film, but it is at Canters the playwright gets a real sense of his mother and where he feels safe.

Steven with his mother, the chicken soup expert in the East End

“You could never really be lonely in an American Deli. It’s a sanctuary. Once a bowl of steaming hot chicken soup is put in front of you, the ills and stresses of the world gradually dissolve.”

Berkoff has toyed with the idea of living at his favourite eaterie and is convinced that if he is tidy and respectful he could take up residence in one of the booths and from that vantage point observe, write and feast on chopped herring pumpernickel bagels indefinitely. Keep an eye out for him if you go.

Eat Darlink at the Genesis Cinema on Jan 24 followed by a Q&A with Steven Berkoff to book tickets visit

read more: