Last autumn, Jay Parker thought he was ready for his close-up. Almost.
Following a selection process, producers of the popular Food Network program “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” tapped Ben’s Best, Parker’s iconic Rego Park eatery, to be featured in an episode titled, “From Crepes to Kreplach.”
But he hesitated, first seeking sage advice from Rachel, his better half of nearly 30 years, before committing.
“I said I could make a jackass out of myself,” the Fresh Meadows-raised Parker related.
“‘It’s way too late for that,’” he recalled his wife’s deadpan response with a wry grin.
With Parker convinced, the 66-year-old Queens Boulevard pastrami-lover’s paradise welcomed show host Guy Fieri and crew last October and closed its doors for more than two days of filming. The episode is set to air this Monday, March 14, at 9 p.m.
“It’s very exciting and an honor to be selected,” Parker, a father of two, said between sips of coffee at a table near the counter, minutes before the lunch rush. “We’re representing the kosher deli industry. This could be helpful, not only for us but for everybody.”
Ben’s Best, started by Parker’s father, is one of three kosher delicatessens in Queens. There are 16 of them across the five boroughs, Parker said, and according to David Sax, author of “Save the Deli,” the Big Apple once was home to more than 2,000 Jewish delis.
Parker said Ben’s has survived and thrived because they “offer things no one else can,” including homemade corned beef and pastrami.
“We had to be head and shoulders above everyone else in order to stay,” he asserted. “People pay for quality.”
Customers most often opt for the corned beef and pastrami, Parker noted, but Ben’s signature dishes are the stuffed cabbage and beef goulash. And making its menu debut this spring is a sandwich in honor of “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” created by Fieri and 26-year veteran Ben’s manager Richy Meseika. The “Triple D Special” boasts steamed hard salami, pastrami and brisket stacked high on club bread, punctuated by fried onions, hot pepper, oil and vinegar and mayo.
“It has a complimentary taste,” Parker said. “The way [the meats] worked together was just amazing.”
A study of Ben’s customers reveals it to be a destination deli, Parker reported, with just about 30 percent of them coming from within a mile and a half of the restaurant, and the rest hailing from farther out.
“It’s a tradition for a lot of people,” said Denise Zollo, a counter attendant at Ben’s with more than 30 years’ experience in the food-service industry.
Despite the economic downturn, Parker said Ben’s is “doing very well” and credits its increased digital presence — website, Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare — with the steady business, a good portion of which comes from corporate catering.
But Parker was also quick to cook up kudos for his employees, whom he calls “a big family.” On Monday night, they’ll gather with their families, friends and vendors at the deli for a private viewing party.
“I’m only as good as my staff,” Parker said, draining the last drop of java from his cup, “and I’ve got the best in the business.”