There were once 2,000 Jewish delis in New York City alone. Today, according to Ziggy Gruber, there are only 120 authentic delicatessens in all of North America. One of them is Kenny & Ziggy's New York Deli Restaurant, Gruber's incredibly popular Houston store.
Now Gruber's experience as a third-generation delicatessen owner is being turned into a movie —Deli Man, by director Erik Anjou.
"I went into this business to preserve the culture and the food, and I thought it was wonderful vehicle to show people what this business was all about," Gruber says. "In certain respects today we are assimilated so much. I would say the closest link to the destruction of the first synagogue in Israel is a corned beef sandwich. All our holidays are based on food, our whole culture is based on eating.
"Growing up in a traditional Jewish household and in the food business, even on vacation at breakfast we would discuss what we were eating for lunch and at lunch we'd discuss what we're eating for dinner."
Anjou met the deli owner when he was in Houston screening another film and was impressed by both his deli knowledge — Gruber has a collection of delicatessen menus that dates back to the early 20th century — and by his ebullient personality.
"People have kind of turned their back on this part of their culture," Ziggy Gruber says. "I mean, Jewish kids today think sushi is a Jewish food."
"He's the real deal, third-generation, and as a documentarian you want a colorful character," Anjou says. "He carries the new and the old in the same body and knows the business inside and out."
After a few days of filming in Houston, Gruber and Anjou are planning a shoot in New York with the artisans behind the meats, pickles and smoked fish that Gruber serves in his restaurants. There will also be a focus on Gruber's family history in the business, visiting his uncle's delicatessen in Long Island and the Manhattan space where Gruber's father owned a deli.
Anjou also hopes to include some legendary "deli mavens" like Jerry Stiller and Jackie Mason —"people who think deli is best food, but who also know about the culture where people hung out and told jokes."
Preserving the unique Jewish spirit of the delicatessens is also a major factor for Gruber and for Anjou, who has previously explored Jewish culture in films A Cantor's Tale and The Klezmatics on Holy Ground.
"There's really not many young people like myself who run these businesses and know what they're doing," Gruber says. "Today there's kind of a facsimile of what it really was. I'm hoping people see what we do and want to go and eat in more delis across the country and enjoy. There's been kind of a backlash — a lot of people came to the country as immigrants and they ate this food two or three times a week. Our store is very busy but we're kind of an anomaly. People have kind of turned their back on this part of their culture. I mean, Jewish kids today think sushi is a Jewish food."
What's the difference between a New York deli and Kenny & Ziggy's? According to Anjou, it's not the food, but the elbow room.
"I think a lot of people are going to be surprised its been ranked one of the best, if not the best in the country, by Zagat. It's not something you expect to find in Houston, but when we went there was not a day when it wasn't overflowing with customers — not just Jewish people, but people who want great food," Anjou says. "What's missing is New York City, and what's not missing is amazing food.
"The vibe is different and the difference has to do with space. In New York especially, if you go to a traditional deli like Carnegie or Katz's, people's elbows are in your ears."
"When I started making the movie about cantorial music, I wasn't a big follower but by the end of it I was a maven," Anjou continues. "I think the same will be said about deli food. His blintz are just unbelievable, I love the sable and onion omelet and the pastrami sandwich is unreal."
Anjou expects to be filming Deli Man around the country over the next six to eight months, and says the movie should be completed in 2013.