A recurring theme that Erik Anjou uses in his documentaries is the exploration of what it means to be Jewish in the contemporary world. The directors previous films include The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground (2010), 8:Ivy League Football and America (2008) and A Cantor’s Tale (2005). With his latest documentary, Deli Man, hitting theatres on Friday, June 19, 2015, Anjou sat down to speak about the film, and it’s no surprise that Caplansky’s Delicatessen was the location for our interview. The genesis for Deli Man began when Anjou met David “Ziggy” Gruber, who is the central subject in the documentary. “He is trying to do with food what I was trying to do with culture,” says Anjou about Ziggy. “Trying to find an answer for himself and also trying to run a successful business.”
Another element that inspired Anjou to make the film was a staggering statistic by writer David Sax in his book “Save the Deli,” which states how there used to be thousands of kosher Jewish delicatessens in New York City alone and now there are only about 150 in all of North America. “What happened to this tradition? What happened to this food group? Why is it disappearing? What does that mean about Jewish culture? All of these things kind of lead to me to making the film.”
About 30 to 35 individuals were interviewed for Deli Man, ranging from deli owner/operators, restaurant brokers, historians, and deli-loving personalities, such as Larry King and Jerry Stiller. Anjou notes that Toronto is a huge deli town, which is why a number of local deli owners, such as Yitz and Bernice Penciner (of Yitz’s Deli) and Zane Caplansky, are featured in the film. Anjou has particular praise for Caplansky, who he describes as trying to do cutting edge things with his food, as well as trying to create a community through his deli. “It’s a place to interact with people that you know, families that you know, your community,” says Anjou of Caplansky’s Deli. “That’s one of the stanchions of what [Zane] is trying to do here; is just not make it a restaurant, but make it a place where people want to come, hang out, talk, visit, etc. And so he’s important in that respect.”
What happened to this tradition? What happened to this food group? Why is it disappearing? What does that mean about Jewish culture? All of these things kind of lead to me to making the film.
One of the key issues that are explored in Deli Man is the disappearance of delis over the last 85 years. Anjou hypothesizes that delis are less prominent due to a combination of economics, changing neighbourhoods, and a changing sense of tradition, the latter of which Anjou believes is one of the most important reasons for the disappearance of delis. “The story of the deli business is also the story of the ethnic immigrant tradition. People come here, they have no money in their pocket. You can work in a restaurant, you can also feed yourself at a restaurant, it’s really important,” says Anjou. “As you get settled in your new country, you want to do better economically and you want to send your kids to college and want them to become doctors and lawyers and not have to work so friggin hard.”
Since delis are typically family-run businesses, the lack of younger generations have contributed to this downfall, as well as the fact that delis are typically a difficult business to run, with 16 to 18 hour days and high rent prices. This makes Deli Man‘s central subject of Ziggy Gruber a rare exception, since despite being a classically trained French chef, Ziggy decided to follow in his family’s footsteps and become a third generation deli man. Anjou thought that Ziggy was the perfect man to follow for the film, since he brought a unique skill set, both professional and personal, to the business and tradition. “Ziggy’s kind of this weird thing. He’s like 43-ish, he’s youngish, but he’s definitely kind of like old school in terms of his attitude.”
The story of the deli business is also the story of the ethnic immigrant tradition. People come here, they have no money in their pocket. You can work in a restaurant, you can also feed yourself at a restaurant, it’s really important.
Ziggy is not a fan of the efforts of other deli’s, include Caplansky’s and Wise Sons Deli in San Francisco, to prepare more modern “Jewish fusion” menus at their restaurants. Despite Ziggy’s own thoughts, Anjou believes that these modernized menus are a key to the deli’s survival, since they attract younger Jews, who might not consider deli to be a part of their traditional cuisine. “A lot of these younger, energized new chefs are finding a new way into the tradition and they are making the food delicious and sexier for younger generations. That’s really the key for survival, because the old places are going to disappear. The old guys are going to get tired and their kids are not going to get into the business. They will shutter the stores and that’s that.”
Even though Ziggy Gruber opts to take a more traditional stance with how he prepares what’s ultimately simple, earthy food, he has still found great success with his deli Kenny and Ziggy’s, even though Houston isn’t typically thought of as a Jewish town. In fact, Anjou made an interesting observation about Ziggy’s customers. “Apparently about 70% of his clientele was Jewish and 30% not Jewish, when he first started the delicatessen. Now, it’s completely flipped; now 70% is non-Jewish and 30% is Jewish, which is great, because it means that there’s an audience for this food that’s not its original home audience. That it can travel across borders and be successful and delicious.”