This documentary by Erik Anjou is a charming and entertaining history of delicatessens in the U.S., their association with the Jewish culture, and the current state of affairs for delis. Prominent in the presentation is third generation deli owner, David “Ziggy” Gruber, who went to Houston, Texas, in 1999 with his friends to open Kenny and Ziggy’s New York Delicatessen on Post Oak Road.
Ziggy grew up in New York City, maintaining a continuing close relationship with his grandparents who had emigrated from Hungary and Romania and opened one of the first delis there. From a young age, Ziggy was attracted to the business, and he and his grandfather grew very close working alongside one another. When he graduated from high school, his intention was to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, but in the interim, his mother took him to England to meet with relatives he had never seen. When he passed a Cordon Bleu college there, he was instantly entranced, and managed to talk his way into becoming a student. He did well, and when he was finishing up, he was prepared to accept a position at a Michelin star restaurant. This was dear to his father’s heart because he was hoping that his son would become a chef of fine cuisine. However, upon Ziggy’s return to New York and his attending the Deli Man’s Association dinner where the average age was 80, he realized he needed to preserve that part of his heritage, and so has worked in delis ever since. His restaurant in Houston is very successful, earning high ratings across the years. A recent chicken soup cook-off at a Jewish temple in Houston, where many well-known restaurants were in competition, gave him first prize.
The documentary makes very clear how demanding and frustrating deli work can be. There are incredibly long hours including weekends and holidays, the customers are “finicky”, and it’s difficult to recruit and maintain responsible help. It also points up very clearly how the delicatessen is in drastic decline across the U.S. for various reasons. Ziggy is wistful about this, but his father is philosophical—“Nothing lasts forever; everything changes.”
Some delis, for example, Caplansky’s in Toronto, are incorporating changes to “Jew it up” and preserve their cultural heritage. They include storytelling in open mic sessions, a Passover Seder dinner, and a competition among home-cooking enthusiasts. At other establishments, waiters get into the act by entertaining the customers with conversation, song, and jokes. Ziggy is praised for his way with customers, which is very warm and personalized.
Deli Man is informative, entertaining, and certainly prompts the viewer to rush right out and order a pastrami sandwich on Rye. Celebrity interviews are liberally sprinkled throughout the film, and a detailed account of Ziggy’s personal life comes across very nicely, ending up with a wedding in Hungary at the site of his grandfather’s bar mitzvah. Cinematography (David Sperling) and musical (Lorin Sklamberg) accompaniments round out the very nice production.
Plan on a trip to a deli soon after viewing.
Grade: B By Donna R. Copeland