'Deli Man' serves you a sandwich and pulls up a chair

A slice of lox on screen in the documentary 'Deli Man': 'People were oohing and aahing like it was Brad Pitt'

Ziggy Gruber always knows whenever he's in a good delicatessen.

"You walk in, and the first thing you do is you take a take a deep breath and inhale. If you smell that cooking and it seems like this homey, grandmother's type of kitchen, you know you are in the right place."

A third-generation deli man who trained at the Le Cordon Bleu in London, Gruber has had great success with Kenny & Ziggy's New York Delicatessen Restaurant in Houston. And he now he's the star of a new documentary, "Deli Man," which opens Friday.

Directed and produced by Erik Greenberg Anjou, "Deli Man" is the third work in his trilogy of films about Jewish culture. The film features interviews with the owners and operators of such landmark New York delis as the Carnegie, Katz's and 2nd Avenue, as well as Nate 'n Al in Beverly Hills and Canter's in Los Angeles and deli connoisseurs such as Larry King, Jerry Stiller and Fyvush Finkel.

"Deli Man" also examines the 160-year-old tradition of Jewish delis and how the restaurants have struggled to survive in recent years.

"Some people are really into food," Anjou said over the phone from his home in New York. "I like food, but I'm not a foodie. We are getting this extraordinary response from people just on the food end of things — how delicious the film is. We had a screening up in Boston where there was a piece of sliced Nova put on screen and people were oohing and aahing like it was Brad Pitt."

Anjou met Gruber in Houston when the deli man sponsored a screening of the filmmaker's 2010 documentary, "The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground," at the Houston Jewish Film Festival.

Gruber, said Anjou, told him "come in and let me feed you." And Anjou took him up on the offer. "I went into his deli, and we completely hit it off."

"He was eating up a storm," recalled Gruber, chatting over the phone from the "schmooze" room at his deli. "I guess he found me very interesting. His path has been to preserve Jewish culture in film. He said, 'I would like to do one on Jewish food and Jewish delicatessens.' We were very delighted he spotlighted us."

You can see why he would. The robust and ebullient Gruber is passionate about his job and Jewish culture. (During the course of the film, he even falls in love and gets married.)

Gruber, said Anjou, is "striking on a number of different levels. Ziggy is someone that brings the complete skill set to the deli business. He can cook, he can barter. He is a classically trained French chef. He is a schmoozer extraordinaire. He is so sincere about Jewish culture and Jewish roots and finding a way to perpetuate those roots."

Max Gruber, Ziggy's beloved grandfather, and Max's brothers-in-law opened the family's first deli, the Rialto, on Broadway in New York City in 1927. Ziggy Gruber got his first taste of the family business at 8 when his grandfather told him, "Come with me. It's time to make a living!"

"My grandfather always told me you have to know every aspect of your business," said Gruber. "I was taught by real old-timers. You have to check your product to make sure what's coming in is good. You have to taste and make sure everyone is cooking it the right way and slicing it the right way. You have to make sure customers are being served right. You're only as good as the last sandwich you make. You're only as good as the last matzo ball they eat."

Before being lured to Houston in 1999 to partner with Lenny Friedman and his son Kenny to bring New York deli food to the Texas metropolis, Gruber had Ziggy G's on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood. Despite good reviews and initially brisk business, "we weren't open long," said Gruber. "We had a parking dispute, and they basically took our parking away. I don't have to tell you it's not good for business."

Anjou said delis have been challenged for many reasons, including "astronomical rents, astronomical food costs, change in demographics, change in eating habits."

"Jews have assimilated," noted Gruber. "When I had my first store with my father and uncle, Mrs. Goldberg would eat with you four or five times a week. This is the food she loved. This is the food she knew. The next generation, they eat Italian food, they eat Thai food. You name it. So maybe they eat deli a little bit less.

"Now you have another generation that didn't grow up with it. Their parents weren't cooking this type of food in the house. As far as they are concerned, sushi is a Jewish food."

Not to worry, though: Gruber's business is thriving. "I have all different types of generations here," he said.

He's worked hard to attract the clientele. "I have done my own outreach programs." he said. "I am involved in the community. I have gone to all of the temples and the religious Jewish schools. I make a buffet. I say, 'Once in a while tell your mother you want her to eat Jewish food.' That doesn't mean coming to Kenny & Ziggy's deli. Why don't you dust off your old recipes? There is no reason you can't make a nice soup for dinner or a nice brisket."

Twitter: @mymackie

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