Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Chef Todd Ginsberg: Elevating Jewish Deli Food and Israeli Cuisine

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Named a James Beard semifinalist for Best Chef Southeast in 2014 and 2015, Chef Todd Ginsberg has made a name for himself in the cutthroat culinary world. 

Together with his partners, Ginsberg, 44, has five restaurants in Atlanta. The wildly popular The General Muir has received several awards and serves elevated New York deli food, while another of his restaurants, Yalla, is inspired by Israeli cuisine. Next up for Ginsberg will be Wood’s Chapel BBQ, set to open in early 2019. 

Although Ginsberg is a nice Jewish boy, his upcoming restaurant takes its name from a church that was established to serve the post-Civil War community in the Atlanta neighborhood of Summerhill. Many of Summerhill’s early residents were Jewish immigrants and freed slaves. Ginsberg’s incredibly successful career includes working in Paris and New York, before embarking on his restaurant empire in Atlanta. 

Jewish Journal: What was your Jewish culinary experience growing up and how did it influence your cooking?

Todd Ginsberg: Both my parents are Jewish, and there were not many meals in my house or my grandparents’ house that weren’t Jewish inspired, except for the occasional lasagna. There were a lot of cold cuts, matzo ball soup, cabbage soup. But it never occurred to me to start cooking Jewish food until later. I was classically trained at CIA [Culinary Institute of America] and everything was cemented in French traditions. So all I wanted to do the first 14 years of my career was French food. 

JJ: What changed?

TG: Seven years ago, I was [about to have] a son, and one day I had lunch with my dad at Gruby’s [New York] Deli in Atlanta. [He] said that I should think about opening a deli because I would have better hours and have my nights free. I took this seriously and did research. Then my future partners reached out to me about the resurgence of the deli, and it seemed like a great idea to give something like that to the community. 

JJ: Have you always had a love of cooking?

TG: I was cooking at 22, 23, but working in restaurants since I was 18. I was watching chefs cook. One day I cooked an Italian meal for my then girlfriend and her mom. Her mother saw how happy I was doing it and how I liked making other people happy. I think more than the meal itself, she recognized those traits in me and tapped into that. She suggested culinary school and, within a few months, I enrolled at CIA. 

JJ: What role does Judaism play in your life?

TG: I associate more as culturally Jewish than religious. But I was invited to LimmudFest and when I went, I was surrounded by very passionate, intelligent Jews that I related to on many levels. I’d like to become a better Jew. I’m 44 and I have a family, and being around Jewish food and a lot of Jewish people made me realize how important it is to me. 

JJ: Do you get a mix of people at your Jewish deli, The General Muir?

TG: Yes. The General Muir is a secular, inclusive, modern American tribute to the New York deli. We want everyone to feel welcome and comfortable. It lends itself to the whole community, so we get some people who are nostalgic and Jewish people celebrating the High Holy Days. We do a Passover seder and two Rosh Hashanah dinners. But we also get other people; we don’t have just one type of clientele. We have a lot of food that’s approachable: homemade bagels, homemade cured fish, homemade pastrami. 

JJ: Was there a Jewish population in Atlanta actively seeking the type of food experience you created?

TG: There were enough temples where we felt comfortable opening a deli. There are Jews from New York here at Emory (University), and Jewish people living in the neighborhood where The General Muir is located. So we felt that could be a backbone for the opening. 

JJ: Jewish food sometimes gets slammed as bland or boring. How do you make the Jewish food experience appealing?

TG: You wat first with your eyes. The ambiance and décor of The General Muir is modern American. There aren’t dark walls. It’s fresh and white with pops of color. There are a lot of window and bright light. Walking in, you’re not going to think of the old-school type of deli or a diner. Our food approach to cooking is buying local and sustainable whenever possible, and doing everything in house, from pastrami to all of our breads. We also use Angus beef. So while it’s a deli, it’s also high quality. 

JJ: How has Yalla been influenced by your visit to Israel?

TG: The stars lined up when we were opening Yalla. We all agreed that I should go to Israel to check out the food in the homeland. There’s something inspirational and spiritual about having hummus in and being in the Old City of Jerusalem. While I couldn’t bring back the actual experience, what I did bring back was the power of taste. And that’s something that’s been strong for me my whole life, and I associate it with memories. 

JJ: What is your favorite food to eat and your favorite food to cook?

TG: Japanese is my favorite food to eat. I love sushi. And my favorite food to cook is either fish or Italian food. I think Jewish and Italian cooking have similarities. You take core ingredients, cook them for a long time, you work with what you have and you break bread with people.

Allison Futterman is a writer based in Charlotte, N.C.

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