February 26, 2020

‘Deli Man’: A colorful bio sandwiched inside a tasty documentary

Erik Greenberg Anjou’s documentary “Deli Man” began when the filmmaker met Ziggy Gruber, 45, the jovial, Yiddish-speaking proprietor of Kenny & Ziggy’s New York Delicatessen in Houston. 

Over Lucullian platters of pastrami, blintzes and kasha varnishkes several years ago, Gruber regaled Anjou with stories of how his Budapest-born grandfather, Max, threw an apron at the 8-year-old Ziggy as he was sitting in a booth at the family’s Spring Valley, N.Y., deli and put him to work coring cabbages for (what else?) the restaurant’s Jewish-style stuffed cabbage. Max Gruber — who in 1927 opened The Rialto, the first deli on Broadway — went on to teach Ziggy everything he knew about the delicatessen biz, including smoking whitefish, pickling corned beef in a wet cure for 45 days and, of course, how to pick out a good tongue. “My best friend growing up was my grandfather,” Gruber said by telephone from Houston.

Ziggy was only 15 when Max died at the age of 88, and, Gruber said, his grief was so great that he dropped out of high school. Eventually, he said, he studied haute cuisine at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu in London, as well as apprenticing at Le Gavroche, one of the queen of England’s favorite restaurants, where Gordon Ramsey also trained. “But I felt there was something missing,” Gruber said.

He found his true calling at a deli owners’ convention in New York in the late 1980s: “I looked around the room — it was all 60- and 70-year-old people,” he says in the film. “I said to myself, ‘Who is going to perpetuate our food if I don’t do it?’…The next day, I went back to my dad and my uncle, and I said, ‘I’ve had enough of this fancy-shmancy business. I’m going back into the deli business.’ ”

“Deli Man” revolves primarily around Gruber, but it also profiles more than 15 other delicatessen owner-operators in at least seven cities, from Katz’s and Carnegie Deli in New York to Manny’s in Chicago to Canter’s in Los Angeles, and Nate ’n Al in Beverly Hills. Anjou dubs the proprietors “guerrilla warriors” for persevering in an increasingly hostile environment for delis, as meat prices soar, rents skyrocket, and at least 30 percent of American beef ends up on plates in Asia. Not to mention changing tastes, as older customers die off, younger Jews continue to assimilate, trends favor healthier cuisine, and even many kosher restaurants sport sushi rather than knishes on the menu.

The statistics are grim: In the 1930s, up to 3,000 delis graced New York City; today only some 150 remain in all of North America. Fewer, actually, Anjou pointed out during an interview from his New York office, since the Full Belly Deli in Portland, Maine, closed its doors just recently, along with Moe Pancer’s in Toronto. Meanwhile, in what could signal a new trend of artisanal delis, the young proprietors of Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen in San Francisco are shown dishing out Jewish fusion eats (consider their beef frankfurter slathered in corned beef chili and gribenes), much like Wexler’s much-praised new-wave deli in downtown Los Angeles.

For Anjou, 53, the film is the third in his trilogy of documentaries about Jewish life and culture, following 2005’s “A Cantor’s Tale” and 2010’s “The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground.” A family tragedy spurred his interest in Jewish subject matter: In 1995, his beloved 22-year-old younger brother died of hemophilia-related AIDS. “At that point, I was basically bottomless, and when you’re knocked off your center, you have to refind yourself,” Anjou said. “I had always felt myself to be culturally Jewish, but at that time I started going to synagogue little by little. I joined the choir at B’nai Jeshurun congregation on the Upper West Side, and music lit me up again. It was a portal into my interest in tradition, literature and Hebrew language. And as I started finding out who I was as a Jew, I began to ask myself all kinds of questions: ‘What makes a Jew a Jew, and how do we define ourselves?’ ”

After delving into Jewish music for his first two documentaries, Anjou turned to Tribal cuisine after meeting Gruber at the Houston Jewish Film Festival; to make “Deli Man,” he went on to engage in meticulous research, including interviewing delicatessen mavens and reading books, such as David Sax’s 2009 “Save the Deli.” 

Ultimately Anjou decided to primarily profile delis run by “the great small owner-operators — especially the generation-to-generation businesses, where the kids or the grandkids of the patriarch deli owners were prodded to go into other fields, to be white-collar guys, but inevitably they went back to the family business because it’s where they felt they belonged. They’re the ones who are doing the mano a mano wrestling with the numbers and the cultural changes in order to perpetuate the tradition.”

In Beverly Hills, Mark and David Mendelson recall how their grandfather, Al, teamed up with Nate Reimer to found Nate ’n’ Al in 1945; at Canter’s on Fairfax Avenue, third-generation deli operators and siblings Jacqueline and Marc Canter report that their business is so woven into the Jewish life cycle that bris and shivah catering makes up a notable part of their business.

The film also spotlights the reminiscences of deli-loving celebrities such as Fyvush Finkel, and Nate ’n Al regulars Larry King and Jerry Stiller. Entertainer Freddie Roman remembers how the Carnegie Deli invented the now-ubiquitous sky-high deli sandwich, where you take one bite and “you have to have a jaw adjustment.”

Toward the end of “Deli Man,” Gruber honors his grandfather by marrying his longtime girlfriend at the Budapest synagogue where the young Max became a bar mitzvah decades ago. Now Gruber and his wife have an 8-week-old daughter named Isabelle: “But we will call her Izzy,” he said. “Because when I train her in the business, it will sound better to say, ‘Izzy, cut me a quarter-pound of Nova!’”

“Deli Man” will open in Los Angeles theaters on March 6.