Once the center of life for many cultures, the Jewish deli is a dying institution, with only a hundred or so examples left across the country when there were once more than 1,000 in New York City alone. This doc serves up the pastrami-laden past and present in an entertaining and appetizing fashion, with profiles of deli owners and fans alike.
How did delis become a topic you wanted to cover?
As a filmmaker and a writer, I first tend to be sparked by character. Meeting Ziggy Gruber in Houston was the first step. But the second part of the lightning bolt came when I read David Sax’s book, Save The Deli, about the imperiled Jewish deli business. Meeting Ziggy then made sense in a completely different way. Ziggy was driving ethnicity, culture, history forward through deli. Jewish deli was the message as well as the medium. Ziggy’s personal quest really hit home with some of the other themes I was already exploring in my work.
How did you find the many colorful characters, particularly Ziggy?
I met Ziggy while in Houston screening a previous documentary I produced and directed: The Klezmatics – On Holy Ground. He was warm, effusive, passionate, penultimately skilled as a deli man. As discussions began about a documentary film, Ziggy had a lot of suggestions about funny and forthright deli men I should be talking to. He’s a third generation deli man and knows a lot of interesting folks.
Author David Sax was also an important resource. Not just in terms of introductions but in terms of important insights about how to narrow down an extensive list of prospective interviewees. There was a lot of research to do, of course. Filmmaking is not writing; renting a crew and showing up to film is a capital-intensive action. I didn’t have the means to personally visit and pre-interview each and every deli man — or woman — prior to the on-camera interview itself. So David’s — and Ziggy’s and some others’— insights were important towards helping crystallize the best and brightest sources and resources.
What’s your favorite deli dish?
It’s pastrami pastrami pastrami straight down the line. For me pastrami is Jewish deli crack. Even if I go into the shop intending to eat something else — maybe even healthier, God forbid — I veer back to meat. The smell, the taste, the bursting spices. Pastrami is incomparable.
What makes a good deli?
That’s the million-dollar question! Attitude. History. Neighborhood. The in-your-face waiter or waitress. But ultimately, the food. As Jay Parker of Ben’s Best in Queens says in the film, “Getting a product that you can’t get anywhere else.”
How do delis around the country compare to NYC?
Gosh, there are so many great delis out there. I’m bummed that I never made it to Kenny and Zuke’s in Portland, or Sy Ginsberg’s store in Detroit. Montreal smoked meat rocks, and the Quebecois will never forgive me for not doing an interview at the Snowden or Lester’s. I’m really sorry, guys, we ran out of money. Bu to reference Fyvush Finkel paraphrasing George Burns: “Once you hit Newark, you’re on the road!” The five boroughs of New York are the center of the deli universe. They always will be.
Do you think innovation or sticking to the old school ways offers the greater hope for their continued existence?
In war there’s no one perfect stratagem. You need infantry, air force, engineers. The Jewish deli — even the idea of the Jewish deli — has hit rough times. The documentary talks a lot about some of the factors, economically and demographically, that the deli biz confronts. So I think both innovation and hewing to tradition are crucial.
The deli owner-operators who are succeeding, and will continue to succeed, are those who know their demographics and their bottom-lines equally well. Which also allows them to know when and where to push the envelope.
What Evan Bloom and Leo Beckerman are doing with Wise Sons in San Francisco is delicious and inspiring. Ziggy Gruber in the Galleria can’t get away with some of the things they’re concocting, but that’s okay. Because Ziggy’s in Texas. He understands the power of a perfect burger blended with short ribs and Roumanian tenderloin.
A wonderful friend, a celebrated quarterback once told me, “You take what the defense gives you.” Ziggy, Nate ‘n Al, Wise Sons, Zane Caplansky in Toronto are all doing this in their own exceptional way, which is why you see lines snaking out the front door.
Any other challenges or topics or highlights you want to touch on?
First, I always like to acknowledge the amazing talent of editor Lisa Palattella. A documentary film like Deli Man is conceptualized, not written. The final writing happens in the editing room. There wouldn’t be a Deli Man without a Deli Lisa.
Second, I had one of those revelatory moments at the film’s World Premiere at the Boston Jewish Film Festival. It’s a juncture in the documentary where we’re discussing the importance and sanctity of family-owned businesses. The sequence moves from Acme Smoked Fish in Greenpoint, Brooklyn to a shot of deli man Ziggy Gruber slicing and displaying a piece of lox. You had this twenty-five foot tall shot of perfectly sliced Nova that the audience was simply gasping at, like a George Clooney close-up. That was a lot of fun.