Opens Feb 27
Landmark River Oaks Theatre
2009 W. Gray St.
In 2011, director Erik Greenberg Anjou introduced a screening of his film The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground, a documentary about the eponymous klezmer band, at the Houston Jewish Film Festival. One of the people who contributed funding for the project was Ziggy Gruber, the owner of the beloved Galleria-area delicatessen Kenny and Ziggy’s, so after the screening Anjou stopped by the deli to say thanks. Forget the thanks, Gruber told him—have some food. “I did what I do naturally—I fed him,” Gruber recently told me. “So then he was talking to me and asking where I was from. And then 10 or 12 months later he calls and says he’d like to do a story about delicatessens.”
The resulting documentary, Deli Man, opens this weekend at the Lankmark River Oaks Theatre. Although the film profiles several deli owners across the country, Gruber is the focus. The first time they met, Anjou knew he had a compelling character. “He’s such a warmhearted, radiant guy. We just struck it off as friends, and in the back of my mind as a filmmaker, I was thinking, this is a really interesting story. So the seeds were planted in that first meeting.”
Deli Man tells the history of Jewish delicatessens, beginning with their origins in New York in the early 20th century. “There were thousands upon thousands of kosher delis in New York in the 1930s, and now there are only a few hundred," Anjou said. "Delicatessens were like 7-11s—they were all over the place.” As a third-generation deli owner, Gruber was uniquely positioned to tell the story of the rise and fall of Jewish family delis. His grandfather Max, who emigrated from Budapest in the early 1900s, opened The Rialto in 1929, the first deli on Broadway, which was frequented by Milton Berle, Ethel Merman, and the Marx Brothers. Gruber’s father Eugene opened Genard’s Deli on Madison Avenue when Gruber was 12.
After studying at the Cordon Bleu in London and apprenticing with some of Europe’s top chefs, Gruber himself went to work at London’s only three-star Michelin restaurants, Le Gavroche and The Water Side Inn, where he cooked for the Queen, heads of state, and numerous celebrities. He returned to the states to open his own deli in Los Angeles, Ziggy G’s, before moving to Houston and opening Kenny and Ziggy’s in the early 2000s.
Gruber said he quickly grew comfortable being filmed by Anjou. “It really wasn’t intrusive, because when he came in we were doing stuff for the Jewish holidays and the regular holidays. We’re just too busy of a place to be self-conscious. We gotta do what we do—we gotta get the food out for the customer. We can’t afford to ruin anyone’s holiday!”