Laura: Hi, I’m Laura Max and welcome back to The BusinessMakers Show, brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business. Our guest today, Ziggy Gruber, one of my personal heroes and Founder of Kenny & Ziggy’s, once the deli maven and now known also as the deli man; Ziggy, welcome to the show, I’m…
Ziggy: Hey Laura, thank you very much for coming in here. Actually we’ve seen you a few times with your whole family over here.
Laura: Well my whole family has actually been coming here almost every weekend since I was about 13 years old and before I moved to Houston when I was 13, whenever I came to visit Kenny & Ziggy’s was my first stop.
Ziggy: Well we appreciate that because remember something, all proceeds of this restaurant go to a children’s home.
Laura: No, I did not know that. Well everyone, all proceeds…
Ziggy: Yeah, my children
Laura: We’re here every weekend, I tell all my friend who don’t come to Kenny & Ziggy’s that while the Christians go to church on Sunday, the Jews go to Kenny & Ziggy’s on Sunday mornings.
Ziggy: Well we are the largest congregation here in, uh, in Houston, but you know what makes it is, you know, all the proceeds of this restaurant go to a children’s home.
Laura: I had no idea.
Ziggy: Yeah, my children.
Laura: Oh, okay perfect. I’m so glad that I’m supporting – I’m supporting your family. You have done so much for our family with these incredible foods we have on the table, I’ve tried every single one of them. Um, you’ve recently become world-renowned for Kenny and Ziggy’s, you’re now the star of “Deli Man,” a documentary that’s currently playing in theaters.
Ziggy: Well, that’s very nice of you to – that’s very nice of you to say, but when it all comes down to it that’s a bubamiences – that means tall tales.
Laura: So this is Yiddish for those who don’t know.
Ziggy: But don’t worry, we’ll translate folks as we go along just on case; either that or we’ll have subtitles like on Swamp People. Okay, but the thing is this is it doesn’t matter if we’re written up a thousand times in the paper or we have this movie Deli Man which is at the River Oaks Theater right now, what’s really important to me is the food; that’s what I’m all about, the food.
Laura: Jewish deli food was really popular in the 40s, we learned this from “Deli Man,” you’re actually one of probably just around a hundred delis left in America that serve this kind of food. This food, if you’ve had it before, it’s hard to imagine that it’s sort of starting to fade. I mean why is that and what’s made this food so special to you?
Ziggy: Well what’s happened, well let’s start off, why is it fading? Why is it fading, it’s very simple; when a lot of Jewish immigrants came in the early 1900s a lot of them were uneducated so they opened up all these restaurants around New York because a lot of the husbands were there and the mom and the kids were still back in the old country, so they needed a place to get some nourishment and they also needed a place to feel like this homey atmosphere so they would go into these delis. When these delis would open up, they would be open up, not big places like you see here, maybe places with 10 tables.
Laura: They were smaller.
Ziggy: They were very small and Mom would cook in the back and Dad would be in the front and maybe the kids would be running as waiters and waitresses and over the years they worked very hard to educate their children and send them to college. When they went to college they became doctors, lawyers, stock brokers and real estate moguls, you know, even plastic surgeons like you’re future machatunna.
Laura: But there’s no one holding down the delis, there’s no one holding down the delis.
Ziggy: No because they didn’t, you know, they didn’t – as things went kids decided they didn’t want to work that hard and…
Laura: But you are an exception to that rule.
Ziggy: Because I loved always perpetuating the food. My dad did not want me particularly in the deli business. I was very close with my grandfather; I’d been cooking with him ever since I’m 8 years old.
Laura: And he’s the one who gave you your first apron, right, when you were 3 years old.
Ziggy: No 8.
Laura: You were 8, okay, very young.
Ziggy: At 3 years old I would have been like Doogie Houser, but at 8 he threw it over to me and – and – and we started to cook at 8, and the one thing is this is that we love that and I love that homey feeling of being around your family. But he dies when I was 15, I went to culinary school in England and when I came back my dad really wanted me to really be in the fancier business. So in England I worked at Le Gavroche which is a 3 star Michelin restaurant which is a very famous place. I mean Gordon Ramsey originally came from there, same with, uh, Marco Pierre White and a host of other great chefs and, you know, we – it was a great training ground. But I went to visit my dad one day in New York and there was the Deli Man’s Association dinner and I looked around and I saw all these old guys, 80, 70, you know, on life support basically. And then I said to myself who’s gonna perpetuate this food if I don’t? So I told my father and my uncle I’m coming back and that’s when we started and let’s take this to another level.
Laura: Well it’s such a culture, it’s such a tradition and to know that it’s being sustained by someone here in Texas is amazing because usually we think of the Jewish deli as the New York deli, it’s in New York. How did we, I mean you talked about having small delis, this is a big Texas-sized Jewish deli, how did this come to be; how did we end up having a Kenny & Ziggy’s in Texas?
Ziggy: Well if they would have told me I would of ended up in Houston, Texas I would have said you’re mashigina, that’s crazy. Okay…
Laura: For those who don’t know, mishigna is Yiddish for crazy, it’s a word everyone should know, we use it a lot.
Ziggy: Absolutely, and it’s a lot nicer than saying crazy. It’ll get – but, the thing is this is if you would have told me I would have come here I would have said this is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard of. But the reality is me and the old owner of the Carnegie Deli, a gentleman named Freddy Klein, were going to open up in Times Square. Rudy Giuliani at that time was redecorating all of Times Square and if you saw the lease, the lease was ridiculous. The landlord would be making all this money…
Laura: I’m sure it was through the roof.
Ziggy: Oh, after 20 years of being in the business I would have basically not made a dime. SO I said you know what, let’s not make this deal, let’s go out to dinner. So me and Freddy went out to dinner and we got a phone call from a gentleman named Lenny Freedman, Lenny Freedman had a son named Kenny. Money was in the real estate business, Kenny was working in some restaurants and Lenny wanted to back him in the restaurants but he said if we’re going to do a restaurant we want to do a deli. They did their research, they found out there was really nobody left in the deli business – I’m kind of the last of the Mohicans in that respect.
Laura: Yeah, there – this is it and – and watch this.
Ziggy: Okay, so of the old
Laura: You can’t go anywhere, we need you, we need you.
Ziggy: No I – thanks. So they called me, I talked to Lenny on the phone and Lenny was like look, come down, take a look, all you can do is waste one weekend. I went – came down, I was very impressed with Houston, I thought it was a fabulous city; I thought at that time it was like America’s best-kept secret.
Laura: It still is.
Ziggy: It is and – and I just liked it from day one. The only thing I will tell you, it was – I came in June.
Laura: It was so hot.
Ziggy: Oh my God, it was like a shvitz – that’s a steam room.
Laura: That’s why it’s always freezing in here. When we come to Kenny & Ziggy’s we all bring our jackets. No matter what the season is it’s nice and cool in here, it feels good.
Ziggy: Well it has to be if you want me to stay.
Laura: It has to be nice and cool to enjoy all of this food.
Ziggy: But it was so hot it felt like you were in the middle of a tumble dryer and I said – I never experienced heat like that before because it’s different than New York. Like you feel like you’re in a tumble dryer, that’s the best way, like you’ve got these hot rags, and I turned to Kenny and I said God, I don’t know if I can – can handle this. I said I really like Houston but this is tough. So he turned around to me and he says don’t worry about it, we’re having an unusually hot heat wave. And I know he was telling me…
Laura: And we’ve been having the same unusual one for the last 15 years.
Ziggy: Well, you know, it takes you 3 seasons to get used to it. Now I’m used to it. I’m like everyone else like a lizard on a rock.
Laura: So there’s something about being in here; if you’ve never been in Kenny & Ziggy’s before you have musical posters lining the walls, you have hysterical Yiddish sayings on the walls. I used to walk around and try to read them all and I would laugh harder and harder at every single one. How did you come up with this concept? How did you find all this stuff?
Ziggy: Well it’s not a concept. I’ve been doing this for 35 years. I’ve had delicatessen restaurants in New York, I’ve had them in Lose Angeles and here in Houston and all the Playbills that you see here, one of my closest friends, a gentleman named Kenny Singer, um, what do you call it, um, helped me get a lot of those Playbills. Plus I’ve always been advertised in Playbill and my family has over the years; my grandfather had the first delicatessen on Broadway.
Laura: Well it’s so interesting because when you think about Playbills, a lot of the stuff that’s in here, it’s almost like it’s from another time and when you walk in here it’s like you’re walking into another time in New York and when you watch “Deli Man” some of your family members are talking about how when – when you were born, when you were only 3 years old, you seemed like you were from another time, you wanted to speak Yiddish all the time; where do you think that come from?
Ziggy: Well this is what happens when you have two grandparents – my grandfather was from Budapest and my grandmother was from Romania – when they talk to you, you know, you get that feel. But when I worked in the deli most of the people behind the counter were Eastern European immigrants so I have that flavor so I guess by osmosis and your environment you become who you are. And, uh, you know, plus everyone in my family has a good sense of humor and, you know, I lived in this interesting world, like this modern day Isaac Bashevis Singer world.
Laura: It’s a world that is fading but it’s one that when you know of it you treasure it and so what I want to know is who’s carrying this on after – after you? Have you trained people, are you training your children? Are they gonna keep the brisket around?
Ziggy: Well I have my – well – I hope so, you know, time will tell. I just had my first child, Izzy
Laura: Congratulations, mozeltov.
Ziggy: 9 weeks ago. Now, it’s Isabelle – or Izzy we call her – hopefully when she gets around 8 or 9 we’ll start training her behind the counter and start training her and that’s why we call her Izzy because it fits with the genre. So when she’s cutting lox I can say Izzy, cut me a quarter pound of Nova. You know, it sounds better than some fancy name like Brittany or Briana or something fancy schmancy name like they give today.
Laura: Izzy is perfect, yeah. So what do we have, what do we have on the table here? I mean…
Ziggy: Well we have just a little – this is just an appetizer.
Laura: This is a sandwich, you’re supposed to put your mouth around this and eat it?
Ziggy: Right. This is just corned beef and pastrami combination on that famously double baked…
Laura: Do people finish this?
Laura: Because I know my family does but I want to know what normal people do.
Ziggy: Normal people finish it. I mean it depends, you know, it depends what kind of mood – you know, that’s the one that’s great about here, if someone wants to split it we don’t charge a sharing charge here. So if you want to eat – I mean that’s a lot of pounds of meat; there – that’s over a pound of meat.
Laura: Yeah, and you can take it home, I mean…
Ziggy: You can take it home. Listen, there is some – there is someone, you know, bubby, some grandmothers out there, they make 3 meals out of that thing.
Laura: Yeah, oh absolutely.
Ziggy: So I mean God bless them, you know, if they think they’re beating me, you know, that’s good, let them go and enjoy themselves.
Laura: And this is the world famous cheesecake.
Ziggy: Our cheesecake which is rated the best.
Laura: Which I will be eating after this just in case any of you are curious.
Ziggy: Our cheesecake is better than any cheesecake, we’ve won numerous awards for it, it is absolutely phenomenal.
Laura: You know my mother’s gonna kill me for telling this story but I’m going to tell it right now. When I was in high school and my mother was dating she would have a few of her dates bring home cheesecake for me, this just started happening as tradition, and I would judge them based on the cheesecake that they brought home and when they brought Kenny & Ziggy’s I liked them a lot more than when they didn’t. It was the best, it was the best. Anyway, so tell us more about what we have on the table; we’ve got the cheesecake, what is this delicious looking thing?
Ziggy: That is stuffed cabbage.
Laura: Stuffed cabbage, okay.
Ziggy: We take ground beef we make, it’s a combination of short ribs and skirt steak, we grind that up, we put garlic, onions and spices and rice, then we surround it with these very, very large cabbage leaves, braise it for about 8 hours in a sweet and sour tomato-based sauce, it is great. The L.A. Times and the New York Times said it was the cabbage of dreams.
Laura: Well, I mean this is delicious and very culturally oriented food, but do you – you have people from all different cultures coming in here and eating in here.
Ziggy: Well good food is good food.
Laura: Good food is good food, yeah.
Ziggy: You know look, I like to eat other people’s ethnic foods, I mean so why wouldn’t other people from other ethnicities want to come here? I mean, we have a large Asian population that comes in here, we have a lot of people from India and from Pakistan that come in here, we have all of South America; why not, it’s good, it’s tasty. If you like it and I like it, why shouldn’t somebody else?
Laura: I agree.
Ziggy: That’s what America’s all about, we’re a melting pot.
Laura: Well this is really an amazing representation of that and, um, well I’ll ask you before I go on, these are latkes right potato pancakes. Most of us associate them with Hanukah but here you can eat them year round and they’re delicious.
Ziggy: Listen, it is yountiff, which means holiday time, 365 days of the year.
Laura: Yeah, oh absolutely.
Ziggy: You know no one has to cook, they can come here. I mean our – our menu is so vast it huge.
Laura: I think most people, um, the last item here we have matzo ball soup, most people could identify that, but this is really the best.
Ziggy: Well we sell more matzo ball soup, I gotta tell you, people from all of the hospitals and the, uh, medical center, they send their patients to come and get our soup. Our soup, when it’s flu season or anything, let me tell you, we can sell so many quarts of that soup, a finegn amount of matzo balls, I mean it’s unbelievable what we can sell in a day.
Laura: It’s endless, it’s endless. So we’ve got to wrap up but I want to know, “Deli Man” just came out, it’s in theaters. If you’re in Houston you can see it at River Oaks right now.
Ziggy: It’s across the country, it’s in River Oaks, it opens tomorrow in New York, Los Angeles and it will be across the whole country in selected theaters.
Laura: It’s been great having you.
Ziggy: It was a pleasure and azaiguzunt.
Laura: Azaiguzunt. Thank you all for joining us today, I’m Laura Max and you’ve been watching TheBusinessMakers Show, brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business. We’ll see you next time.
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