Kenny & Ziggy's [Eric Sauseda/Groovehouse]
Thirteen is an important year in Jewish culture, when boys and girls take their official steps into adulthood. Since Houston's very own nationally acclaimed Jewish deli is turns 13 this year, we stopped in to chat with owner and chef Ziggy Gruber to see just how grown-up the place really is.
When you opened this concept 13 years ago, did you really think it would fly here in Houston, that you'd be celebrating 13 years later?
Ziggy Gruber: Oh, I thought definitely we'd be in business. I took out a 20-year lease. With options! So, I was always betting it would be successful. My family has always has a knack of owning establishments that say around for a long time. So, I knew I'd feel like I hadn't done a good job if I didn't make it. And 13 is really important. I'm not overly religious, but at Bar Mitzvahs we say, "I am an adult." So, I guess our store has become an adult.
How does a guy from New York wind up in Houston opening a deli in the first place?
You know, this store is an interesting thing. If you told me 14, 15 years ago that I would end up in Houston, I'd have said, "You're crazy!" I'd just closed my deli on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles and I was in New York, where the owner of the old Carnegie Deli and I were talking about opening a restaurant in Times Square. And when we were looking at the lease, it was just ridiculous. You'd have thought Communism was alive and well. And at that point, I had been in business for over 20 years, and I received a call from Lenny Friedman and his son, Kenny. They wanted to open a New York-style deli and they were looking for someone who was an operator. In their investigation, they found there's no one left; I'm the last of the Mohicans. So, Lenny, who was extremely charming, said to me, "Come down and take a look." I did, and he assured me he had the best spot in all of Houston, and I took him at his word. And we opened up.
Did you ever stop and wonder if Houston was ready for a New York Deli?
I did ask him if there were any Jewish people in Houston, who would understand traditional food. And I came to realize there were. There are a lot of expats from New York and Chicago, even L.A. and they understand what it's all about. I wasn't going to water it down or sugar coat what we served and how we did things. But I said, "Let's do a soft opening." And that absolutely did not last. Within half an hour on our first day, people were on their cell phones saying, "You gotta come try this place." We were flooded. And we've been busy since that day.
So, Houston really turned out to be a great place for you.
What I love about Houston is that people are different here. People want to see young people succeed and they put you on the right track so you will be successful. They're really salt of the earth – the customers, the politicians that come in, the suppliers – they genuinely want you to succeed. I've never experienced anything like it in any other city, and it's why Houston is so great. People here are business savvy, but they're not cut throat. There's no jealousy if you're more successful than they are or they're more successful than you. This is a place that encourages creativity and investment.
So, what does it mean to you to be a Jewish deli?
There's not that many left, first of all. There's only about 130 in the U.S. and Canada and there's less and less every year. So, for me, it's important to preserve that ethnic culture. But, Jewish food has really gone from ethnic to mainstream. I mean, everyone eats bagels now. Everyone knows marble rye. Thank Sienfeld for that. And what's great about this food is that whether the economy is up or down, this is the kind of food you want to eat: when you're happy, when you're sad, when you're craving something at 3 a.m. We have more than 400 things on the menu, so if it's not on the menu, it doesn't exist. I like to say I am the King of noshtalgia and this is a nostalgic restaurant.
You come from a long line of deli entrepreneurs, third generation, even. Was going into this business a foregone conclusion for you. Why this as opposed to running away and joining the circus.
Believe me, it's a three-ring circus. Especially if you saw this morning. No, I chose this. There are four of us on my grandfather's side, my two cousins and my brother. And they didn't want to do into this business. When I was young – probably about eight – my grandfather told me I was old enough to make a living. I wasn't a professional till I was about 10. But my family said to me, "We'll never give you any money, but we will give you the opportunity to make it." So, I would go into my family's deli after school and I'd get up early on the weekends and work. And I liked that sense of family. Family is everything to me. Our customers and the people who work here are all an extension of that family. Ninety percent of our employees have been with us since Day One.
You trained at the Cordon Bleu in London. It might not seem to people like a natural fit that the guy behind a deli has a classical culinary background. How did that happen?
When I was 15, my grandfather died and I took it really hard. My mother, who was English, took me on a trip to England, and I met a cousin I'd never met before for the first time. And he was also 15 and going to culinary school. And I thought, that's great. So, I said, "Mom, I'm going to culinary school, too." And I basically talked my way into it, because I had no high school diploma and no A-Levels or O-Levels. And it was a two year program. I rented out a room in someone's house and I got up early and in cooking and baking and from there I did an apprenticeship. And I worked at two three-star Michehlin restaurants, Le Gavroche and the Water Side Inn, and stints at Gotham Bar and Grille.
How does your training enter in to how you approach the food you serve here?
Oh, this is food I love to cook and I do it with a light twist. Now, by that I don't mean without schmaltz or butter or fat. I just mean it doesn't feel like a stone in your stomach. I try to cook everything with what I call the "more factor." You bite into it and you get like a savage and you go, "I want more." So many people want to be clever with food. My food is not clever, it's no cure. It's tasty. You are not going to find anything with foam or a steak in the shape of Tootsie Roll. It's not that I don't appreciate the art and creativity that happens in food. But for me, the meals you remember are those ethnic ones and they just kind of blow you away.
You recently got married this summer in Hungary. Tell us about the Hungarian influence on the menu.
We got married at the synagogue where my grandfather made his bar mitzvah, so that's my heritage. We've always had Hungarian dishes on the menu, the stuffed cabbage, the goulash. But we're going to start incorporating more, some of the paprikashes, for example, which are delicious.
So, if you were going to throw a bar mitzvah for the restaurant, how would you do it?
Oh, something simple.
What? Nothing over-the-top, like hiring Elton John or elephant rides for the guests.
No, this is not the Steins keeping up with the Steins. People have just become too fancy. I think it's good to have a little kitsch. I want one of those sheet cakes, with the blue-and-white icing, "Congratulations on your bar mitzvah!"
· Kenny & Ziggy's [Official Site]
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