Chef Chat

Chef Chat: Ziggy Gruber of Kenny & Ziggy's New York Deli Restaurant

Foodies generally acknowledge that one of the last authentic New York delicatessens in the world is located at 2327 Post Oak Blvd. Ziggy Gruber, owner/chef of Kenny & Ziggy's New York Delicatessen, recently spoke with Eating Our Words about how a third-generation deli man wound up living in the Lone Star State and loving it.

I understand you studied at the Cordon Bleu in London. My dad did not want me to go into the restaurant business, but I didn't want to go to college. My mom took me to visit relatives in London, and I met a cousin who'd been accepted to the Cordon Bleu. I was only 16 and hadn't gone through the admissions process, but I talked my way in. I graduated first in the class.

What brought you to Houston? If you would have told me I'd be running a deli in Houston ten years ago, I'd have said you were crazy. I was between stores [following family tradition, Gruber calls delis "stores"], having dinner with Freddy Klein in New York, and Freddy got a call from Leonard Friedman [father of Kenny Friedman], who needed a chef to help open a deli in Houston. Freddy said, "They're gonna love you," and handed me the phone.

And you came right away? I figured the worst that could happen was I'd waste a weekend.

What impressed you about Houston? You know those chrome arches over the streets in the Galleria? That was impressive. I checked out Guggenheim's and Victor's [two delis in the city] and saw that both were doing business. But they weren't serving authentic New York deli food. Why settle for murals depicting a New York deli when you can have the real thing?

What were some of the initial challenges? This was the hardest store I ever opened; I couldn't find anyone who'd ever worked in a deli. I worked with a good Mediterranean chef for six months and slowly hired and trained other workers. My dad Gene came down to help. It was a year before we knew we were ready to open.

Did you expect to make your life here in Houston? Look, I'm single, I have no kids, I thought I'd set this thing up and move on. I've lived and worked in New York, Los Angeles, London, but the longer I stayed here the more I loved the people. Houston people are the salt of the earth. They have no agendas.

How did they react to the food? People were not expecting the level of quality we offered. And we quickly gained national attention. We're going to be featured in Diners, Dives and Drive-ins on the Food Network. And we're in David Sax's Save the Deli, about the decline of the Jewish delicatessen. At one time there were 2,000 delis in New York City alone; now, there are only 120 in North America.

Why are there so few left? The delis were a means for poor Jewish immigrants to give their kids a better life. The children of deli-owners were sent to law or medical school. I wasn't encouraged to stay in the business either.

What is this I hear about you in Maxim magazine? I thought it was a joke. I saw 212 on my caller ID, and someone says, "We're interested in including you in an article on delis." I said, "Yeah, I'll be on the cover with a hard salami in my hand!" (Laughs)

What would you choose for your last meal? Boiled chicken in a pot with matzah balls and kreplach. And fresh challah bread. My grandmother used to make that, and I find it comforting. On the other hand, a nice piece of beef smothered in foie gras and mushrooms...and a great piece of cheesecake, but on the high end, I love black and white chocolate mousse tort like you'd get at a patisserie...but, for a meeting, I just want Texas barbeque--that's a whole art form!

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E. Ting