It is unwise to watch the new documentary Deli Man on an empty stomach. The film is an unqualified success at whetting one’s appetite. From the first frame to the last, a mouth-watering array of delicacies fill the screen -- mile-high pastrami sandwiches, towering vats of matzah ball soup, braids of baking challah. The camera lens closes in on each entrée until the audience can practically breathe the steam rising from every plate.
After a tightly edited opening sequence introducing a series of delicatessen owners and patrons, the film focuses on the story of Ziggy Gruber. He’s a third-generation deli man who runs a deli in Houston, Tex., but his family’s Jewish heritage is firmly rooted in Eastern Europe. By looking at Gruber’s personal journey -- from culinary school prodigy to successful deli owner -- the director seamlessly incorporates a history of Jewish immigration and assimilation into the American diaspora.
The filmmakers use a clever technique to maintain a jaunty tone (the scenes never drag) by cutting in short interviews with deli men from around the country. They become a Greek chorus of commentators who fill in their own details about the deli business, thereby affirming Gruber’s devotion to his family’s cultural traditions and his passion for his grandfather’s recipes.
Two members of that chorus are local deli men Evan Bloom and Leo Beckerman, co-founders and managers of Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen. In January of this year, after their interviews for Deli Man were shot, the Wise Sons main production facility in San Francisco’s Mission district was destroyed in a fire. While the details of the fire have been covered by local media, Evan Bloom recently gave an update on the business and their participation in the film.
How did you become involved with the film?
We actually found the filmmakers. A few years ago there was a preview clip going around the Jewish community, and it was sent to me by aunts, uncles and friends. We thought we should reach out to see if they’re covering any of the new age stuff. We called the director (Erik Greenberg Anjou) and said, "This is what we’re doing here in San Francisco, and we’d love to be a part of this." And they came out and thought it was a good idea.
What is your family history as it relates to deli culture?
My family was about the food and the culture. It was important for us to get together for the holidays and have traditional food, on my dad’s side. On the other side, it was about going out to the deli on Sunday with the whole family and really getting that experience. That’s where my nostalgia comes from. I grew up in Southern California about an hour north of Los Angeles. My father was raised by my grandparents in the Pico/Robertson area of Los Angeles, which is very Jewish, a lot of kosher restaurants within walking distance.
Are those delis that you grew up going to with your family still in business?
Oh, yeah. We grew up going to Brent’s. There was Art’s, which we went to quite a bit as well. That was something I always looked forward too. Now, when I go back to Los Angeles and visit my grandmother, we go out to the deli. That’s always something that’s been a big part of visiting and seeing my family. My grandparents actually met at my great-grandparents' store outside of Boston. We had an old-school family store with a pickle barrel and meat counter, your one-stop shop. Leo and I put up the same motto in the front of our restaurant that they had over their counter: "Quality, Cleanliness and Service." This was our nod to the past.
Do you feel that cooking is an art?
There’s something beautiful about a perfectly cooked cut of smoked meat. When you’ve got absolutely everything right about the slice of pastrami: the fat, the smell, the salt level’s right, the smoke is good. For us, it’s about pleasing people. And so much of that is based on nostalgia. We try to put the best-tasting foods, using the best ingredients, making things from scratch. People are looking for these familiar flavors. For so many people, food is a way for them to connect with their past. It’s not only about the way food tastes; it’s about the emotion of the experience.
Where do things stand now after the fire?
We’re looking to recover as quickly as possible. We did all of our baking there, all of our production, our offices were there. Now we’re moving into a temporary facility. It’ll help us get back to speed on our rye bread. We haven’t had chocolate babka in over a month. We hope to have that in the next couple of weeks, actually, and we’re excited about that.
It’s unknown what’s going to happen with that building. They definitely have to gut it no matter what. We’re currently looking for a new permanent location. Dealing with the insurance company is a whole new experience for us. So far, so good.
How did you initially choose to open in the Mission?
We are a neighborhood restaurant, the restaurant we wanted on our corner. Leo and I live a few blocks away. For our quality of life, we can walk to work. At the heart of a Jewish deli is a blue-collar restaurant. It’s Jewish soul food, but it’s not just for Jews. We’re now open from 8am to 9pm every day, which was always the plan. You can come in to get a sandwich or eggs at any time of the day. If you go to a lot of the old-school delis now, the neighborhoods have changed. There aren’t a lot of delis left in the “Jewish” neighborhoods, because we’ve assimilated. The next immigrant group has moved in.
Do you have many Latino customers?
We don’t. But we do have some that come in. There’s a woman who comes in, I think she’s over 100 now. She’s been living in the neighborhood her whole life. She brings her daughter. She’s very happy to have this kind of place to go to on her corner. We’re young, so there are certain aspects of our business that some people aren’t going to like.
But now do you feel a part of the neighborhood?
One-hundred percent. We haven’t had any problems, knock on wood. People have been really friendly. It’s interesting that we think of the Mission as mainly Latino, but there are many East Coast transplants who moved from the Village in the '70s and '80s and they all live in this neighborhood. It was a lower cost to move here at one time. There are all these other people in the neighborhood who come in and say, "This is what we’ve been looking for." We have our regulars. But at the same time, the neighborhood’s changing and we lose a lot of regulars to evictions. People lose their houses. We talked to one of our most regular customers yesterday. He said, "I’m moving to Oakland; I’ve been evicted." We see the change. It’s definitely happening. Even in the three years we have been open here in the Mission. When we first opened, we did a very strong weekday breakfast, and that was due to a lot of people who lived in the neighborhood, who didn’t have traditional 9-to-5 jobs. And now, a lot of those people are getting priced out or pushed out. There are a lot of people who have 9-to-5 jobs and they don’t eat breakfast Monday through Friday in the neighborhood. We’ve seen these changes in only a few years.
And last but not least, what did you have for lunch today?
I had a smoked turkey sandwich on challah, with a scoop of potato salad. When you’re in the restaurant business, day in and day out, you eat a lot of turkey.
Evan Bloom and Leo Beckerman of Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen will be in person to introduce 'Deli Man' at Opera Plaza Cinemas on Friday, March 6, and Saturday, March 7, at the 7:10pm show each night.