In our interview, Caplansky talks about his film debut, Toronto’s food scene, the horror of veganism and more.
TorontoVerve: Deli Man delves into the rich history of Jewish delis in North America. How does it feel to be included among the deli greats?
Zane Caplansky: It’s such an honour and thrill. Eric [Anjou, the director] had to make choices He took a lot of flak for not including many great delis in the film. So to be included is a wonderful thing. It’s interesting too because the movie was made about three years ago, and to see how this place and staff have changed three years later, you realize that the notion of being documented is a really special thing because that moment of my life has been captured, and no matter what else happens to me, nothing will ever change that vignette that he caught on film.
TV: Is there anything that disappointed you about the film?
ZC: It needs more me (laughs). My mother said, ‘it was good, but you could have had more screen time.’ Really, no. I would have liked to see some of the delis that I grew up with included in the film too. The truth is, being so fortunate to simply be included, anything else would be asking too much. I wish I would have smiled more and lost a little weight before doing the movie, but it really did capture me as I am and my team as we are in that place in time, and I have no regrets.
TV: One of the topics in the film was the very thin profit margins in the deli business due to the rising cost of meat. With that reality, how do you stay successful in this business?
ZC: Number one: quality. That’s the lesson I’ve learned from all of my mentors in the business. You will never win or get anywhere by being a low-cost guy. Somebody else will always be able to undercut your price and take advantage of your position. The only way to be successful is to do it yourself. So we take the raw briskets, cure them, spice them, smoke them and then hand slice them. We do the same with raw turkey. We don’t use turkey rolls like everyone else, and we have the best brisket in the city. I think the way to be competitive is to be the best. It’s a fascinating question that you’ve asked because what the movie talks about is the decline of the deli business. My business isn’t declining. My business is growing and expanding. So how and why did that happen in the face of lower margins and changing tastes? I think it’s also old fashioned values. I also think that my media savvy has played a very strong role in my ability to be top of mind. If you look at all the dining room scenes in the film, you see a lot of old people. If you look around my restaurant, you see all of the shades of the rainbow and you hear all of the accents as well. What we’ve been able to do is open up the deli business to anybody who wants that experience. You don’t have to be a Jew — you’re welcome too. There’s no secret handshake that you’re not aware of. Overall, it’s a focus on quality and connecting with people.
TV: And you’re able to connect with the young crowd by offering authentic Jewish deli food — not a fusion of different flavours, right?
ZC: Absolutely and that’s a great point too. We haven’t had to dumb down the flavours and we haven’t wanted to. We use Yiddish expressions on the menu. It’s accessible and inclusive. “Oh, it’s too smoky. Oh, it’s too salty.” That’s the way it’s supposed to taste, and it’s got that zing of authenticity that would make my parents and grandparents very proud.
TV: You certainly know how to market yourself. You're in this movie, you've appeared on numerous TV shows, you have Let’s Eat — a weekly radio show on Newstalk 1010, and you're popular on Twitter. How do you feel about your celebrity in Toronto?
ZC: Frankly, I’m uncomfortable with what I call the “C” word. The other “C” word (laughs). I know it’s real, but it almost feels that it’s not really me. Earlier today, one of my staff was helping seat two women and they said they're fans. I asked, “Of what?” They said they’re fans of mine. I love it, but I’m not 100% comfortable with it. I love the fact that people connect with my restaurant and me. I look at the media stuff like the Deli Man movie as a total gift. I feel blessed.
TV: I always ask people in fashion what they think of Toronto's fashion scene. Speaking with you, I have to ask, what do you think of Toronto's food scene?
ZC: This is the most exciting time that I can remember in Toronto’s food scene. It began about 10 years ago. The food scene started coming into its own where instead of trying to impress or pander, Toronto’s cooks and chefs started doing what they wanted to do: produce great food, and it’s not an imitation of New York, Chicago or Montreal. It’s interesting — Montreal’s food scene has always been miles ahead of Toronto’s, but my Montreal chef friends would tell you that Toronto is quickly catching up. For instance, [Caplansky’s] is absolutely inspired by Schwartz’s in Montreal, but not in a copy sort of way. I’m doing it my own way. There’s also a fraternity among the people who make the Toronto food scene happen. There’s a brotherhood and sisterhood of support in the industry. It’s a cooperative model versus a competitive model.
TV: Aside from the quality, how else does Caplansky's set itself apart from other deli restaurants?
ZC: We have a sense of Jew pride. The side of our truck says, “Sometimes you have to Jew it up.” For another generation, that’s offensive. I’ve gotten a lot of flak from people who are upset that I’ve used that phrase, and when I explain to them what I mean by it, they seem to understand. Lindsey (photo below) is wearing a t-shirt that says “Kickin’ it Old Shul” and shul literally means “school.” So that means kickin’ it old school — Jewish or Yiddish style. “Jew it up” means do it up in a Jewish context. So what we’re trying to do here is celebrate the Jewish food culture as well as the contribution that my people have made to the city. I think those are some of the reasons why Erik chose us as a deli representative in the film. It’s the food and culture that sets us apart.
TV: You said that in the deli business, you become a part of people’s lives. What’s your most memorable experience with your customers?
ZC: There are so many. Passover is my favourite night of the year. I’m the only Jew in the city that does three Seders. It’s such a joy to share this 3000 year old tradition with whoever wants it. Jewish, non-Jewish, lapsed-Jew or mega-Jew. Everybody's welcome. But there was a catering event that I did that was most memorable where there was a fellow named Ben who was turning 90 years old. He wanted to eat all of the foods that his cardiologist wouldn’t let him have for the last twenty years. He wanted fatty smoked meat, chopped liver, Kishka, knishes, schmaltz and Boston cream pie, and we got the call. I drove up to a cottage on Lake Simcoe and all his children who were in their 60’s and 70’s, grandchildren who were in their 30’s and 40’s and his great grandchildren were there. Over 50 people. It was such an incredibly joyous occasion to celebrate that with them.
ZC: It really comes down to two things: flavour and texture. Fat is what gives food its flavour. Here, we use my proprietary spice rub on the meat during its aging and curing process. So what happens is the salt-cure draws the moisture out of the meat and the juices mix with the spice and get sucked back into the brisket over time. Then it gets smoked, more spices added, cooled, steamed, sliced and any of the spices that fall on the cutting board are put on the sandwich. That’s the flavour part. The texture part is the hand slicing, which is against the grain. If you ask for lean, there’s no fat on it. If you ask for medium, there’s some fat, and if you ask for fatty, it’s from the fattier and more marbled cut of the brisket. That’s really the art and science of smoked meat.
TV: How would you describe yourself as a boss?
ZC: Best ever (laughs). You know what? I’ve actually changed a lot as a boss. When I first started, it was just me so you don’t require a lot of management skills. For the first couple of years that I was open, I tried to manage my own restaurant and that’s really a mistake because when your name is on the door, you take everything personally, and you can’t. You have to realize that your team is doing the best that they can, and if they’re not doing it right, you have to be able to talk to them in a compassionate way to get the best out of them. The other part is: it takes time to figure out what kind of person you need to have on your team — who’ll be able to deliver the experience you want. It really has taken me time to find my own role in the deli — to know that I can’t be the general manager. If I have a problem with something that’s happening, I won’t deal with it directly — I’ll talk to the manager instead. The manager balances my interests with the staff interests to make sure that everybody is well served. Right now, I couldn’t be happier with my management and team.
TV: How often do you cook for yourself at home?
ZC: Probably more often than you would expect. I still love cooking, and eating in other restaurants is one of my great pleasures. I probably eat out disproportionally more than other people do, but I still like to make at least one of my meals every day. I live very close to the restaurant. It’s literally a five-minute walk. So if I need to leave to have a meal by myself or sit down with my girlfriend and enjoy a meal, I can do that.
TV: What meals do you enjoy preparing at home?
ZC: I really like uncomplicated food. I spent a very important five years of my life backpacking all around the world, and during that period, I worked in restaurants in London, Sydney and British Columbia. I also started a chai shop in the foothills in the Indian Himalayas where I learned to cook Indian food from a guy who was a very good cook. I can still do it, but it takes so much effort to prepare that I can just go to Banjara on Bloor Street or any of the wonderful Indian restaurants on Gerrard Street East and have something easily as good as anything that I can prepare for very little money. It makes sense, but to answer your question, I generally like very good quality grilled meat and very fresh vegetables. I’m trying to follow a sugar-free plan so I’m not eating a lot of breads, pastas, rice and potatoes. I’m also avoiding alcohol. It’s working so far. Since December, I’ve lost 40 pounds. It’s not a diet. I know if I want to maintain what I’ve done, I can’t go back. That being said: if I crave Vietnamese noodle soup or naan with my Indian food or tacos, I’m not going to deny myself either. I’m just not going to have a beer with it. I also workout at the gym about two or three times a week.
TV: What are your thoughts on vegan restaurants creating meat-substitution meals?
ZC: I have no tolerance and patience for it at all. I can accept vegetarianism quite easily, but the vegan diet just seems obtuse. There’s all kinds of ethical treatment of animals that shouldn’t preclude people from wiping out that entire part of their diet. I have in the past made veggie burgers with mushrooms and lentils. I love to eat vegetables myself, but to say that it tastes like meat — no, it doesn’t. I guess I have a problem with labels. Being vegan means you can’t eat meat. Give a guy a break. Just because you’re a vegetarian, shouldn't mean you can’t have a little chicken.
TV: You once said that you have a love for the city of Toronto more than most people do. What do you love about Toronto so much?
ZC: The thing I love most about Toronto is the diversity. Being someone who’s travelled extensively, I adore the fact that I can go to Gerrard Street East and pretend that I’m back in Delhi, I can go to the Greek Grill up at O’Connor and it feels like I’m back in Greece, I can go to Portuguese chicken places on Dundas and I can feel Lisbon. I can have authentic food and cultural experiences here in Toronto that are unparalleled to anywhere else in the world. There’s also a level of community that exists here and a lack of racism — not that racism doesn’t exist. I’m not saying that whatsoever, but it feels to me that there’s a level of…not tolerance because tolerance means that we’re putting up with each other, but actually affection and commitment to each other that looks beyond skin colour, accents and wherever you were born. We embrace each other as community members and contributors to society.
ZC: The thing I liked the least about Toronto for the longest time was the way that many people would tout the fact that Toronto is a world-class city. I think that Toronto started to become a world-class city when we stopped telling people how world-class we were. If you have to tell everybody how cool you are, you’re not very cool. Look at the physicality of Toronto — I think the CN Tower is a hilarious example of that notion of striving to be noticed. We’re going to create the world’s biggest phallic symbol, light it up and that’s going to put us on the map. This was Toronto’s thinking in the 70’s. I remember when that tower was built. What a crazy and stupid thing to be known for. At the same time, my great grandfather, Benjamin Caplansky, changed his name to Caplan. I imagine that he changed his name to be Yiddish, but look British, and sort of fit in better with Toronto society. For many years, Toronto was a very WASPy, or White city. As Toronto enjoyed many waves of migration that came right through Kensington Market, it became less WASPy and more everything else. I think that’s really who we are.
TV: You’ve been on Dragon's Den several times to invest in your deli food truck business. Why so many times and why hasn't a deal been made?
ZC: Well, the truth is: Dragon’s Den looks like a business show, but it’s actually an entertainment show, and on all four episodes that I did pitches, I received offers, but they weren’t offers that I wanted to entertain. Sometimes I tried to negotiate, other times I said no thank you. In my estimation, The Dragons have an overblown sense of their own worth. In other words, the fact that they’re Dragons makes their investment more valuable because of the publicity that they bring to the investment. Every episode went differently than I ever expected. As much as I prepared, it never worked out the way that I expected. But, that show did change my life! That show brought me to the attention of millions of Canadians as well as to the Food Network and those people have been very good to me.
TV: You started your successful deli business when you were 40. What would you say to others who are contemplating a career change late in life?
ZC: I found a book called, What Color is Your Parachute. In it, the author helps you discover that thing in your heart you would do even if nobody was paying you. For me, I would be a donut judge on TV even if they weren’t paying me. Don’t tell the Food Network I said that (laughs). I recommend getting that book and finding that thing that you’re truly passionate about and then find a way to transition to that thing. It’s never too late to reboot until you’re six feet under the ground. Often what keeps people from trying is the possibility of failure, but the reality of failure is not nearly as bad as the fear of failure.
TV: Where would you like to see yourself in the next 5 years?
ZC: I would like to see myself exactly where I am right now. I love being in the restaurant. I love watching friends get together over my food and enjoying themselves. I’d like to have many more restaurants. This is really what I enjoy and I hope that in the future my ambition for more stores doesn’t dampen my love for watching people eat my food. You know, I wish I was a little bit taller. That’s not going to happen. I wish I was a little bit thinner. That could happen, but for the most part I hope not much changes.
TV: How about a little word association?
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Watch the Deli Man Trailer below!
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