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Famed Deli Man Ziggy Gruber Visits Hilton College

Kenny & Ziggy’s New York Delicatessen is a Houston culinary treasure with its mouthwatering pastrami and corned beef sandwiches and giant matzo balls. Yes, these deli mainstays really do make your mouth water – the reviews don’t lie! And those matzo balls? They are the size of softballs! On Saturday, March 3, some 200 members of the Hilton College and UH communities met the person behind it all – owner and chef Ziggy Gruber.

The event, presented by the Hilton College and sponsored by Jonathan and Megan (’08) Pezzi, featured a special screening of the “Deli Man,” a documentary that explores the history of the Jewish deli and its journey west from the streets of New York City to places like Houston and Los Angeles.

Ziggy, the documentary’s central character, attended the screening and engaged the audience of students, alumni, faculty, staff and friends of the College in a Q&A session that followed. Guests also enjoyed generous portions of deli favorites served at carving stations manned by Kenny & Ziggy’s staff.

A third-generation deli man, Ziggy’s grandfather owned The Rialto, the first delicatessen to open on Broadway in 1927. Although he had been helping out in the kitchen since he was 8, and was very close to his grandfather, his family didn’t want him going into the business.

“They sent me to London to study with Michelin-star chefs at Le Cordon Bleu, but that was not the kind of cooking I was cut out for,” he said. “When I came back to the States, I also saw that people in the deli business were getting to be in their 70s and 80s – someone had to make sure the Jewish deli would live in perpetuity.”

And with that, Ziggy found his calling. Besides, he was happier making food that brought people joy by reminding them of family. When scouting for a location for a new deli in 1999, a friend convinced him to visit Houston. He wasn’t sold on the idea at first, but he changed his mind once he stepped off the plane.

“I didn’t know much about Houston, and I thought people here wouldn’t care for a New York-style deli,” he said. “But the city was so modern, and I was very impressed with the Galleria area. So, we shook hands, made a deal, and the rest is history.”

For almost two decades, Kenny & Ziggy’s has kept its original spot on Post Oak Boulevard and just recently added a second location on Buffalo Speedway in the West University area. The deli continues to receive stellar press reviews and has been featured in the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”  

Ziggy has been to his share of events where people pepper him with questions about everything deli. But his experience at Hilton College was different.

“I usually get a lot of questions about my recipes and secret ingredients,” he said. “But the students asked me about food and labor costs, and how to stay afloat in this business. I was impressed.”

How impressed? So much so that Ziggy has made it clear that he would love to get more involved with our students.

“I’ve had really good mentors, and one day, I turned around and they were all gone,” he said. “It would be my great joy if I can continue to help students today find their own calling.”

This first-of-its kind event was so well received that the College hopes to do more like it by bringing in other local restaurateur role models from the industry. And it would be a missed opportunity not to take Ziggy up on his gracious offer.

“We are incredibly grateful to Ziggy, who has such a high affinity for the College and its students, for coming out to our campus and hosting an event this large,” said Veronica Vazquez, alumni/development coordinator. “It was great to see the UH community come together on a Saturday afternoon.”

Special thanks also go to Veronica, the Pezzis, Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs Mary Dawson, Assistant Dean for Business Development Joel Jaffe, Director of Development and Alumni Engagement Miguel Cabrera, Director of Undergraduate Studies Kevin Simon, and Development Coordinator Ke’ Wallace for their help in working with Ziggy and his team to orchestrate this informative –and delicious – event.

And, of course, to Ziggy Gruber. He is welcome here anytime – with or without his famous pastrami!

(Story by Pearl Cajoles I Photo courtesy of Ziggy Gruber)

Posted on March 23, 2018