Dishin’ It: An Interview with Zane Caplansky

Zane Caplansky

Desperate for a great smoked meat sandwich and unable to find one, Zane Caplansky decided to make his own. That passionate desire ignited the Caplansky’s Deli phenomenon. He followed with Toronto’s first pop-up restaurant, first modern food-truck, and reinvented the traditional Jewish deli, franchising and retail market. Featured in the acclaimed documentary film “Deli Man”, Zane has appeared in over a dozen TV shows including CBC’s Dragons’ Den, FoodNetwork’s “Diners Drive-Ins and Dives”, as well as “Guy’s Big Project.” He currently hosts “Let’s Eat with Zane Caplansky” weekly radio show on Newstalk1010, and frequently shares his story and ideas for success with audiences across Canada.

AW: You’ve set out on many paths in your life. Was there an “A-Ha Moment” that launched you onto this one?
ZC: In truth, there were many “A-ha” moments. One big one on the path to opening the deli was when I smoked my first brisket in 2007 in my snow-covered backyard in Cabbagetown. It was a magical moment. “I can do this,” I said to myself, tears streaming down my face. That “Aha Moment” wasn’t random. I had over a decade of professional restaurant training, education and experience at that point. And I had a deep and personal love of Delicatessen culture born of my love for my Papa, Sam Hershorn. Papa would take me to Switzer’s Deli on Spadina after “work” on Sundays at his women’s clothing factory. My job was to sharpen pencils, hand out candies and sweep up. I loved that place and being with him. Work was followed by a lunch at Switzers of corned beef, fries and cream soda. So 30+ years later, when I smoked that first brisket… It was like coming home.

AW: What advice would you give to an aspiring restaurateur?
ZC: It’s all about people.

AW: Which ingredients turn you on? Why?
ZC: I get excited by meats and cheeses. Why? That’s hard to know. I’m sure it has a lot to do with brain chemistry, memory, and associations with loved ones. Or just the deliciousness of the flavours and textures. Actually, my relationship with food has changed dramatically in the last 7 months. I’ve lost over 80 lbs and feel better than ever. Previously, I was like a slave to my food cravings and my body grew dangerously obese. I feel like a new man.

AW: From the food fight in Animal House to the fake orgasm in When Harry Met Sally, there are so many iconic restaurant scenes in the film. Have you ever found yourself re-enacting one?
ZC: Reenacting the fridge scene in “9 1/2 Weeks” almost got me arrested.

AW: What’s the craziest meal you’ve ever had?
ZC: Craziest meal? This is going to sound completely cornball but it was my wedding dinner in Tofino, BC. Prime Rib, Grilled Pacific Salmon, Tuscan Bread Salad, Tomato Salad, Potato Salad, and a cocktail reception menu prepared by my groomsmen. It’s a pretty good story:

Our friend Tina Windsor of Picnic Meats and Cheeses in Tofino catered the wedding (maybe her first) but she couldn’t handle the cocktail reception food. For that, we turned to a local fish supplier who also operated a restaurant. Two weeks before the big day the fish supplier calls to say he’s closed his restaurant. So while he can supply the goods, he can’t prepare them at all.

I relay that on a call to groomsman Bob Blumer. He lives in LA. “Don’t worry,” Bob says. “I got this.” And he really did. Bob recruited fellow groomsmen Gregory Macdonald and Tenzin Nordhen as well as a few of our friends to prep all the cocktail dishes. Bob is the Food Networks’ “Surreal Gourmet” and he delivered on all levels.

What makes this the craziest? It was the perfect combination of friends and family coming together to celebrate the most important moment in my life. And it didn’t happen by chance. I fought for it. I waited until I found the right partner and, together, we decided to go for it: to live our best lives, together. Ok, maybe it’s not that crazy.

AW: I miss Caplansky’s Deli. Will I ever be able to try your smoked meat again?
ZC: I hear you. I miss watching people enjoy my food. That’s why I regularly head to the airport. Our Caplansky’s Deli location in Toronto’s Pearson International Airport is thriving. Don’t be a cheapskate—buy a plane ticket as an excuse to get one of my sandwiches in Terminal 3. It’s totally worth it. Besides that? Let’s just say I’m full of surprises.

AW: When one door closes you seem to build another and then open it. Since becoming Toronto’s king of smoked meat you have created so many other projects. What are you most excited about now?
ZC: Since closing the College St restaurant, I’ve taken on so many amazing new roles. But it’s incredibly difficult to choose the one that excites me most. Here’s a sampling:

Media-wise: I love hosting the “Let’s Eat” radio show every Saturday at 11 am on Newstalk1010. I’m also in development on a number of media projects some of which will come to screens later this year.

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Caplansky's Delicatessen, Mustard
Caplansky’s Delicatessen, Mustard

Food-wise: I’m rebooting my mustards. Back by popular demand, the four flavours will be available once again in the Spring of 2019. I realize now that world-domination through smoked meat was a tall order. But mustard? That could work.

Health-wise: I’m excited by my weight loss and the possibilities for enjoying the life that being fit brings. One of those opportunities will take place in mid-May when I ride in ChefsCycle 2019. It’s a 3-day, 500km charity bike ride in support of No Kid Hungry.

Giving-back wise: I love being a part-time Professor at Centennial College. I teach in the Culinary Tourism and Food Media programs.

Life-wise: it’s all about building a family with Willa. We were married in 2017, so it’s still fresh and wonderful. Willa brings out the best in me, supports me when I fall and cheers me on when I need cheering. Willa has taught me that the dish of life is best enjoyed as a shared experience.

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