Get To Know an ACF Ambassador Chef: Zane Caplansky
Throughout our Love Food Give Food campaign (October 16-30), Action Against Hunger will be speaking to our ACF Ambassador Chefs – the culinary all-stars who are teaming up with ACF Canada – about their careers in cuisine, their love of food, and why they are joining the fight against malnutrition.
What made you want to open a deli in the first place?
ZC: I was dying for a great smoked meat sandwich and I couldn’t find one anywhere in Toronto, so I decided to do it myself. It started not so much with a desire to open a deli so much as just wanting to have a great deli sandwich.
A lot of what makes Caplansky’s such a hit in Toronto is the way you’ve promoted yourself, either through social media or by your appearances on Dragon’s Den or Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. How important is branding to you in establishing a successful restaurant business?
ZC: Branding is a critical thing. Someone once defined branding as a person’s experience with your company. For me, it’s always really important that we are true to who we are, to ourselves, that we’re authentic, and that we don’t try to pretend that we’re more than who we are or less even, and that we simply do our best to be our best and provide the best deli experience for people that we can, whether it’s with our restaurants, food trucks, catering or with our new line of products in grocery stores.
You do both, but how is operating a food truck different from running a deli?
ZC: They’re very similar. The food truck is essentially a restaurant on wheels, so all of the same challenges that you have in a restaurant plus mobility and finding space, which is actually more complicated than the restaurant because there are places that you’re not allowed to go, gas challenges, generator breakdowns, etc. It’s also a very tight space. One of the interesting things about the food truck is that the kitchen is almost identical to the kitchen we first started in at the Monarch Tavern, so we’re used to working in tight spaces and being very creative with them. So a food truck was really a natural progression for us.
What are the challenges of operating a food truck in a city like Toronto?
ZC: Toronto hasn’t been very warm and forthcoming as far as allowing food trucks to operate on city streets like most other cities do in terms of regulating where or when we can operate. But at the same time, the crowds in this city have been very welcoming to us. When we go to corporate events, or people’s homes or offices, or, for example, we have a special relationship with Live Nation where we are one of four food trucks that they have at all of their musical events. The truth is that even with the regulations being what they are, we still have more business than we can keep up with, and I can foresee a day in the not too distant future where we’ll have more trucks on the streets of Toronto.
Where did the name Thunderin’ Thelma come from?
ZC: My grandmother on my mother’s side was Thelma Goodman. Somebody asked me one day what I would name the truck, and the first name that came to mind was Thunderin’ Thelma. My nana was an enormous influence on me in so many ways. I learned a lot of cooking from her, but more importantly I learned from her how to really love someone, and she loved me more than anybody else ever has, and I try and keep her lessons in mind. She was also an extremely shrewd business person and was really an adviser to me in many different ways.
What’s the secret to good smoked meat sandwich?
ZC: It’s not really a secret. The key to it is what my nana taught me: do it yourself. We brine the briskets in the restaurant, we age them with our own spice rub, we smoke them in our own smoker, we hand-slice them after steaming them for three hours – the process is out there. I’ve shown people on international television how I do what I do. But it’s important for people to remember that it’s not a one-man show, that there is now 55 people who work for me and these guys do a sensational job of everything – serving, managing, driving, cleaning – it’s a total team effort. And maybe that’s the secret, to pick people who really care about what we do.
What made you decide to team up with Action Against Hunger’s Love Food Give Food Campaign?
ZC: Restaurants get approached a lot for donations, and for me, because I make my living in the restaurant business, hunger issues have always been very near and dear to my heart. I have a friend who works for the United Nations in New York, and I checked with her, and she said that [ACF] is an incredible organisation that feeds people who need to be fed, and as a business owner it’s very important to me to give back.
As someone in the food business, what does the issue of hunger/malnutrition matter to you?
ZC: I think it’s important to remember that we live in a big, wide world and that even though we here in Toronto have so much that there are lots of people elsewhere who don’t. If we can keep those people in mind and help them when we can, that it is an honour, a privilege, and a responsibility as well. Looking after others is another lesson I learned from my nana, and she was a very generous woman who took leadership of a number of charitable organisations. It’s always important to remember that we have a responsibility to other people and no one should be hungry.
Zane Caplansky was born to own a deli. Formerly a consultant, political assistant, dot-com millionaire, chef’s apprentice, night janitor and lots in between, Zane started Caplansky’s Deli in 2008 out of frustration with the lack of good smoked meat in Toronto. Caplansky opened in the modest Monarch Tavern – credited as Toronto’s first pop-up restaurant. Toronto eaters and media quickly took notice of his house cured, smoked and hand-sliced briskets. He has come a long way since then with a busy College St. location that boasts a proud sense of old school authenticity as well as a booming catering business. In 2011, Zane launched Thunderin’ Thelma, Toronto’s first modern food truck. Caplansky has appeared on CBC’s Dragon’s Den three times as well as various Food Network shows including a judging role on Donut Showdown and appearances on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, You Gotta Eat Here and Eat St.