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Ari Weinzweig

Food writer and Zingerman’s co-founder Ari Weinzweig talks about foraging for cheddars in Vermont, how to make a great corned-beef sandwich, and what it takes to create a fine business.

In 1982 Ari Weinzweig opened, with Paul Saginaw, Zingerman’s Delicatessen in Ann Arbor, MI. Since then the Zingerman’s juggernaut has grown to include a number of businesses, including a creamery, bakehouse, roadhouse, and business-consulting practice. The deli has been roundly rated the finest in the United States—if not of an entirely different grade—and Zingerman’s mail-order catalog and publications, under Weinzweig’s pen, are some of the most wide-ranging and enjoyable food tomes published here. Many chefs, food writers, and eaters—including this editor—would gladly live in Zingerman’s, if they decided to open a condominium complex too.

Name, era of birth: Ari Weinzweig. I was born in 1956.

Occupation title(s), both real and desired-in-another-lifetime:
Founding partner of Zingerman’s Community of Businesses.

Another lifetime? Have to think about that one. Early 19th century anarchist pamphleteer? Reporter for the International Herald Tribune during the Russian revolution?

We know the history of Zingerman’s growth, but how about the evolution of Ari as a food writer? Were you writing about food when you first started the deli? Were there always plans for the books?

There were most definitely not always plans to write. I never intended to. I started writing because I got frustrated paying others to write and not feeling like they were saying what I wanted them to say. So I started doing it myself. Over time I got more and more encouragement from folks I respect a lot to pursue the writing more seriously. So after putting it off for many years I finally decided to see what would happen if I got into a writing group (which I’m still in 12 years later). We self-published Zingerman’s Guide to Good Olive Oil in the ‘90s. The Guide to Good Vinegar, Guide to Good Parmigiano-Reggianio, and Guide to Giving Great Service have followed. Houghton Mifflin published the much larger Zingerman’s Guide to Good Eating last fall. Hyperion will publish Zingerman’s Guide to Giving Great Service in the first few weeks of 2005.

What foods are you most proud to have introduced/brought into the States? How about a wish list of great treats out there you’d like to see popping up in Ann Arbor?

Good question, no simple answer comes to mind. I think the key is just that we continually push to improve, and that we’ve never been satisfied with where we stand. That said, I guess the things that come to mind are bringing really great artisan breads to town (and through our mail order around the country) when we started the Bakehouse in 1992. And then, again, bringing back handmade, artisan cream cheese by starting the Creamery in 2001. In both instances I have great respect for our partners in those businesses who have taken what was only an idea and turned it into amazing, full-flavored traditional food. Every day they go in and make something special happen. And every day they work to improve the flavor and quality of what we produce. That’s a special thing!

Popping up in Ann Arbor? Fresh sheep’s milk ricotta like you get in Italy but still can’t get in the U.S. And Iberico ham from Spain—it’s the best ham I’ve ever had but it’s not legal to bring it into the U.S.

Favorite books: Today… Albert Memmi, Pillar of Salt; Brenda Ueland, If You Really Want to Write; Paolo Coehlo, The Alchemist; Jim Harrison, Off to the Side; Patience Grey, Honey in the Weed; Sam Keen, Hymns to an Unknown God.

I have an image of you in my head spending weeks cruising French and Italian farms, getting drunk on cheese and rare vinegars and then agreeing to a quick roll with the farmer’s daughter. Destroy the fantasy if you have to, but can you tell us about a recent hunting trip?

Never been hunting in my life. Oh you mean, hunting for food? As I write I’m in Vermont. I drove down this morning from Burlington to Grafton village in southern Vermont to taste and select the Vermont cheddars that we put under our label. Two hours down, taste for an hour, two hours back. It’s exciting for me, and also very rewarding, because I love to taste and compare the complexities of the cheeses. Each time I do this I’m reminded of what I’ve long known and regularly teach—that when it comes to traditional handmade food like this, each day’s production is definitely different. It’s interesting, too, because, of the dozens of stores that Grafton does private label for, I think there’s only one other person who’s ever gone there to select the cheese that goes under their label. But that’s what makes what we do different from others. As my partner Paul taught me a long time ago, ‘Successful business people do all the stuff other people know they should do but don’t feel like doing.’

On the way back to Burlington I stopped at a small chocolate maker in New Hampshire to see and taste what they do. And then this evening I went to a nice restaurant in Burlington and tasted and learned about what they do there.

Yesterday drove up into the Northeast Kingdom in the cold and rain to go meet a cheesemaker who just got started about a year ago. I didn’t know much about them but their cheese is quite good already so figured it would be worth going to meet them and indeed it was. En route stopped at a new barbecue restaurant (OK, not great) and on the way back, stopped at American Flatbread which is a very nice place in Waitsfield that’s been making very good pizza for about 15 years. Getting up at six to fly home tomorrow.

Now while this sounds great, it’s probably not as glamorous as most people would think. Add in the eight hours sitting in airports and planes, driving a compact car up and down the state of Vermont, tasting 20 different cheddars in an hour, wading through mud and cow manure, and the fact that most of it was done on my supposed ‘days off’ and…I love what I do but I realized long ago that almost anyone who’s driven to do it could do pretty much the same things. Mostly it’s just a matter of devoting the time needed. You don’t need any big national security clearance to get in to any of these spots, and small producers are usually amazed that anyone has actually made time to do so.

What makes you laugh: Good jokes. Little kids. Weird questions like this from reporters. Sometimes I laugh with my partners when things are going really badly on any given day because I don’t really know what else to do in those difficult moments.

Home to a better corned-beef sandwich: Ann Arbor or New York? I’m not into comparing really. That’s for others to decide.

That said, our corned beef was chosen at a Slow Food tasting last year as the ‘The Best in New York.’ And I will say that in my experience, finding great rye bread in NY these days is very, very difficult. I would put ours up against any made there, especially when, at the Deli, we double-bake it and hand slice it so it’s served warm and thickly cut on every sandwich.

But again, I’ll leave the comparing for others.

Heroes: Peter Drucker, Patrick Rance (deceased), Brenda Ueland (deceased), Robert Greenleaf (deceased), Emma Goldman (deceased).

Three clichéd phrases/descriptions you could see dropped from the world’s troves of food writing forever: Just one. The emphasis on the word ‘quality’ when it’s used without any definition. On its own the word has no real meaning. That’s the one that’s on my mind right now.

With omnipotent influence guaranteed, one change you’d like to see in American kitchens to improve everyone’s experience with food: Probably getting people to start with better ingredients. It’s infinitely easier to make great food when you do that. Also, just continuing to get people to get in the kitchen and cook. It’s not that hard, it tastes good, and it’s a really rewarding thing to do (for me at least!).

Charity worth giving to: Food Gatherers is our biggest cause here in Ann Arbor. We started it out of the Deli in 1985 as a mobile food pantry to connect the resource in the community (extra food in restaurants and food stores) with people in need at feeding sites (at churches, safe houses, etc.). It was and is a great way to help to feed people in need, and a way to get a positive experience to those who can’t afford to come in and eat our food. Regardless of the cause they choose I encourage everyone to get involved in the community in an area of giving that they believe in. Every little bit of effort really does make a difference.

Five words that sound great:

Himbeer—which means raspberries in German.

Snowbar—meaning pine nuts in Arabic.

Butterscotch—which is ‘butterscotch’ in English.

Dragoncello—which means tarragon in Italian.

‘Thank you’ (that’s two words but we’ll count it as one), which is what I want to say to all the customers, staff, and culinary craftspeople without whom none of what we do at Zingerman’s would be possible.

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Rosecrans Baldwin is the editor of The Morning News, which he co-founded with publisher Andrew Womack in 1999. He is the author of You Lost Me There and Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down. His next novel, The Last Kid Left, is forthcoming from MCD/FSG in June 2017. More information can be found at his website. More by Rosecrans Baldwin