In 2008, Zane Caplansky was on top of Toronto's food world.
People clamoured for smoked meat sandwiches from his tiny kitchen in The Monarch Tavern. Soon, there would be a permanent restaurant on College Street. Over the next few years, the deli king's business grew as online and media buzz heralded him as reviving the classic deli and bringing back authentic Jewish food back to Toronto's downtown. Then, last year, what looked like Toronto's next culinary institution disappeared. But looks can be deceiving.
Today, Caplansky is back and his path is slathered in gold. Mustard gold.
"The truth is it's real. When one thing stops, room is created for something else to happen," says Caplansky. "After closing the doors, I was really depressed...I felt like a failure…It was humiliating, and it was awful. Really, I don't know if there was a moment when things got better, but they progressively did get better."
After a decade in the deli, he realized his next adventure lay in mustard. Quite the change from childhood dreams of owning a restaurant while eating corned beef sandwiches, fries and cream sodas with his grandfather in Toronto's Switzer's Deli.
"For a child, the energy of a restaurant, where you go someplace hungry, you tell them your favourite thing to eat, they bring it to you, and you leave happy and full. That energy and magic really responded to me."
Born Zane Caplan, the son of former federal cabinet minister Elinor Caplan and brother of former provincial health minister David Caplan, he worked in politics before travelling the world for five years. While away, Caplansky picked up jobs at bars and restaurants, took cooking lessons in China and opened a chai shop in the Himalayan foothills.
He returned to Canadian soil to work on election campaigns before returning to his nomadic life. A restaurant job during his search for the perfect ski town in the Rockies led to a chef's apprenticeship. He came back to Toronto to study culinary management, then worked on more election campaigns. Afterwards, he and his first wife were part of the dot com bubble.
After the bubble burst and the marriage broke down, he took a job as a $12-an-hour cook. "I was happy cooking for people anonymously in the kitchen. It was good, honest work and I really liked it."
In 2007, in a fit of pique over waiting for a friend who didn't return from Montreal with a promised Schwartz's smoked-meat sandwich, he decided to make his own. Armed with a smoker from eBay and knowledge about smoking meat from Google and a book, he cured and smoked his first brisket in his Cabbagetown backyard. It was, in his words, "brilliant."
His pop-up sandwich shop in The Monarch opened in the summer of 2008. Its name, Caplansky's Delicatessen, harkened old-school Jewish delis and was a nod to his great-grandfather (immigration officials truncated the surname from Caplanski). Zane Caplan became Zane Caplansky. A permanent restaurant opened on College Street in 2009, followed a few years later by franchises in Yorkville and Pearson Airport. When Beyoncé, Anthony Bourdain, and Guy Fieri came to town, they sought out his food.
"I was doing what's in my heart, what's in my soul, and I think sometimes people connect with that in a way resonates in a way that you can't control, and that's how things got out of control," remembers Caplansky.
Specialty shops stocked his retail mustards. There were plans for a fleet of food trucks and a national roll-out of deli franchises. Four Dragons' Den pitches didn't lead to deals but opened the door to other television appearances and a radio show. Meanwhile, Piller's in Waterloo supplied the briskets for the airport locations and later other parts of the operation.
After a bitter dispute in 2016 with his College Street landlord, the flagship restaurant closed in early January 2018. The Yorkville location closed a few weeks later (the deli at Pearson remains open).
Today, he's focused on bringing back his reformulated bottles of Ballpark, Mild, Horseradish, and Spicy mustards. All-natural and Canadian-made, the recipes include flavourings such as celery seed, coriander seed, and jalapeno.