If all roads lead to Rome, in Atlanta, all Jewish-inspired-food roads lead to Chef Todd Ginsberg.
As Jewish delis and Israeli-inspired eateries pop up in cities around the country, Atlanta is not one to be left behind, and one winning team—made up of Ginsberg, husband-and-wife restaurateurs Jennifer and Ben Johnson and Shelley Sweet—can be credited with introducing both the sourness of deli pickles and the creamy bite of Israeli tahini (of the Soom variety, by the Zitelman sisters!) to the southern city.
Ginsberg, a 2014 and 2015 James Beard Award semifinalist and winner of many other awards, dropped out of college to go to culinary school and cut his teeth at some of the finest dining establishments around the country and in Atlanta since 2000 (save for two years in New York). But with a baby on the way about five years ago, his dad reminded Ginsberg of his roots—deli-owning grandparents in Newark, New Jersey—and his love for visiting delis around the country, saying, “You should open a deli—better hours.”
Atlanta didn’t have a deli at the time, so he teamed up with the Johnsons and Sweet and took a leap of faith, opening The General Muir, a modern delicatessen named after the ship that brought Jennifer’s Holocaust-survivor mother and grandparents to the US from Europe, in January 2013.
Although Ginsberg’s grandparents’ recipes were lost over the years and The General Muir—big windows, high ceilings and gleaming black and white tiles and blonde tables on Emory University’s campus—is not quite your Bubbe’s deli, that New York Jewish spirit remains intact. Offerings include “appetizing” platters, latkes and corned beef. Ginsberg has hosted Passover dinners inspired by his mother’s, every year since the restaurant opened.
Once they nailed Jewish deli, Ginsberg and his partners continued to chase voids in Atlanta. Luckily, he says, “There’s a sense of collaboration among [Atlanta] chefs. There’s a market that hasn’t been filled, unlike in New York, where there’s so much saturation, and everyone supports each other and gets along.”
In November 2014, they opened side-by-side stalls in the hip new Krog Street Market: Fred’s Meat and Bread offers classic sandwiches and fries, while Yalla (“Let’s go!” in Arabic, used in Hebrew, too) features Middle Eastern fare, like salatim (salads), hummus and shawarma in freshly baked pita or laffa (flat pita) or a bowl, and décor inspired by Ginsberg’s summer 2014 foodie trip to Israel. They followed with TGM Bread, a bakery that supplies their other establishments as well as selling to the public, in January 2016.
It’s clear from all of Ginsberg’s food pursuits that he holds a deep respect for traditional cooking methods and the “old way” of doing things, whether it’s the bagels and pastrami at The General Muir, old-school sodas at Fred’s or hummus and falafel at Yalla. He cites New York’s Russ and Daughters as inspiration—“They’ve been doing it for 100 years.” Similarly, on Israeli food, he says, “The most beautiful thing for me about it is that it’s been done like this for thousands of years—never molecular, still chickpea- and olive oil-based, simple.”
But it’s just as much about marrying the old with the new, too. For example, “My gut told me to veer away from the deli [fare] and do a ramen pop-up on Monday night,” so Mondays have become ramen night and Sundays at The General Muir are all about spaghetti, shares Ginsberg. An Israeli-inspired vegetable dish at a special dinner last year featured tahini topped with a local farm’s fresh green beans, flash-fried and tossed with spices from Tel Aviv markets.
What about that desire for better hours, though? It seems to have fallen by the wayside for now—Ginsberg and crew have more in the works and show no signs of stopping—but no one seems to mind.
Top photo: Pastrami sandwich at The General Muir (Photo by Andrew Thomas Lee). All photos courtesy of The General Muir.