The No-Guilt Life
Chef Geoffrey Zakarian uses lessons learned from Le Cirque to “Iron Chef,” and tops them off with a cigar
From the Print Edition:
Kelsey Grammer, January/February 2013
It’s a warm weekday lunch hour, as chef and restaurateur Geoffrey Zakarian finishes his meal. Nattily dressed in sport coat and black jeans, he’s sitting at a corner table near the door of the tastefully appointed dining room of the Lambs Club in midtown Manhattan, one of the two restaurants he runs in New York.
The food has been outstanding: flavorful, imaginative, decorative—each dish topping the last. But, as he sips coffee, nodding to and greeting familiar patrons on their way out, Zakarian is more interested in talking about the dining experience that hasn’t occurred.
As he points out, the wait staff has been solicitous and efficient—but not obtrusive or familiar. None of them has introduced themselves; once the food was served, no one circled back to monitor our satisfaction: “I hate that,” Zakarian says. Which launches him on one of the tenets of table service at a Geoffrey Zakarian restaurant. “It’s not important to hound the customer,” Zakarian says dismissively. “There’s no reason for a waiter to say ‘Enjoy’ or anything else. And I hate waiters who interrupt a table to ask how things are. If things aren’t good, you’ll tell him. I believe that people in a restaurant don’t want to know you personally. It’s not important. If you’re interested in the server’s name, you’ll ask. If my waiter is good, I’ll notice his name.”
What is important, of course, is the rest of the experience: the food, naturally, but also the ambiance and the service, the sense that the diner has chosen a specific destination and is receiving singular treatment in exchange.
Zakarian is part of a wave of chef-restaurateurs who have risen during the foodie craze that has grown to mammoth proportions since The Official Foodie Handbook was published in 1984. It’s a wave that has included the spawning, growth and institutionalization of the Food Network and other television channels and shows devoted to cooking, restaurants and food in general.
Zakarian has ridden that wave, as a chef with increasing celebrity, thanks both to his cooking and his business acumen, not to mention his TV-ready personality. Though he got his start in the fine-dining kitchen of Le Cirque when the Manhattan restaurant was at its peak in the 1980s, Zakarian recognizes that the concept of “fine dining”—with the formality of white tablecloths and liveried waitstaff—has given way to something slightly less daunting to the growing pool of foodies. Zakarian refers to it as “finer dining,” a kind of casual fine dining a notch below the stiff atmosphere and regimented courses that “fine dining” implies.
“Finer dining has probably displaced a lot of fine-dining restaurants because of the cost,” he says. “There are a lot more finer-dining restaurants. There are so many more choices now at every strata that you can find something delicious. You can go to a humble bistro or sushi bar and get great food.
“TV has made people more aware of food, and that’s led to the democratization of fine-dining establishments. You may not go to Per Se, but you can go to the Lambs Club. Food Network has opened that world. What TV does is show you food as a seductive industry. But there would be no TV for me if there were no restaurants. They feed off each other. My job is making sure that the restaurants have stable quality; if I do that, I’m good. My entire day is devoted to running my restaurants. I’m in the restaurant most evenings. Nothing happens to the exclusion of something else.”
It’s a synergy that’s in full swing: the rise in foodie consciousness leading to TV and other media which serve that craving. That, in turn, raises awareness among the mass audience and points them in the direction of restaurants like Zakarian’s. “People watch the TV and think, I want that dish, I want to try that restaurant,” he says. “A rising tide lifts all boats and the Food Network has done that. TV brings in customers we’ve never seen before. There’s a level of sophistication that people have never experienced, and they want to try it. Or maybe they just want to watch. That’s OK too. Everything in life is aspirational. It’s opened a whole new perception. Everything we do is to create the experience.
“It’s a very social business. If you like food in restaurants, you’re a social person. And now it’s beamed into your house all day long. A lot of times, people who come in here after seeing me on TV, it’s the first fancy restaurant they’ve tried. And that’s a high honor. There’s nothing more intimate than me cooking food and you putting it in your mouth.”
Zakarian is a ubiquitous presence on television, whether he’s giving a cooking demonstration on ABC’s “The Chew,” sharing favorite dishes on Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Made,” judging contests on Food Network’s “Chopped” or battling other chefs—and the clock—on “Iron Chef America.” He earned his Iron Chef jacket by winning “The Next Iron Chef” in 2011. “On TV, there’s no room for someone where the main ingredient in their personality is subtlety,” says Eytan Keller, director of both “Iron Chef America” and “The Next Iron Chef.” “Success on TV or any other medium is based on character, personality, people who stand out from the crowd. Geoffrey does that at every turn. Watching him cook, there’s a physicality, a purposefulness, a sense of mission in everything he does.”
“Iron Chef America” is an hour-long cooking competition, in which a challenger-chef chooses one of the reigning Iron Chefs (which include such notables as Zakarian, Bobby Flay, Mario Batali and Masaharu Morimoto) to battle in “Kitchen Stadium,” the television-studio kitchen where each face-off occurs. They both are given the same “secret ingredient” (which can be anything from peaches to mint to buffalo), which must be the focus of each dish of a five-course meal. Working in real time with only a sous chef to help, the two chefs prepare their meals, which are then judged by a celebrity panel—anyone from noted food critic Jeffrey Steingarten to fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi to former football star Boomer Esiason—to determine a winner. Zakarian has what he will only refer to as “a winning percentage” on the show. (He wouldn’t give exact figures because the episodes have yet to air.)
“You’re cooking five complete meals in an hour, with the cameras rolling,” Zakarian says. “That’s hard. It’s absolutely about on-the-fly decision-making. You have to manage your time well. You have an hour—but it’s less than an hour because you spend several minutes at the beginning running around, gathering ingredients and preparing. So you’re actually cooking for about 25 minutes.” What makes Zakarian a great competitor—and chef—is his willingness to take chances in “Kitchen Stadium.” Onscreen, he’s got laser-like focus, his short, silver hair offset by horn-rimmed glasses and dark, intense eyes.
“Geoffrey never does anything halfway,” Keller says. “There’s always an element of risk-taking when he cooks. He’s not reckless, but he pushes the envelope. There’s a safe way and a risky way to these challenges. Picking a technique that takes longer to execute can be intimidating. Geoffrey prides himself in figuring out how to make things happen in the given time. When you watch him cook, you can see how he calibrates when he’s tasting. He shifts, he augments—and you see it in his eyes. What he and the other Iron Chefs are doing isn’t chaos—but it is a process that’s nonlinear. To the uneducated eye, it might translate as chaos. But at the end, you see this amazing work. Whether it’s on TV or off-camera, you get a terrific sense of him being driven to be the best.”
“You have to be good at committing to a dish, then translating what you want when you present it to the judges,” Zakarian says. “You’ve got to be confident. Even if you’re wrong, you’ve got to be confident with your error. Once you’re done cooking, it’s out of your hands. Your job is to persuade the judges that yours is the better dish. And I’m very persuasive.” The key, Zakarian says, is helping the judges understand what you’ve done before they take the first bite. That can be challenging when the judge admits, “I’ve never eaten that before.” Even then, Zakarian notes, there are ways to work the refs, as it were.
“You never make them feel stupid,” he says. “You have to show that you value their opinion—or even their lack of knowledge about something. When you do that, it’s hard for someone to come down on you. There’s a psychology to that. Still, I’ve cooked amazing food that the judges just didn’t get. Which means I failed to get them to judge it correctly.” It’s about persuasiveness—but also about putting on a show when you present to the judges: “I had to battle Morimoto as a guest and I got trounced,” Zakarian recalls. “The food was delicious but we didn’t have the theatricality that he had. I learned then that it’s not just about the food. You’ve also got to have theater.
“When the secret ingredient is something silly, like jelly beans, you use your imagination. The most straightforward items are the most stressful. It’s hard, for example, to hide behind a rack of lamb. But there’s nothing I can’t cook.”
Still, some of the secret ingredients can boggle the mind. The worst ingredient he faced? “Marshmallows and octopus—and you had to put that together. It’s hard but you want that challenge. And then it’s ‘What the fuck? You’re kidding me.’ ”
He chuckles, then adds, “It makes no sense, of course,” referring to possible real-life applications for the skills required to be an Iron Chef. “It rarely happens that you have 10 people coming over for dinner and they don’t tell you until an hour before.” But if they did, Zakarian would be ready: “I feel very confident with the simplicity of cooking. It’s like riding a bike to me. Cooking the food is really the easiest thing. Making food is a piece of cake, in the proverbial sense.”
On “Chopped,” in which chefs have 30 minutes to cook a meal for judges, using the ingredients from a “mystery” basket, Zakarian is tough but fair as a judge. And he finds that less-experienced chefs tend to fall into the same traps.
“The biggest mistake they make? Not enough salt and pepper,” he says. “They don’t season it enough. The second most common mistake is that they cook it improperly because they’re unfamiliar with an ingredient, so they don’t know how to treat it. But first and foremost, it’s under-seasoning. They’ve got 20 minutes in and out. Some of them freeze. It’s the pure ability to pull a rabbit out of a hat.”
Zakarian was a latecomer to a career in food. The Worcester, Massachusetts, native went to college as an economics major and, after graduating from the University of Massachusetts, planned to get a master’s degree in business administration. “But then I took a sabbatical,” he recalls. “This friend and I had the idea to get a student loan and study in the south of France, to study industry there. That’s where food found me. In France, it’s a 3,000-year-old culture. I was entranced by the whole show of it. I came back from France and told my parents that I wanted to be a chef. They were unimpressed. I was relatively old when I started cooking—22, 23, which is relatively late.”
Zakarian went to the Culinary Institute of America, then landed a job at Le Cirque after graduating in 1981, working for master restaurateur Sirio Maccioni. When he first applied for the job, he was told there were no openings—until he offered to work without pay. “I worked for nothing for six weeks to get in the door,” Zakarian recalls. “I wasn’t good but I had balls. I was good at copying things. If you showed me how to do something, I could do it. And working on the line in a restaurant, you’re making the same dish 60 or 70 times a night. I finally started getting paid because someone got hurt and I replaced them.
“This was 1981, ’82—there were maybe two dozen noteworthy restaurants in New York. I worked at Le Cirque for five years, which was the greatest restaurant in the world.” The seeming epicenter of the New York restaurant world in the early 1980s, Le Cirque exposed Zakarian to a world of food he may have been too young to appreciate at the time. He cooked for presidents and worked with ingredients which, today, boggle his mind. “It was like jumping into the Land of Oz of the cooking world for chefs,” Zakarian says, still amazed. “Think of the most expensive ingredients and we had it by the bucket, because the clientele was the crème de la crème. Sirio was buying the food in kilos, we were so busy. I worked with the best produce. I’d spend an afternoon cleaning $50,000 of truffles. Some people work their whole lives and never use as much as we did in a week. But he would buy the biggest truffles in Italy. I had no idea then what it cost. And working there, I learned what makes a restaurant tick.”
Early on, Zakarian would work shifts where he was making the same dish over and over—but it never got boring because each one was unique. “You never make the same dish the same way, even the same night,” he says. “Food is alive—and a chef can tell the difference. The butter is never the same temperature, the shallots are not the same strength, the taste will always be different. Each time you do it, it’s slightly more refined and better. It’s a very alive expression of life that shows you it’s not a stationary thing.”
In five years at Le Cirque, Zakarian rose from being a pastry sous chef to chef de cuisine, then moved on to become executive chef at the legendary 21 Club in 1987. The following year, he was hired as executive chef at 44, the restaurant at Manhattan’s Royalton Hotel, which became a dining hot spot and gathering place for everyone from the elite of the publishing world to designer-superstar Calvin Klein.
Zakarian helped open several other restaurants before launching one of his own, Town, in 2001, followed by Country. His 2006 cookbook, Geoffrey Zakarian’s Town/Country, was an editor’s choice in the New York Times Book Review. Today, he owns and operates the Lambs Club (in the Chatwal Hotel), the National at the Benjamin Hotel (both in Manhattan), and Tudor House at Dream South Beach in Miami. He is consultant and executive chef at the Water Club at the Borgata in Atlantic City. Starting in 2014, he will oversee three restaurants on Norwegian Cruise Lines’ ship, Breakaway: “I’ve never been on a cruise. I wanted to open a little shack by the water. Now I’m going to be on the water.”
He learned his most valuable lesson about being a restaurateur while running 44: that the food was important, but the business was about more than just being able to cook. “Robert Isabell was the party planner at 44 when I was the chef,” Zakarian recalled. “He would throw the biggest fashion parties. We had a huge argument in 1989 at the Royalton. I was so worried because my food was getting cold. And he said, ‘No one gives a shit about the fucking food. It’s about the party.’ And it was very clear that there was a lot of truth to what he was saying. They were having a celebration of the moment. Focusing on the food would have interrupted that. Not to diminish the food—but it was about the timing. And the hospitality. He was the consummate host. When I stopped fighting him and started working with him, I learned a lot. I couldn’t do the culinary things I wanted to, but that didn’t matter.”
So, while Zakarian still loves to cook and create in the kitchen, he is deeply focused on numerous other aspects of his business. He still puts on the apron when he’s on TV and still works in his own kitchen but, as the saying goes, he’s got bigger fish to fry.
“I’m in the kitchen every day, but I’m not back there sautéing onions,” he says. “I’m more involved in making sure of the quality. My job is to be a positive force and to be sure the quality is maintained, to be as creative as I can. It’s not just about creativity, though. I have to hire people, run a business. I have several hundred employees that I work with everyday. I talk about our sensibility, seasonality, where we’re going. I create and taste.
“There are no set hours. I’m on the cell and Blackberry all the time. I’m open seven days a week, 24 hours a day. I’m always on call. They have to be able to get you. It’s a difficult business. I love it—that’s why I do it. I had no idea about that when I started. I thought it was all about being a chef. But there’s a lot more you have to do to maintain a restaurant.
“You need to be a business person and have great food. That’s a tough lesson to learn. And now it comes back to the economics degree. I went for the art—but now the business is something I have to focus on. They finally merged. That’s always how you start: You’re into the art. But an artist becomes commercial because you’ve got to sell your art and make a living. It’s about earning a nice living.”
And about finding time to kick back and smoke a cigar. During his run on “The Next Iron Chef,” he’d finish each competition and “then I’d go out and fire up a cigar. Every challenge, we’d have a big cigar.”
Zakarian smokes when he plays golf, though he rarely has time to play 18 holes: “Nine holes is more practical. I do a lot of smoking on the course. I love the ritual. I love the flavor. It works on so many levels. You can relax and have a good chat. There’s something magical and liberating about it.
“I found my tastes by trial and error. I remember one Cohiba Especial, how stoned I was after my first one. It was wonderful, this absolutely perfect ash. I smoked it right down to the stub. I tend to stay in the small range. My everyday cigar is an Avo or a Hoyo de Monterrey. I like the Partagás Serie D No. 4. It’s just the right size and strength. I’m rarely disappointed. It’s a great cigar.”
Despite smoking restrictions in New York City, Zakarian says, “We do find places to smoke. I have a terrace at my house. Or I’ll walk through the city. I’ll light up on the sidewalk and smoke as I walk to my next appointment. But it’s best when I’m sitting down and chatting. I tend to choose places where I can do that.
“I don’t smoke every day. I look at it as an extension of the life I enjoy leading. Is it bad for you? Anything in excess will be. But you can be a free human and choose to smoke once in a while. I take care of myself, I eat right and don’t do anything to excess. Does it affect my palate? I don’t think so. There are other things that will do that, too, whether it’s living in the city or eating spicy food all the time. Everyday, I taste thousands of things. And I feel confident in my decisions. And really—you can’t be a chain-cigar-smoker.”
Zakarian has had restaurants succeed—and he’s also had them fail. That’s just part of the business: “The failure rate for restaurants is 90 percent or more. Chefs open restaurants and some of them don’t work. But they still keep opening them. Even the best chefs have had that happen. Some books aren’t best-sellers. Some marriages don’t work out. In my world, batting .500 is failure. Batting .700 is only OK. At the end of the day, it’s about hospitality.”
Relaxation? Retirement? Those two words don’t exist in Zakarian’s vocabulary.
“Relaxation? I don’t know that state,” he says. “I’m most content when I’m outside with my kids, sharing something they’ve never seen before.” (He has two daughters, 5 and 3.) “When I fall asleep in the middle of a massage, I guess I’m relaxed. But I love being busy. I’m never retiring—ever. I can’t imagine a less interesting state of being.”
Guilty pleasures? “I’m never guilty. Perhaps licorice—good licorice. And rosé wine. I’ve stopped being guilty. If I feel like eating something, I eat it.”
Asked what he’d eat if he were given a choice of a last meal, he laughs and says, “That’s a morbid question. I’d have to go back and have someone cook for me who’s not alive. I’d probably have my aunts cook me an Armenian dinner. Stuffed grape leaves, Armenian beans, barley soup. That’s the appetizer. Anything with lamb. Definitely kibbeh. Turkish, Greek, Lebanese, even Israel—we all borrow from the same basket. It’s the same 10 to 15 ingredients.
“In life, everything sags. Entropy—the idea that everything eventually falls apart—is the driving force of physics. But you try to go higher. We’re all in the same boat—and that boat is going down. So enjoy the ride, savor the food and try to put your children on the next, best boat.”
Contributing editor Marshall Fine writes about movies and entertainment on his website, www.hollywoodandfine.com.
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