With an expanding restaurant portfolio and new line of kitchen products, Geoffrey Zakarian continues to expand his culinary reach
By Deanne Moskowitz
You may not guess it from his laid-back manner and meticulous grooming, but Geoffrey Zakarian is moving at an incredible clip. The celebrity chef, television personality, cookbook author, philanthropist and (most important, he insists) “Daddy” has been riding a rocket to culinary stardom since he fell in love with the hospitality world and decided to become a chef, and he shows no signs of slowing down.
After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 1983, Zakarian began his career at Le Cirque in New York, where he rose from pastry sous chef, to chef, to chef de cuisine in only five years. He went on to preside over some of the most acclaimed kitchens in America, before opening his first restaurant in 2001, Town, which was awarded three stars by The New York Times.
Ever since, Zakarian has been lighting up the hospitality landscape with a string of luminary restaurants, notable for their sophistication and timeless style. Among them are The Lambs Club and The National in New York; The National in Greenwich, Conn.; The Water Club at Borgata in Atlantic City, N.J.; Georgie and The Garden Bar at Montage Beverly Hills, Calif.; and the newly opened Point Royal at The Diplomat Beach Resort in Hollywood, Fla.
Zakarian’s unwaning passion for food and wine, and enduring love of restaurants, has kept him fresh and energized throughout his career. Motivated by a lifelong quest to deliver a paramount hospitality experience to his guests, he travels extensively, staying abreast of trends, and draws on the related realms of design, fashion, art and media to keep his signature style current.
Already a favorite judge on Food Network’s Chopped, Zakarian was awarded the title of Iron Chef in 2011, and is an increasingly popular food media personality. He stars on many of America’s favorite cooking programs, including Cooks vs. Cons and The Kitchen, and appears regularly on various network shows.
Among other accomplishments, Zakarian has written two cookbooks: Geoffrey Zakarian’s Town/Country, published in 2006; and My Perfect Pantry: 150 Easy Recipes from 50 Essential Ingredients, published in 2014, which he co-authored with his wife, Margaret, who serves as president of Zakarian Hospitality Group.
Despite his jam-packed agenda, Zakarian manages to devote himself to various charitable causes. Last month, for example, he hosted Our Town’s Art of Food, presented by New York-Presbyterian at Sotheby’s New York in New York City, an enchanting evening that delighted art lovers and foodies alike. A portion of the proceeds benefited City Harvest, a food rescue organization dedicated to fighting hunger in New York City. Zakarian was joined as co-host by his wife.
As noted for his unerring design sensibility as for his culinary prowess, Zakarian was the ideal ambassador for the event, now in its second year, which showcased chefs from more than 25 of Manhattan’s leading Upper East Side restaurants. Paired with paintings curated by Sotheby’s, the chefs were charged with producing small plates inspired by the artworks, resulting in dishes that were masterpieces in their own rights.
Recently I had the opportunity to ask Zakarian what he believes accounts for his longstanding success, what challenges he sees looming ahead and what advice he can offer to other caterers. Here’s what he had to say:
CM: Is there a signature style or common thread that accounts for the success of your restaurants?
GZ: When conceptualizing a project, I always start with a deep dive into the neighborhood and the city, looking for what the locals in the neighborhood need. How can we become part of the routine and fabric of the surroundings? It is all about creating the right ambience, similar to how an event planner would tackle an event. This is, for sure, a common thread amongst my restaurants; there are strong design elements that make each very distinct. The style of hospitality is very similar throughout all, whether the menu is more casual or refined, but each is very unique in its look.
CM: What do you think are the most important innovations happening on the New York culinary scene? How are your New York properties contributing?
GZ: I always say everything old is new again! Classic cuisine is making a comeback, and you see people steering away from molecular gastronomy. I have always been about using the best ingredients one can find and treating them well so that natural flavors shine. I don’t like to “touch” or manipulate the food too much—I like a roast chicken to taste just like a delicious roast chicken. You see these kind of ingredient-driven restaurants popping up, as well as restaurants offering classic cuisine being much lauded. I like it!
CM: You hold the title of Iron Chef, and you’re the star of a number of Food Network shows. Why is food TV so meaningful to you…and to the food world?
GZ: Food Network has achieved something incredible in our culture. Through cable, it has brought a wealth of knowledge to households across America, showing techniques and ingredients otherwise hard to know or learn. In turn, it has pushed the family back in to the kitchen and around the family table, and it has encouraged people to eat out more often while trying new items that previously would have been hard to put on a menu. I see this in my restaurants. A dish with esoteric components gets traction, and as a chef, it is exciting when interesting food moves in terms of sales.
CM: As a partner with your wife, Margaret, in Zakarian Hospitality, what elements do you feel are essential to producing an outstanding catered event? Do you have any advice for catering chefs and owners?
GZ: Here are three of our ultimate rules when catering or planning an event and, surprisingly, they have little to do with food!
1) Make the dance floor 20 percent smaller than what the rental company recommends. A dance floor needs to be small so that the energy stays concentrated. No one wants to dance on a huge empty dance floor, and with a smaller footprint, you 100 percent of the time will get guests up on their feet for longer periods of time. Try it—you will be shocked.
2) Spend more money on staff. Cut something else if you need to, but being overstaffed for an event is the difference between a good event and a great event.
3) Have a few surprises throughout the experience—something unexpected. Recently, Margaret and I hosted a seated dinner event at our restaurant, The Lambs Club at The Chatwal. For the dessert course, we brought out a baked Alaska with the liquor and matches on the side. On the count of three, everyone poured the liquor over and lit their own desserts on fire. We had a table of 20 with flaming desserts. It was incredible!
CM: There have been enormous changes in the food world during your tenure. What changes in cuisine, dining styles and technology do you anticipate, and how do you expect them to impact your work? How is the millennial generation affecting the hospitality business, and how are you responding?
GZ: Sous vide is something that has really taken hold and is a technique that allows consistency and maximum flavor. You would be hard-pressed today to find an excellent fine dining restaurant not using sous vide. Millennials have changed the dining game in that everything is going on social. They are posting and Tweeting food pictures like mad; social media has become an integral part of our marketing strategies and platforms across all restaurants.
CM: How and why did you get involved in the Art of Food event?
GZ: Margaret and I were approached by Our Town to host Art of Food, and we immediately accepted. What an honor to host an event at such a prestigious institution amongst world-class works of art. Viewing masterpieces outside of a museum and partnered with the best chefs on the Upper East Side is truly an experience like no other. We loved the black and white Richard Sera that was paired up with a squid ink dish from T-Bar and posted about it on @mzakarian. See—there I go talking about social media again. This was an example of bringing an eating experience to people all over the world instantaneously. It’s incredible. I was recently in Dubai for their food festival, and the followers of @gzchef loved being able to experience the trip in real time.
CM: What else is on your professional bucket list? What can we expect from Geoffrey Zakarian in the future?
GZ: I just launched a line called Pro For Home, products that bring professional level functionality to the home kitchen with beautiful design and expert engineering. The first products are food storage containers for the fridge and pantry; we are revolutionizing the way you can store food at home by using simple methods that I use in the restaurants every day [a small tray that fits in the bottom of each container to lift food up and away from moisture, for example, and lids that have a space you can write on]. I am an addict for these containers—my fridge at home is filled with them, saving me 30 percent space in my fridge and eliminating money wasted on spoilage. For catering events and potlucks, I have been transporting food in them, as they are so incredibly sturdy. Literally, I can stand on them and they don’t buckle. Additional products in the Pro For Home line are to follow, but for now, mum’s the word on what is debuting next!