Dishing with Geoffrey Zakarian

Last week we had the privilege of dining on the customized cuisine of celebrity chef Geoffrey Zakarian at New York City’s highly rated The Lamb’s Club. Before the delectable dinner was served, we had a chance to chat with the menu maestro about his work on the Food Network, new restaurant locations, and how being a chef has changed throughout the years.

How did you get your start in the industry, and at this point do you feel like you’ve reached a peak in your career?
Well, this doesn’t happen overnight. This is 32 years I’ve been doing this, so it’s a long time. I just felt a lot for hospitality. I went to France, came back, and decided to be a chef. That was that. I consider myself an Outlier [after Malcolm Gladwell book]. It takes an average 15,000 hours of practice to do something really good [in the book it’s 10,000]. All these people that do something really good, at the top of their game, it takes 15,000 hours. And I’m sure I even surpassed that. I don’t know if I’m accurate, but it takes that much work and effort to be the best in your field and a little luck.

You’re a regular on the Food Network, but if it were possible, would you ever appear on Top Chef Master?
Top Chef Masters is not as difficult. Every year, they anoint one person, and that’s it, that person’s never challenged again. There are 18 of them now, and you’re a top chef master, that’s it – you’re just on a shelf. Every season [on Iron Chef], people come and battle us and we have to retest our skills every year on camera. It’s not like they do that. Once you’re a Top Chef or a Top Chef Master, you go open a restaurant, that’s about the end of it. So, I consider Iron Chef much more brutal, and it is.

Are you and the other iron chefs prepped as to whom the challenger will pick beforehand?
Well the competitor, that’s for camera. The guy that comes against me [at the taping], he picks me the day before. If he picks you on the phone or like that, it doesn’t really matter. You still have to do the battle.

Stepping away from the TV, what’s you favorite thing to cook?
I get that question all the time and I don’t know how to answer it because I like, based upon the day, I will eat something that I feel like. On a Sunday, it’ll be a different thing than say on a Friday night. Basically, what I like to cook is what I like to eat. I like to cook everything.

Do you have a favorite restaurant in the city?
I don’t have a favorite restaurant in Manhattan. Flip side, if I feel like going, I’m here all day long, we eat all day long, we cook and we eat, it sound’s amazing, but it’s not fun. At the end of the day, I’m stuffed. I’m satisfied you know what I mean? We tend to go places where we have a craving. I’ll have a great dinner with some pizza every once in a while –it’s like anybody else. You feel like a burger, I’ll go have a burger. I do most of my eating here and I cook breakfast everyday for my family. [When I go out] I like wine cold, I like martinis frozen. I’m the worst customer. I like chicken crispy, crunchy and burnt. It’s weird. I like toast almost burnt. I would never do it for a customer but for me…

What’s changed for you in 30 years you’ve been in the business?
I never thought I’d be on TV. We’ve become like rock stars; and I say that – I’m from Worcester, Massachusetts. I wake up in the morning and I think ‘Is this real?’ I was outside today, I got a cab, and my name was on top of the cab with my photo. I wish my mother were alive to see this! In 35 years, that’s the biggest change, not to mention, the food in New York City is the greatest food in the world. 35 years ago, there were maybe 600 restaurants and now it’s 26,000; it’s just amazing. Anything you want — I can say, ‘I want Vietnamese sushi,’ and you can get it. You could never do that when I first started in this business.

Are you looking to open a restaurant anywhere else in the country?
I like the east coast. I would like to go to Florida or Texas. I wouldn’t do it in California. California’s a bit costly, doing business there is insane. I don’t know what the tax laws are specifically out west, but it depends on how expensive labor is. Minimum wage laws for waiters; I just don’t touch it because it’s expensive. That’s why Texas is great. Texas is great, Florida’s great. Washington D.C. is actually a great market I’d like to be in. I would love to put The National in Washington D.C. And then I’m doing restaurants on a boat – two boats, [with] the Norwegian Cruise liners. The Breakaway I and Breakaway II. One’s launching 2013. It’s a billion dollar ship; it’s going to be the second largest ship in the world.

Why did you decide to go on a ship?
They called me. And I said, “Really? A ship. I’ll take a look.” It’s an extraordinary operation. They serve 32,000 meals a day. I’ve never seen kitchens cleaner. I’ve never seen a kitchen cleaner – rivals the cleanest kitchen I’ve ever worked in. And, it’s very impressive. They make everything fresh. It’s a big operation – 32,000 meals a day and 21 restaurants on the ship. So, I’m going to do one of them. And I’ll be one of the only really notable chefs on board, so it’s really a great deal for me. We’re going to train a chef here. He’ll work here for three or four months and then we’ll put him on a boat. It’s amazing, because of homeland security and the health department – what you can do and what you can’t, it’s miraculously hard. But they’re a great company and they’re hiring a great staff. I’m very excited about it.

So does it all feel like work?
I wake up, I think of food. I go to bed, think of food. It’s not really work. It is, but it’s what I do for a living. I’m lucky I love doing it; otherwise I would never do this. This is such hard work.