Chef, restaurateur, TV personality and author Geoffrey Zakarian, 57, was born and raised in Worcester. After earning a degree from Worcester State University, he studied at the Culinary Institute of America and began working under renowned chef Daniel Boulud at Le Cirque. He served as executive chef at numerous restaurants before opening his own restaurants, Town and then Country, in Manhattan. Restaurants in Atlantic City, Miami and Beverly Hills followed, as did cookbooks and lucrative consulting deals, but he has gained the widest recognition as a judge on the Food Network’s Chopped and the Iron Chef franchise, as well as a host of The Kitchen. On Feb. 26, he will be a keynote speaker at the New England Food Show, held at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. And on Feb. 27, Zakarian will return home on behalf of Discover Central Massachusetts for a night of culinary conversation at Worcester’s historic Hanover Theatre.
Jonathan Soroff: One thing all great restaurants have in common? Geoffrey Zakarian: One thing? Behind the scenes, they’re all ultra-stressful environments.
Restaurant you wish you owned? There’s a couple. The hardest thing about the restaurant business is, at the end of the day, you accept that you’re going into battle every day, seven days a week. It’s like a Broadway show, three times a day. So if you love that and view it as a challenge, the hardest thing to achieve is consistency. So there are a couple of restaurants that are always consistent. I just love going to BondSt. It’s an incredibly smart concept, so well done, and it’s been there forever. I give a lot of points to someone who does something that well for such a long time. And then on the other end of the spectrum, there’s a restaurant called Barbuto, Jonathan Waxman’s restaurant, and he’s sort of the king of Californian cuisine. It’s nice to have him in New York City, and he just serves straight-up Tuscan Italian, incredible food with no frills. It’s always the best ingredients, and it’s always sensational.
Was Daniel Boulud tough to work for? Everybody that’s on the level he’s on is tough, but tough isn’t really the appropriate word. He was demanding. He was exacting. He suffered no fools. But at the drop of a hat, he had a lexicon/Wikipedia that he would just give you, because that’s what the learning process is in a restaurant. You do the work; you get the knowledge.
One person you’d most like to cook for? People ask me that, and I’m fortunate enough that I’ve cooked for a lot of people. But I’m a big music fan, so if I could cook for someone like Keith Jarrett or Tony Bennett, that would be cool.
Grossest thing you ever ate? Well, on Chopped, they throw some oddball stuff at you, and we’re sworn to eating it. We need to eat it. But I’ve eaten just about everything possible on earth—bugs, insects, genitalia of all sorts. But the real problem is not the food itself. They’re all things that in one culture or another are edible. You have to respect what people eat. They eat cockroaches in Mexico, and they’re an excellent form of protein. It’s their culture. So you can’t go, “Ew!” You have to understand the context. The problem with context is execution. Context minus execution equals grossness. So these people who’ve never seen the product can’t execute it, and it comes out diabolically bad. That’s how we end up with raw lamb’s testicles on Chopped.
If you could only eat one cuisine for the rest of your life, what would it be? Italian.
Three things I’ll always find in your refrigerator? Rosé Champagne, Fresca and whole-grain mustard.
If I showed up on your doorstep unexpected, what would you end up serving me? I’d send you away. [Laughs.] Unless you were charming. Then I might invite you in. No, seriously? I’m a Middle Eastern guy. I’d bring you in and feed you, well, because that’s what we do.
Favorite cookbook? Wow. That’s a tough one. I probably have 500 upstairs. There are just so many. But the person who puts out consistent cookbooks all the time, where the recipes always work, and are always well-centered and balanced, is Ina Garten. Ma Gastronomie is the Bible. I love Martha Stewart’s Cakes. That book is amazing.
Single most important tool in the kitchen? My iPhone. If I’m cooking, and I want to download something, talk to someone, see something, watch a video (which we do a lot of), it’s really an extremely helpful tool.
Silver bullet in the kitchen when something goes wrong? My sense of humor. And I mean that.
Worst kitchen disaster? There have been so many bad nights in the kitchen. That’s why I’m gray-haired. But I guess the times, and it’s happened several times, when a fire went off. That’s happened in the middle of service, at 8 o’clock on a Friday. The fire suppression system went off. It’s like an explosion of propellant all over the ranges. It’s designed to put everything out and shut everything off. It turns off the gas. And when you have 100 people halfway done with their dinner, you gotta tell them you’re closed. We made the best of it. We ended up giving away a lot of free Champagne.
Thing that most people don’t realize about competition cooking shows, like Chopped? That they’re not reality TV, which isn’t real. The cooking competitions are 100 percent real-time. Those throwing up, fainting episodes are real.
Favorite food city? Paris is great. Lyon. Tokyo and Madrid are amazing. But New York is the best food city in the world. You can’t touch the variety of New York restaurants.
One thing you’d do to improve airline food? Fly private. [Laughs.]
If you were on death row, what would your last meal be? I’d request a magnum of Krug rosé 1972. I’d be too nervous to eat. I’d just get wasted.
Single favorite spice or herb? I’m very fond of tarragon and of dill.
Food trend you’re sick of? Jesus, there are so many. I don’t even know where to start. I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve seen all the foibles and the ups and downs. See, the problem with food trends is that they’re started by someone, popularized by a critic, in a city that’s wealthy enough to pay attention to some silly anomaly of food or way of serving it, in one small, obscure restaurant. Then it spreads, and these people who basically don’t know how to make a fucking chicken are giving you carrot dust with egg whites.
Thoughts on food critics? They have a job to do. It’s the conflict of having a job to do by getting paid to critique something, and having the livelihoods of 150 people determined by what you say. It’s a tough job. I wouldn’t want to be a critic. It’s pretty thankless. Of course, there are good critics, who really do their best. But what I don’t like is the system of stars or spoons or whatever. They should just write an article, the way A.A. Gill did. He was very thorough. He’d assess it in depth and write what he thought, without giving it some arbitrary rating. Because the trouble with that is that you can go to some cool little place in Brooklyn where it’s $15 a person, and then you go to a place in Manhattan where it’s $1,500 a person, and they both have three stars. There’s no real relevance there. And if you don’t have anything good to say about a place, if it really sucks, don’t review it. It’ll die anyway.
Most lucrative thing in the restaurant business? Changing careers. [Laughs.] Seriously, the beverage side. You’ll never see an Irish bartender out of work.
Do you like watching yourself on television? Love it. How else are you going to get better? You have to watch yourself, and it can be painful. But over the last six years, I’ve improved. You’ve gotta look at what you did to learn and improve. I shouldn’t interrupt so much. I talk too fast. I wouldn’t know that if I didn’t watch.
Are people intimidated to invite you over for dinner? Absolutely. They never do.