Magazine Nov/Dec 2012 Pathway to Perfection

01 November 2012, 18:00
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Pathway to Perfection

Geoffrey Zakarian lives three lives - one as an old-school Executive Chef sequestered in the kitchen of high-class restaurants, the second as a luminary restaurateur, and the third as a celebrated chef on national television. How does the charming, worldly proprietor who chalked up international acclaim as Food Network's newly crowned "Iron Chef" explain his longstanding stronghold in the industry? "I'm old. You hang around long enough, shit happens. It just does."

The sophisticated palates of New York
 have known Geoffrey Zakarian well before Yelp, Twitter, or the blogger down the next table at Starbucks who told you his food was succulent, scrumptious or any other two-cent assessment that triggered you to go and find out for yourself. Zakarian is cut from the cloth of the old school
 in an era where a chef was either one review
 away from being sliced and diced or spliced into 
a patron’s eating DNA. It was a time when the industry believed that you had to take ingredients, be honest with them and serve a yummy product to your customer. There was no other derivation of it, or as he says, “we never did cute.”

Genteel and sharply dressed, Zakarian is a breath of fresh air in an industry full of scruffy and overly tattooed youngsters. He owns a make-up chair as good as his kitchen. He is suave and slender; his style is refined – note the glasses that recently entered his primped up repertoire. He
 is spotlessly, almost effortlessly groomed; he is 
a natural at entertaining; his sophisticated aura attracts legions of middle-aged women who see the silver fox as a kitchen Casanova.

At 53, he is still a romantic with his wife Margaret Anne Williams, twenty years his junior and mother to his three and five year-old girls. What separates Zakarian from the pack in a cutthroat industry is his obsession for perfection. His approach in the kitchen is best described as New American with roots in French cuisine. His formula is as follows: learn the classics of French tradition, muster all the cultural influences that excite him, and come up with his own versions. Aside from creating a nesting doll of unique recipes for his restaurants, his never-ending quest for flawlessness includes laboring over the meticulous details of his restaurants. He selects and designs everything from the china, tableware to the uniforms of his employees. He believes that the plate should showcase the food, not the other way around. It’s just his way of channeling his passion for style, all in the name of creating a comforting ambiance.

“I’m doing it as a natural outlet. It’s a lifestyle business; it’s not just a restaurant business,” Zakarian says as he sips on an espresso
 while comfortably sitting in the booth of his Manhattan restaurant The Lambs Club. “There’s nothing but detail. Anybody can hire fancy people and spend all sorts of money. But when you open up, what are you left with? I’d rather have a four-dollar glass with a story then a twenty-dollar glass that doesn’t speak to anyone. You have to have soliloquy.”

His fervor for food and fashion is deep-seated. The strong sense of style, other than the fact that he’s a public figure in New York, comes from a man who was 52 years his senior – his father George Zakarian. George was a music teacher by day who moonlighted as a trombonist by night. He treated breakfast as if it was a black-tie affair. That made an impression on a young Geoffrey. Working two jobs and with a wide difference in age, father and son never got to hang out much. Geoffrey’s fondest memories are of his father introducing him to golf, but more importantly, to pinnacle, a card game they’d play for hours while they shared stories.

Zakarian’s childhood wasn’t of the silver spoon and expensive wine variety. He says that although the family was poor, he, along with his brother and sister, were lucky to have a great upbringing. Born and raised in Worcester, Massachusetts, Geoffrey was exposed to – and somewhat spoiled by – good food at an early age. 
“I really got a taste ad nauseam of really, really good Armenian food at an early age. But not because we were snobs, we were poor! Fast food and soda was never allowed. We had to make everything – from ice cream to ketchup and yogurt – all from scratch.”

George, who lived to be 96, would go grocery shopping every day, and his mother Viola
 would make kibbe and bastec. Even though Viola had Polish, Russian and Ukrainian roots, her Armenian meals were always prepared tastefully, Geoffrey remembers. So when going to a friend’s house, he would have out-of-body experiences when TV dinners and crinkle-cut fries were unleashed from the freezer. After all, Geoffrey’s earlier birthdays consisted of all-day expeditions with his father, revolving around the main event of the evening – dinner at a restaurant of Geoffrey’s choice. A life bound by food would lead to his career by osmosis.

After receiving a degree in urban studies, Zakarian got a grant to go to France and pursue a graduate degree in economics. In France, Zakarian became a foodaholic, spending his time and grant money on travel and fine dining.
 The taste that was left in his mouth meant 
one thing: a new vocation. 
He came back and enrolled in the CIA – not the Central Intelligence Agency, but the Culinary Institute of America, where he would begin a life-long investigation into food.

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