Geoffrey Zakarian is the most recent winner of the Food Network’s “Next Iron Chef” competition series and balances the needs of four restaurants in New York (The Lambs Club, The National Bar), Miami (Tudor House) and Atlantic City (The Water Club). We spoke with him at the Pebble Beach Food & Wine festival, and Zakarian shared insights that hint at how he’s cultivated culinary success.
What was your very first night like working in a professional restaurant kitchen, and where was that at?
My god. You mean a real good restaurant?
No, it could be anywhere, when you were getting paid.
When I was getting paid? Well, it wasn’t much. My first job in a restaurant was at Lum’s. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Lum’s, but it’s a really shitty fast food chain that was just awful. It was just terrible. I was a fry cook. Then I went from there to Le Cirque, so that took a long time, maybe 10 years.
What do you look for when you’re hiring somebody to work in one of your restaurant kitchens these days?
100% passion. I don’t even look at resumes anymore. I think they’re misguided. I talk to them, ask them where they’ve been, “What’s your favorite experience in a restaurant?” Where do they like to eat? Blah blah blah. All that stuff, but I can only really describe my journey with another person if I can connect with them and their passion. Otherwise, I don’t care where they’ve worked. It doesn’t matter to me. Really I have to feel it, and then I can teach them anything.
What is your top selling dish at The Lambs Club, and why do you think that’s the case?
Honestly, at lunch, it’s probably the lobster roll. A) Because it’s made with a pound-and-a-half of lobster and it’s served warm. We cook it warm and to order. We don’t use mayonnaise. It’s just served with a very light butter sauce with a lot of mustard in it. It’s delicious. That’s the #1 seller.
What kind of music do you like to listen to while you’re cooking, if any?
I love jazz. I love big band music, and I love Glenn Gould, Keith Jarrett, that kind of stuff. Very introspective solo stuff, especially Glenn Gould.
Did you play any sports in high school?
I played golf, but that’s not a sport, it’s a game. That’s it. I’m a golfer. I would rather be right there, actually. [points to golf course]. And I love you all dearly.
So that’s how you stay active these days, with golf?
Well no. In Manhattan I don’t get to play a lot. I’m very active. I’ve got two small daughters and four restaurants in three cities. I’m busy.
Is there anything you don’t enjoy eating?
I don’t enjoy eating humble pie.
Have you had to?
[Somebody nearby mentions blowfish, and Zakarian reacts.]
I’ve seen it actually get people sick. They’re like, “It’s okay.” I’m like, “No, it’s not okay,” because there is a poison in the fish that they cannot get out completely, so it’s toxic.
There hasn’t been a reported death with blowfish poison since the ’60s.
I don’t want to be part of that research phenomenon.