TV personality, super chef, and author Geoffrey Zakarian has long helped to define what’s best in modern, urbane cooking. His gold-plated resume includes stops at such well-known spots as Le Cirque (under Daniel Bolud), 44 at the Royalton; and the Blue Door at the Delano in Miami, before he went out on his own to launch such instant hits as The Lambs Club and The National. Here, we catch up with Zakarian to talk about his growing empire of new restaurants, his latest TV show, the secrets to his considerable success, and why he even indulges in airline food!
How has the National been received in its first location outside of Manhattan?
We’ve been very happy with the reception. Greenwich is a very substantial market, similar to Beverly Hills, and our guests are pretty much like those in Manhattan. We were fortunate—my partner owns a building in Greenwich, a beautiful location on the Avenue, which is really important. That’s a nice way to come into a town because you’ll have staying power. I wanted to do this four years ago, when I lived in Greenwich, but I had to move back to New York to open a restaurant there. It took a while, but it all worked out. Timing is everything.
What’s the timetable for your next project, which actually is in Beverly Hills? We hear your new restaurant will be at the Montage and will be named after your son, Georgie.
Yes. Georgie will open the first week of June and serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It will very much be a California restaurant—a fun, modern, tailored experience with a little bit of Hollywood in it. There will be a great cocktail bar. The Montage is the perfect hotel to do this with and perfect for the brand.
Will you craft a different menu for Georgie?
While it will be similar to the restaurants I have in New York, a place in California lets you work with remarkable produce, because you have this season that’s all the time. I will focus on that, because it would be crazy not to, but I will stay true to who I am.
You revamped the iconic Palm Court when you became culinary director of the Plaza in 2013. What’s the most popular item there now?
The tea; it’s doubled in business. As you know, we added a bar to the middle of the room and that has been very successful. We don’t have dinner, but rather a small bites menu at night and that’s been wildly popular, too.
Most popular cocktails at the Palm Court?
We can fill a boatload with martinis. The Tommy Margherita. And the Blue Blood-and-Sand, a great Scotch whiskey drink with blood orange juice named after the silent film actor Rudy Valentino.
Has your cooking evolved and if so, how?
Absolutely. It evolves every day. I’m much more in touch with simplicity—but that doesn’t mean cooking in a less complex manner. It’s more difficult to do simpler food. You need perfect product—you can’t hide behind anything.
What’s the entree you eat most at your restaurants?
I’’ll have the roast chicken at the National four out of seven days,
What do you cook at home?
I have three kids, so I like to cook family style. Stews, chicken, risotto—the kids love it, unfortunately, with white truffles.That’s totally my fault.
You travel a lot. Do you eat airline food?
I do! For a three-hour flight I try to eat before I get on the plane. But for cross-country or European trips, yes, since I m fortunate to travel in business class. Jet Blue does a good job of providing tasty food. Delta First Class is pretty good, too.
You’re very involved with City Harvest. What’s new?
This will be my third year as chairman of the Food Council. It’s been very rewarding. We will gave away 55 million pounds of food this year; we’ll break that record next year.
What other projects do you have in the works for 2016?
We’ve been blessed with a lot of business; we’re looking at a new hotel restaurant in Hollywood, Florida, and launching a line of pantry products on HSN in July. We premiered a new Food Network show, Cooks versus Cons. We’e also writing our third book. It’s not titled yet, just an outline, but it will be about the New York scene and my 36 years here. It will cover what I love about New York, what’s great, the attitude, and what’s new food-wise. It will be a celebration of New York food.
Why do you think you’ve been so successful in such a competitive field?
I worked really hard I know that sounds trite, but I don’t think you get to a level. and say, ‘now it’s good.’ I always work very hard to stay relevant. I try to make sure what I do is what I love and it keeps working for me. Everyone—customers, partners, fans—notice when you do something you really love. You can’t make that up. If you stick to that, you’ll be successful. And if you work hard at it, you’re going to be more successful.