The Iron Chef on expanding to D.C. and putting his stamp on top hotels.
Story and additional photos by Anne Kim-Dannibale
Like many across the country, Washington food fans got to know Geoffrey Zakarian as the bespectacled silver-haired genius who beat out some of the country’s best chefs to win the title in Food Network’s “The Next Iron Chef: Super Chefs” season four or as a judge on “Chopped.” But Washingtonians may not know that Chef Zakarian’s culinary pedigree goes as far back as the early 1980s when he began as a pastry sous chef at the legendary Le Cirque. Since then, Chef Zakarian has put his stamp on storied restaurants like 21 Club, 44 at the Royalton and Blue Door at Miami’s Delano, eventually earning a Michelin star for his Country concept in New York City.
In 2007, he joined The Borgata’s Water Club (WL’s Hotel Watch here), one of two luxury hotels in Atlantic City, as Culinary Lifestyle Consultant overseeing the boutique hotel-within-a-hotel’s food and beverage program. In Atlantic City recently for a culinary “pop-up” demonstration series that brought his famed Lambs Club restaurant to the gaming town plus an exclusive dinner, the very busy Zakarian took a moment to chat with Washington Life about his work and plans for a Washington presence. (See below for photos of the dinner prepared by Chef Zakarian.)
Tell us about your culinary series demonstration show. How was it?
I love demos. I really love teaching because there’s so much misinformation about food. I try to keep it simple, something that people can grab easily so they’re not intimidated. If I can convey something easily so they’re less intimidated, then I’m successful.
And how do you decide what you’re going to demonstrate?
They have a menu here [for the Lambs Club] so I wanted to make sure there was a connection.
You have many hotel partnerships. What makes Borgata a good fit for you?
I started with the Borgata in 2007 and wanted to keep working with Joe Lupo and the team here because they’re really great guys. My mission was to redesign the menu so that it was more “boutiquey.” I think we succeeded. It’s been very successful.
How do you achieve that “boutique” feel in such a large hotel as the Water Club?
I do what I always do in New York City. I don’t see it as something that you can’t do — there’s no such thing. I do what I want. I say this is how we’re going to do things. This is the way I do it in my restaurants in New York City and we’re going to do it the exact same way. First-rate product, sourced well, made well and good training. It’s about caring, training and passion.
Why did you bring the Lambs Club to Atlantic City and what did you hope to accomplish?
I’ve had a relationship with Joe Lupo [operations senior vice president] for seven years and the restaurant that was here was no longer functioning. So I said lets just do a popup for the summer. And Joe said ‘great, let’s go’ and I said OK, that was easy!
How was it to put the popup together?
Popups sound easy but it’s a gigantic amount of work. It’s the same amount of work as opening a restaurant. If you want to do something right, you have to do it right, whether it’s just for three days or three years.
Any more popups planned?
No, I’m popped out!
You’ve just signed on to redesign the food program at the Plaza Hotel in New York. Tell us more about that.
I’m thrilled. It’s an amazing, huge feather in my cap. I’ve lived in New York for 34 years so I’ve seen every incarnation of the Plaza, so I’m extremely excited about it. I hope to succeed! I have a lot on my plate, but the Plaza’s special. You can’t make it what I want it to be, it has to be what the Plaza wants to be.
Any ideas yet on what the menu will look like?
No, we’re just trying to find an architect and interior designer we love. There are things we can do and things we can’t do because it’s a landmark. So we’re not going to do that much but try to create something special there.
Was this a long time coming?
Well, it took time, it really did. It helps that my partner is the landlord. [laughs]
Tell us about your upcoming cookbook slated for fall 2014.
It’s a reference, with a working title ‘American Pantry.’ It’s all about ingredients you should have in your pantry and three recipes that use those ingredients, sort of a working man’s pantry. It’s a no nonsense guidebook, which I like.
Many celebrity chefs have set up shop in Washington. Do you have any plans to do the same?
I do. I want to come to Washington. I’m working with a real estate firm to look at some properties there. But it’s all about timing. Everything’s about timing. I have a restaurant called the National, so imagine how perfect that would be.
What do you think about Washington’s evolving food scene?
It started in New York and the closest cities to New York — Chicago and Washington — have really picked up on it. We’re really lucky to have so many amazing chefs on the East Coast. Being in Washington is perfect because we have a new administration every four years, with new blood every four years. I think Washington finally has the foundation of food that it didn’t have before. They had great food, but now they have all the rest of it, drinks, etc.
Would you do anything different if you were to bring the National to Washington?
I wouldn’t do anything different. It’s great as it is. The most important thing is to get the right space, the right timing and the right partner. There’s a lot happening in Washington. I’m not in a rush, but it will happen. The right opportunity will present itself. I’m a big believer in that.