Over the past 20 years, Geoffrey Zakarian has built one impressive résumé. He's been the chef de cuisine at New York's legendary Le Cirque, executive chef at "44" at the Royalton Hotel and "21." He's opened Blue Door at the Delano Hotel in Miami Beach and opened both Town and Country back in New York. His cookbook Town/Country features recipes made in both a polished "town" manner and a rustic "country" style.
Zakarian is coming to Miami for the South Beach Wine and Food Festival and made time to chat with Clean Plate Charlie.
Clean Plate Charlie: You have quite a résumé. You've worked at iconic restaurants Le Cirque and 21 Club. How does working in a restaurant compare with going to culinary school?
Geoffrey Zakarian: They are iconic restaurants I guess -- you're right. Those are really proving grounds. They're our chef's school. I learned by working with great chefs. That was your apprenticeship, working 80 hours a week or more for no money. If you love what you do, you have to learn by people who know and love what they do. You can never learn what I learned in a school. In a restaurant, you're cooking for actual paying customers. You're part of an environment where you're in a real live restaurant. On the other side, a school gives you a well-rounded experience. School is important, but working is paramount. If you have an opportunity to work in a kitchen, do it.
You opened Blue Door in Miami Beach in 1995. How did that come to be?
I was involved with Ian Schrager. I knew him from the Royalton. Schrager said he did a deal with Madonna to open a restaurant in Miami and said guess who's coming down there? Miami found me. When I first went down to Miami in June, the heat was stunning. I love warm climates because I'm Middle Eastern, but this is really warm. In 1995, the strip of South Beach looked like Beirut. It was only the Delano and the National and these buildings under construction. When the Delano opened, there were thousands of people waiting to get in, and the value of everything on Ocean Drive went crazy. Ian Schrager opened this property, and I stayed for close to a year, and I was going back and forth to New York, and the response was incredible. The genius of the design and the simplicity -- it's basically Brazilian wood and curtains. And the garden is really special. I'm coming down this weekend, and I'm going to eat lunch at the Blue Door.
And then you went back to New York and opened Town?
We opened town in 2001, right after September 11.
How did September 11 affect you?
It was a disaster for me and my friends in the restaurant industry who had restaurants below 14th Street, but everyone pulled together. We all took pay cuts because there was no money coming in, and it came back very well, but things were never the same, and they still aren't.
What are you doing at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival?
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I'm going to be at Burger Bash and the Best Thing I Ever Ate. It's going to be a fun week.
Part 2 of our interview with Chef Geoffrey Zakarian follows soon. Stay tuned.