Chef and TV personality Geoffrey Zakarian had just finished earning a degree in economics when a journey abroad changed his life forever.
“A career as a chef found me on a trip to France,” Geoffrey tells Closer. “I fell in love with their culture of fine dining, and after that my new trajectory as a chef and restaurateur was undeniable.”
Before he became known to television viewers, Geoffrey, 62, honed his skills in New York’s fine dining scene. He is currently the chef/owner of the Lambs Club and the National in Manhattan. On television, he’s been a frequent judge on Chopped, battled it out in Iron Chef’s Kitchen Stadium and is a cohost of The Kitchen.
Geoffrey’s latest competition series, Big Restaurant Bet, premiered on Food Network on Tuesday, April 5, at 10 p.m. ET.
If you hadn’t become a chef, what do you think you would have done?
“I would have tried to become a professional golfer. I’m a real golf junkie.”
How did your 30 years in restaurants prepare you for becoming a television food expert?
“I don’t know that it did directly. But I guess it can be said that as a chef and as a TV personality, you are in the business of entertaining people. Both are about engaging your audience.”
Do you ever miss working in a kitchen full time?
“Well, I’m always cooking, so I don’t miss being in the kitchen. But I do miss the buzz I get from having a busy service. Chefs love that!”
Your heritage is Armenian and Polish. Did your family hand down any treasured recipes to you?
“My mom and aunts were phenomenal cooks, but not much got written down. I have general methods to make my mother’s sugar cookies and a couple of her Middle Eastern dishes, but I really had to pay attention to the way they made things so that I could remember. It was all very non-scientific — a little of this and a little of that.”
What was the most interesting lesson from culinary school that really stuck with you?
“I learned about the value of capital and that you always need more than you think you need when opening a restaurant. It was in culinary school that I began to really understand the financial aspects of the industry.”
Tell us a little about your new series, Big Restaurant Bet.
“It’s a competition where we are looking at more than just cooking prowess. Running a restaurant has a different set of skills. So I am excited for the viewer to learn far more about the restaurant business than they have ever known.
Working on Food Network seems like so much fun. Who do you hang out with the most among their stable of chefs?
“It’s true, we always have a blast. We get a lot of time together, especially for The Kitchen, where we are on set for seven to eight days at a time. Jeff Mauro, Scott Conant and Michael Symon are great friends. We basically get to hang out for a living!”
Did you have any invaluable mentors when you first started in television?
“Not directly, but in watching all the people that were cooking on TV before me — Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, Martha Stewart — I noticed and learned from what they did.”
Do you think that food television has helped Americans become better cooks at home?
“It’s the reason why they are better cooks. And not only are they better cooks, but they are now using ingredients that they never would have touched before. Just look at the breadth of foods people are eating now that they weren’t 30 years ago, and it’s shocking.”
On Chopped, the chef contestants have to create a dish out of a basket of mystery ingredients. What’s the weirdest thing you had to eat on Chopped?
“River rat had to be worst and the weirdest. Thankfully, that one hasn’t shown up in the basket a second time!”
When judging, if you taste a meal that is really disgusting, how do you hide your true feelings? Or do you feel like you don’t hold back?
“We always point out what’s positive about the dish first, because if you start with the negative, people shut down and they can’t learn. We don’t hold back, but we do always try to be constructive.”
You’ve been married to your wife Margaret since 2005. What’s your secret to a happy marriage?
“The right amount of rosé!”
You also have three children. Do any of them have an interest in cooking? Would you encourage them to pursue it professionally?
“They all understand food and have great palates, but no one has expressed interest in it as a career yet. I don’t push it, and I don’t dissuade them. I let them find their way. What I am most concerned with is that they find something they are passionate about.”
What’s your family’s favorite meal that you make for them?
“Pasta is really high on the list. I made gnocchi with pesto the other night, and they devoured it. I also make a mean chicken finger from scratch.”
What’s your number one tip for home cooks?
“Get organized before you start, then you will enjoy the process much more. Prep everything ahead of time. Also, use the best ingredients possible.”
Outside of cooking, what do you do for fun?
“When possible, I play golf, fish, work out, read and travel. In no particular order.”
What else would you like to accomplish in your life?
“If my kids grow up to be gracious and humble in everything they do, that would be enough for me.”