Now that restaurant design has become so tied in with the dining experience, Geoffrey Zakarian looks more and more like a visionary. Sure, he’s the reigning Iron Chef, which means he can cook his way around the toughest competition in the world. But we’re here today to talk about what this nattily dressed gentleman thinks about the way things look, the details, the difference between a restaurant’s success and failure.
He should know: For more than 15 years, he’s been involved with some of the top designers, hoteliers and architects in the world. His career began at the legendary Le Cirque, and had has best run as a young chef at 44 at the Royalton, the Ian Schrager-helmed hangout for NYC’s jet set in the 1980s/1990s. After four years as chef at Patroon, Zakarian set out on his own, taking over the restaurant inside the Chambers Hotel, designed by David Rockwell, and later adding another Rockwell-designed space, Country.
Late this past spring, a day or so removed from an enlightening trip to Paris, Geoffrey and his wife and partner Margaret met me in the art deco–themed lounge at The Lambs Club, the poshest of the current restaurants where he is Chef/Partner; the others are The National in New York and Tudor House in Miami. We talked about the lamented Town, current design trends, what’s so great about Paris and whether his wife Margaret dresses him.
Let’s start out with Town. A lot of New Yorkers talk about it with such reverence, and I never got a chance to go.
It was your loss, bro [laughs]. My vision for Town was I wanted a very luxurious place to have a drink and dinner but I didn’t want a fancy multi-course dinner place, and that really hadn’t been done in New York. There was great music, a great scene, drinks.
And a bar chef?
We had a bar chef. We made our own bitters. I treated the bar like I treated the restaurant, like [bartender Albert Trummer] is the chef here. He’d light the bar on fire; back then no one would give a shit. It was exciting because of what we did and the vibe. The design was nice but it was the people, the food and talent. It was a hotel restaurant and we made it really special.
How do you feel about it a few years after its closure?
I thought Town was a very special place — there are bits and pieces of Town here [at The Lambs Club] — but I think your best work is always in front of you. People always say “I miss Town.” Well I miss it, but I did it already.
You have a new vibe here and at the National.
It’s fun, it’s what it’s supposed to be.
Margaret: We tried to make the concept of the restaurant with the customer in mind. Like who are the people in this neighborhood? How are they going to use this restaurant?
And The Lambs Club was your first project after Country?
Yes, in 2008 in the middle of the recession. We were working on this for nothing. We were assured it was going to open and it did.
Did you make any compromises?
Zero. I don’t do that. You gotta pay for the stuff. If you give a discount there’s a desperation there and I like to substitute desperation with service and real quality. And the desperation goes away.
And it’s become a Power Lunch spot, besides the nice bar and a dinner crowd for theater and more?
We have 100 people for lunch every day. We had Graydon Carter, [Departures editor] Richard Storey — you can walk around the room and it’s like that every day. We’re blessed.
There seems to be an aesthetic to everything you do…
I’m really the visionary, I must say. I’m kidding.
Margaret: It’s a good thing I love you.
What I really want to know is if you dress him?
Margaret: No. I don’t.
She does lay my clothes out for though.
Margaret: He has the best style of any man I know.
What about the design here in this Art Deco lounge, and the restaurant space downstairs?
We saw the plans for this in 2007. Thierry Despont designed it. We were like, This is great. Look at it: it’s art deco, it’s chic.
Margaret: But a restaurateur could never afford to hire a Thierry Despont. [Editor’s note: Despont, the famed New York-based French architect, designed The Chatwal hotel and everything in it, including The Lambs Club.] And we worked hard on all the metal wear and all the plates.
You had to put the finishing touches on it.
We designed all the glasses with a special optic that disappears when liquid is put into it. I like old fashioned things. We have these old wine buckets at the restaurant and none of them match. We are very much involved in everything…. At The National, we did a lot of work with that. We brought a storyboard to Rockwell and said this is what we want.
What do you think about the whole industrial chic/farmhouse aesthetic that’s so prevalent in NYC dining these days?
Depends on which farmhouse you’re in. There’s a lot of farmhouses that are designed farmhouses that in six months will be over because the farmhouse was not aligned with the owner. The owner has a thought and they hire Roman and Williams to do a farm thing for them and they do an amazing farm thing that is so self conscious and perfect that it doesn’t have any life.
Things have become so deconstructed that I joke with friends that I could almost see sitting on a tire in a junkyard eating dinner.
You’re ok when you’re sitting at Roberta’s eating a slice of pizza. It’s been there forever. But there are people that do that and it’s so disturbing. It’s like, “I don’t want to drink out of a Mason jar, bro. I have a car waiting outside and I’m 40 miles from my house.” To me design is 60 percent of a good meal. Food is easy. Food’s a snap.
And staff. You have some guys in your kitchens like Eric Haugen, who is one of Zagat’s 30 Under 30.
My job is to find people that share my philosophy but they’re younger and they want to make it. They want to get the spotlight. They’re passionate.
You make it sound easy. In the kitchen people have different moods.
People are psychotic [laughs]. We all have different moods everyday. So I’m managing 150 people. Big deal. I’m used to that. What I’m saying is: to find a start point for really good food is easy. A chef and myself; you need 40 recipes. That’ll be better than most of the food anybody’s eaten. It’s bragging but it’s true. The hard part is the lighting and the music. You have to control the architect and make sure you get what you want and not what he wants.
What about the evolution of New York restaurant culture? Where do you think it’s at now as opposed to 10 or 15 years ago? Do you think its going in a good direction?
I think it’s going in a good direction. We have a sense of largesse and luxury that no one has. Paris has it, but you better be one of “the group” to get in. There’s a private club in Paris. But here, anybody can go downtown and open a chic boîte with 20 seats. Look at Torrisi, look at those guys. It’s fantastic.
Okay, as for Paris, what were some of the places you went?
Le Jules Verne, Alain Ducasse’s restaurant in the Eiffel Tower. Brasserie Thoumieux, Jean-François Piège, a 3-star chef. Société, which is a great place for lunch. Spring, Daniel Rose’s great restaurant. And Il Vino, where you order wine and they cook food around what you order.
Is it hard for you guy as restaurateurs to turn off and enjoy yourselves?
Oh yeah. We can never turn off.
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