Having bested San Francisco chef/restaurateur Elizabeth Falkner in a nearly flawless final battle on Food Network’s The Next Iron Chef Super Chefs, newly-minted Iron Chef Geoffrey Zakarian will fight his debut battle December 25 at 9pm.
The silver-haired, chicly-bespectacled chef/partner of New York’s The Lambs Club and The National and Miami’s Tudor House — and Food Network favorite on Chopped and 24 Hour Restaurant Battle — will take on challenger Chef Victor Casanova, Executive Chef at Culina, an Italian restaurant at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills. Judging the culinary contest are restaurant executive and PR exec Karine Bakhoum, chef Art Smith of Chicago’s Table Fifty-Two and former Real Housewives of New York star Jill Zarin.
We spoke to Iron Chef Zakarian just a few days after his Super Chefs victory was revealed.
Channel Guide Magazine: Congratulations on a stylish victory! The thing that struck me most about you was that, even when you did find yourself in the bottom two, you rarely let the judges comments rattle you and instead stuck to excellent technique and what you felt were the best use of the ingredients — be that one dish or several. Was that your plan from the get-go, or did you develop a strategy as the competition wore on?
Geoffrey Zakarian: That’s a very nice way of saying I am stubborn! I just took it one day at a time. You just string one day together with another and you get a string of pearls.
I understand the storytelling and all of that but at the end of the day, I have to tell the story through the food. So some of those stories just didn’t crystallize in my head — especially the theater story. I didn’t get it and I messed up.
But the great thing about this challenge was that if you did mess up you had a chance at redemption. I just cooked the way I liked to cook and how I thought the food spoke to me and how the food should be represented.
That’s how I did it every time … and hopefully I did it enough times that it worked.
CGM: And so it did. To me, it really did come down to the two coolest heads in the competition. Elizabeth was occasionally bemused in her asides and you were funny in yours, but you both never seemed to think you were going home, no matter what happened.
GZ: She was a formidable force. Ms. Falkner had nothing to lose and she wanted this bad … and the people that had nothing to lose are very dangerous competitors.
CGM: She was also vocal about her impression that the rest of you might dismiss her as only a pastry chef …
GZ: I never thought she was a pastry chef — I thought she had this bag of tricks I don’t have and that’s what makes her so formidable.
CGM: As evidenced on the show’s web site, you kept stunningly detailed journals of the recipes you used during your challenges. When you’re racing against the clock, how is sort of organization worth the time it took to put it on paper?
GZ: People kept asking me when we were watching the show, ‘What did you do on this show?’ and I had to say, ‘You know what? I don’t remember!’ They took those books from us because they put them online everyday. So we could write in them every day, but then they took ‘em! It was like living in communist Russia [laughs]. I’m looking at my book for the first time right now.
We had such a short time. You have to be very organized, so that’s how the mind works — you have to make an ingredients list and an equipment list and an idea of what it is going to be. I don’t need the recipe, because the recipe is like riding a bike: You get on it.
CGM: When you are used to working in a kitchen, it must also be challenging not to have anyone else backing you up in tasting and testing and tweaking what ultimately ends up on the plate.
GZ: We were on our own … like dogs.
CGM: …. except for the very first challenge, the “Meat and Heat.”
GZ: Yeah, but I was paired up with a guy who broke his leg for God’s sake! Beau is a sweetheart guy and a great friend and I felt so awful for him!
CGM: What challenge throughout the competition did you find most … challenging?
GZ: The one in Montauk. Two hours to go shop. Get in a car, drive the car around, get on a boat, go to the fish market, get in another car. Two hours. Then running from dock to dock. Then cooking outside in the heat and wind. Twenty-five people. Insanity.
It was a struggle. But I had a blast.
CGM: Did you ever feel as though you got a hang for the judges’ ideals as the competition evolved, or was it always a mystery what was going to happen for you once your dishes were presented?
GZ: You didn’t want any indication of how they feel about you. Any of that stuff is specuation and it will drive you crazy. That’s just torture.
CGM: You judge other chefs’ work on Chopped. Did you feel like that gave you any advantage or insight in this competition?
GZ: Being a judge doesn’t help me be a cook. I can tell when a judge says, ‘This has a very interesting flavor. I like the way you cooked that’ … that’s not something they really liked. Judges use words very carefully. I get it when they like something. I get it when they like something a little, but not a lot …
CGM: … and there’s not much room for debate.
GZ: You’re in and you’re out — like the Nuremburg Trials.
Others followed the challenges more than I did, but I don’t think anybody followed it exactly. Because it’s so hard to do that. You know, “passion.” Well, how does passion translate onto a plate?! It’s hard enough. You’re storytelling definitely. You do the best you can and I cook the way I know how to cook. I don’t wrap myself around someone’s expectations because I don’t find that an honest way to be. You’re cooking based on what you think they’re going to like, but you don’t know. You can’t be sure.
It’s always nerve-wracking because you never know what they’re going to throw at you. So you’re always in a state of emotional nudity, you know what I mean?
CGM: What did you think of all the curveballs that were thrown at you and Elizabeth as you competed in the final showdown?
GZ: The only good thing about that was it was happening to her too. It was like, ‘Well we have 15 secret ingredients. And then they send three more at you. But you saw my look. I was amused. I kept look at Elizabeth because we’re friends and we’re both like, “Really?”.
CGM: Honestly, I could have kept watching that battle for, like, three hours …
GZ: I don’t want to do anything for three hours except see a movie.
CGM: You have quite a storied history in the restaurant business, beginning at the legendary Le Cirque mere days after you graduated from culinary school. Tell me a little bit about your evolution to television personality from your own perspective.
GZ: I have had my head down cooking … things just happen when you let go and work hard. I also am a very lucky fellow and have an amazing support system with my family.
CGM: You’ve been at the culinary heart of a quartet of well-regarded dining establishments — is that still central to who you are as a chef, even though the demand on you as a food-TV personality has skyrocketed?
GZ: The most important thing to remember is you’re only as good as your last meal, so my restaurants are the most imortant part of that story.
CGM: Your first kitchen stadium battle as a bona fide Iron Chef airs Christmas Day against Victor Casanova? Were you nervous — or after the boot camp that you’ve had in Next Iron Chef, were you ready to have at it?
GZ: Next Iron Chef taping started in April and ended in July, and the day I was anointed, they said ‘Congratulations! And by the way, filming for Iron Chef begins next week and you have X amount of battles you gotta do.’ I was like, “What?! I need a vacation!”
They said, ‘You can take a vacation after.’
Iron Chef America: Zakarian vs. Casanova airs December 25 at 9pm on Food Network.
Photo credit: Edward Chen/Creel Films