Geoffrey Zakarian: In Praise of Free Enterprise Food

The celebrity chef talks about America's food revolution, and the overzealous regulators who threaten it


Geoffrey Zakarian on The Kitchen
Courtesy of the Food Network

"What we've witnessed in the past 25 or 30 years is just incredible," says Geoffrey Zakarian about the food and restaurant revolution in America. As one of the country's most visible and influential restaurateurs, chefs, and food personalities, Zakarian is uniquely qualified to discuss the proliferation of top-notch restaurants and exploding interest in new forms of culinary expression. If our national cuisine was once bland and derivative, he observes, it's now the global center of experimentation and innovation.

Zakarian is an Iron Chef on Food Network's Iron Chef America series and he's a regular judge on the channel's massively popular Chopped, in which contestants whip together a three-course meal using mystery—and usually incongruous—ingredients. (In one typical episode, participants were asked to create an appetizer using watermelon, canned sardines, pepper jack cheese, and zucchini.) His 2006 cookbook, Town/Country: 150 Recipes for Life Around the Table, was a best-seller and last fall's My Perfect Pantry: 150 Easy Recipes From 50 Essential Ingredients has been praised for its accessibility and surprising flavors. Zakarian operates no fewer than five restaurants in the New York area, including the highly regarded Lambs Club and the Plaza Hotel's Palm Court. In 2016, he'll be opening his first place in the nation's capital, the National in Washington, which will be housed in the Old Post Office Pavilion.

Chefs of Zakarian's generation—he was born in 1959 in Massachusetts—used to go to Europe to train and experience cutting-edge cuisine. Now, they roam New York City and other domestic destinations from Portland to Little Rock to Miami. For Zakarian, "free enterprise and entrepreneurship," immigration, and demands by millennials for better and more interesting meals are the engines driving creativity in the food and restaurant business. An outspoken critic of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's minimum-wage plans and President Obama's health-care mandates, he remains optimistic that entrepreneurs will prevail. "They do their damage," he says, "but we still keep moving forward."

Zakarian spoke with Reason TV's Nick Gillespie via phone in May.

reason: Why has American cooking and food culture gotten so much better over the last 30 or so years?

Geoffrey Zakarian: Very simple: free enterprise and entrepreneurship. Even with this wacky market and administration we have now, you can't put Americans down. What they've grown up with in their psyche is still about freedom of expression, about entrepreneurship, and about the whole story of immigration. Coming from nothing still resonates very strongly. It still happens every day, [though] it's more difficult because there are more steps now because of the bureaucracy.

reason: Talk about the changing food scene in New York City.

Zakarian: When I came here in 1981, there were a handful of [well-regarded] restaurants, mostly French. Never the diversity we have today. It took [hundreds of years for the French] to develop their classical cuisine and export it to the hyper-extent that it is today. We used to go there and study. I did. I went and studied in France. Now you don't have to do that. In 35 years, we've surpassed that. You go study in the United States, go to great restaurants in the United States, study with great chefs in the United States. So what we've done is condense that 300 years or whatever it took the Europeans to have this great food culture into about 30 or 40 years. We have the ability here to go into business, go out of business, make mistakes, get back up, and just make it happen. Sometimes we fail marvelously, but failure is part of winning, so we just have a system here that allows us to do that.

Now the greatest food in the world is in New York City, as far as range and price and activity and interests and specialty and specialness. There's no city in the world that's better than New York City.

reason: How does a national or regional cuisine flourish? What are the elements of fusion and innovation and experimentation that lead both to drawing on tradition but also building something new? Was there a particular moment in your cooking history where you were like: "Ah, I got it, I'm bringing in this from over here, I'm bringing in this part of me, and I'm doing something totally different."

Zakarian: It's not that linear. It's like a small leak that just drips and everybody is affected by that leak in a good way. You have everything here. You can do Spanish cuisine, French cuisine, Chinese, Japanese, American, global American, whatever you want to do you can do, and there's a niche for it. There's a focused effort on the part of the media, the food media, to really look at [what people are doing] now. The Food Network is sort of a steroid and it's helped that [food culture] grow way faster than it ever could had it not been around. We're actually watching more food TV and cooking shows than we cook. It's amazing how much we watch. We spend nowhere near that much [time] cooking but our food knowledge has jumped up marvelously.

reason: That must make it very hard for you as a restaurateur because people are coming in and they're demanding perfection and excellence and reliability, but also something new.

Zakarian: It always is a hard market. The restaurant world is a killer world. I've always thought that. What it does is it brings another level of interest to it. But whatever place you're in in the restaurant world—whether you're a pub or you're a sushi bar or you're a Mexican place, which is all the rage now—a rising tide lifts all boats in the culture of food. Everybody's more interested in food in general. Everybody's dining out more in general. The money that gets spent at restaurants and for takeout and catering is higher than it used to be and it's continuing to grow. That has been affected drastically by the food culture on TV. There's multiple channels now where you can be entertained. Food is entertainment. [There's a culture of] hanging around at a cafe, in a restaurant, doing your work there on your iPad, and just having a snack, grazing, just sort of existing in the restaurant space. It never was like that before. You made a reservation, you'd leave.

So there's these places now that are more in tune with how you live. You go, you eat, you work, you live, you drink, you might stay there and have dinner. You might leave and go to another place, but you'll always be alert that where you are is a point of entertainment. Restaurants now are very much like Broadway. It's three shows a day, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The curtain goes up, it closes, and that's very much different than it used to be.

reason: Talk about your childhood.

Zakarian: I grew up in central Massachusetts, Worcester.

reason: You're of Armenian heritage?

Zakarian: I am.

reason: What was the typical Zakarian household meal in, say, 1975?

Zakarian: Well, my mother was Polish and my dad's Armenian, so it was a little Eastern European, but it was mostly Middle Eastern. There was always a rice pilaf. There was always lamb. There was always a variety of very sweet pastries made fresh. There was always a variety of braised vegetables. There were a lot of spices. We made our own yogurt. Something was always in process of being made. We made our own roll-ups. Those fruit roll-ups you get now, we made that ourselves. It was like rotten fruit that we'd dry downstairs in our basement on tablecloths. That was our dessert.

reason: Food for you is less about sustenance and more about a process, and more of a social activity. Which is the way more of us are talking about food and eating now.

Zakarian: I'm a big believer in the family. Everything comes down to the family. You want to bring them together as much as possible, at least three or four times a week together at the table. Then your chance of success of having a great family that stays together and has a unit that passes on that sort of joie de vivre and that lifestyle is very high. Food is very important. It's something that occurs three times a day in everybody's life. You can't escape it. It's like death and taxes, unfortunately.

reason: We're still working on avoiding death, right?

Zakarian: Death is coming.

reason: Death is optional. Taxes will remain. When did you know you wanted to be a chef?

Zakarian: I went to France after school. I got a degree at Worcester State College in economics and urban studies and I was going to get an MBA. I just wanted to take some time off. I was going to take six months off. I had never been to France, even though I loved food and wine. I was in a wine club at Worcester State and I just took some time and I just banged around and went over and got some rail passes, lived on very little money. Just did it myself, lived in hostels.

I discovered that what I had been raised with [where life revolved around food and meals] was their culture too. It resonated with me. Breakfast pastries: Everything was fresh. For lunch, they took two hours and they made it themselves. They came home and ate, which to me was like, "What, you come home and eat!?!" I loved that. They don't just have a sandwich and sit on a bench. This is the way life should be. I discovered the Michelin guide. I did a lot of wandering around and I ate at a lot of restaurants and I saved up my shekels. I ate at lunch only.

And I came back and I told my parents, "I want to go to [the Culinary Institute of America] and be a chef." They were slightly displeased. But I got in and then two years later I was working at Le Cirque, so it really worked out.

I've always loved food. My mother was cooking unbelievable food. My aunts cooked unbelievable food every day from scratch. You can't abandon that.

I don't go grab fast food and go sit down. I don't do that. To me, I can't imagine you have a choice between sitting down, having a meal, and having a conversation or just shoving food in your face. I could never do that.

reason: You did go to a McDonald's recently with The New York Times.

Zakarian: Yes, I did, for the first time.

reason: You loved the french fries. Talk about what you liked about those and what was disappointing about the rest.

Zakarian: Well, the other stuff is not made to wow you. It's made to sustain you. They can't make a hamburger. It's really weird, right? They have a $37 billion company and they can't make a hamburger. God bless them, they employ 350,000 people, so I'm not criticizing their efforts. But the basics, they don't get. Which is odd. To me, it's foreign.

reason: But they can make a burger that costs a buck.

Zakarian: Yeah, I can make a burger that costs a buck that's delicious. You can get a Happy Meal and a Coke and all that shit and you spend four or five bucks on an average check. I could make you a beautiful burger for that. I can. I can buy [meat for that] and I'll make five burgers. So it's not about the price. It's all bullshit. That's a platitude.

It's just that you need to take time and want to do it. The culture, thankfully, is gravitating very rapidly toward a whole different lineup of food for a lot of reasons. Basically because it's time. The millennials are demanding it. The young people are demanding it. Obesity is demanding it. And it's just better and it's tastier and they're finding out you can have good, tasty food and also have a great salad and it'll be delicious. You can have lentils and beets and things like that that are great for you and it doesn't have to be crap. The whole McDonald's story is a sad story because I think they're throwing stuff against the wall just to figure it out.

reason: But you did like the fries?

Zakarian: The fries were good because they had a system to make a focused french fry that works because you submerge it. A really good fry, caught and frozen right and for the right amount of time and seasoned correctly, is crispy and good because that's what it is. A burger is much more difficult.

reason: Put on your economics degree hat. What are the regulatory policies, mind-sets, or attitudes that make it harder to have good cooking and good restaurants?

Zakarian: Well, there are great restaurants, as I've said. There should be more of them and there should be easier barriers to entry. Food is expensive and the rent is very expensive, but what's really killing us is the payroll, the added burdens of more and more payroll and more and more insurance. We've got to have people to make the stuff. It doesn't make itself! So the mom-and-pop shops, it's a hard-enough business. The failure rate is in the 90s, and now they're forcing us [with] minimum wage increases. I would love to pay everybody $15-$20. Why stop at $15? Let's make it $100 an hour.

You can't have a command-and-control economy. It distorts the basic need for unskilled labor. Unskilled labor is what it is. It's unskilled. It cannot command any more than it commands. It shouldn't command any more and that's just a fact of life. And it's not like we don't want to pay more. We can't. You have to stay open in order to employ people, so it's going to be catastrophic when [the minimum wage] keeps going up and up and up and up. It's going to hurt everybody. It's a shame.

The best way to solve that problem is to come up with a better earned income credit program so when someone who's working full time needs a [boost, the government] sends them a check. It's a much purer thing and it doesn't distort the wage reality.

I can't hire people. People want to work for me all the time for free just to learn: "Geoff, I'll work for nothing. I want to learn." I would do it in a second. I can't. You know why? Because I have to pay them, by law.

reason: And you have to pay them a certain amount, etc.

Zakarian: I have to pay them minimum wage. They are another employee, so why would I employ a person at minimum wage that has zero ability over someone who has a little more for the same wage? It doesn't make any sense. There should be apprentice wages or an assistant wage, where you come in and for six months you're paid $5 an hour because you want to learn and develop a trade. Then if we decide to raise you, we raise you to minimum wage. If we decide not to or we decide to fire someone else and [give you] that position, we get a better shot [of] it. You get to learn. We get a better person. We don't have to pay you as much, but we're employing you and you're learning a trade. That's what apprenticeships are.

Every time I had vacation I went to France and worked for free, for nothing, for three weeks. Nothing. Just to learn. I had the greatest learning experiences of my life doing that.

reason: We seem to be in a weird paradox with food. On the one hand, people are getting more and more interested in exotic, odd things and they see food—both making it and eating it—as a form of self-expression.

Zakarian: Absolutely.

reason: But then on the other hand, there is also a large movement that says, "No, some of these things should just be banned. They should not be allowed." Trans fats, raw milk products, large sodas, sweeteners, that sort of thing. Are you worried about food nannyism getting in the way of you expressing yourself? How do you make sense of these two directions in food that seem to be at odds with one another?

Zakarian: Well, other than foie gras, you can pretty much eat what you want, sell what you want. We sell everything. We're very lucky. The whole foie gras ban fell flat on its face in California. So that's a good thing. But the nannyism is like trying to not have the Walmart or not have fast food places everywhere. It's a choice. You go and eat fast food or you don't.

It takes work to eat "good." It doesn't happen overnight, all right? And you can go to places other than McDonald's. You go to a rotisserie chicken place and get that. You don't have to eat fast food. There's plenty of choices and there's plenty of information and that's what's changing more rapidly now because people are demanding better food and fast casual. Chipotle wasn't around a while ago, but Chipotle is actually good for what it is. And if you're going to eat that, it's not bad.

reason: You would much prefer that the sorting and decision making process be done through the market rather than—

Zakarian: Of course. How else are you going to do it? You can't do it anywhere else. It's always going to go back to the market.

reason: You define yourself as a libertarian. You like social tolerance and fiscal responsibility, right?

Zakarian: Yes.

reason: Would you say that set of beliefs is typical among chefs and among the food elite? Or are they are more like, "I know what I'm doing, but I think other people should be told what to do"? Is there a general mind-set among chefs?

Zakarian: I think that I'm probably typical. Entrepreneurs understand. We build businesses and we run them, unlike de Blasio and the other people. They've never built a business in their life. They've never made a payroll or had to go into their own pocket. They don't get it and they talk like they're beneficent and they know better than you. It's very, very insulting.

We know because we're doing this every day and all we want—all I want to do is keep my customers happy and my employees happy and hire more people. I don't want to hire less. I don't want to fire people. I want to hire people. I love my staff. They're incredible. I couldn't do it without my staff, what I do. I have an incredibly loyal staff, so we all want to do more. We don't want to do less. It's just very difficult when we have these roadblocks thrown in front of us and we're trying to do more, but then we take two steps back.

That's what most chefs believe. Of course, there are some that have this sort of ultra-emotional viewpoint and they want to make their plight known and they say things they shouldn't say. They work on emotion versus business sense and common values and common sense.

reason: Could you give an example of that?

Zakarian: I'm not going to name names, but there're certain people who think that we should spend more on this and spend more on that. What's going to happen is—and it's happening right now—food is going to get more expensive and restaurants are going to raise their prices. And that's going to dampen everybody's business. [Owners] will hire less people. That's all it does. It's a vicious cycle. It's happened before and it's happening now.

reason: What's the next trend in cuisine?

Zakarian: The word trend is difficult for me because by definition it's short-lived. Trend means something's always trending so something's always changing and what that means is something's always dying.

But if you do trace trends, the number one thing on Food Network is kale. If you click a button, number one is kale. And how to cook chicken and how to cook quinoa. Those are the top three, which is great. It's not pork chitlins. There's nothing wrong with chitlins, but we're getting healthier and better with food. We're thinking in the right direction, going in the right direction. It's going to keep going that way if the millennials and Gen X and their children [keep] following these trends.

reason: You've talked a lot about millennials.

Zakarian: They're very important. They're so important to this, so important because they want something better. They demand something different. My generation was raised at McDonald's. Shake Shack is a perfect example of millennial-driven extraordinary marketing genius on [restaurateur] Danny Meyer's part. Danny Meyer has a great story and he comes from great restaurants that talk about produce and eating things in moderation and eating good things. He's brought that philosophy into the burger [world]. It has almost the same calorie count as a McDonald's burger, but he has a much better story and a much better vision and a much better product. At the end of the day, it's always about quality, so he's [part of a] very good trend.

reason: You're a rare baby boomer who doesn't seem to be angry or disappointed in millennials.

Zakarian: No. Look, you can't blame someone who's here and votes for de Blasio but didn't see the crime that I saw in the Dinkins years. They weren't around. What are they going to compare it to? When I talk to them and say this was an awful city before, they look at me like I've got three eyes. They grew up under Bloomberg and Giuliani. Everything was fabulous. You have to really rely on history [so you know where you're coming from].

But what they are doing is demanding that things get better, faster, smarter, more in tune with how they want to live. And that's been going on forever. Every generation demands different and better, so we're just in the middle of that. Foodwise, that conversation we're having is great.

I'm very optimistic. I'm not a pessimistic guy at all. I just think [city hall] administrations change. They do their damage, they change, and then some of the damage gets reverted, but we still keep going forward. People still want to smoke and they still want to eat cheeseburgers and people still want to do what they want to do and they should be able to do what they want to do.