With two upscale Manhattan restaurants, The National and The Lambs Club, and a skyrocketing television career as a competitor on “Iron Chef” and a judge on “Chopped,” Geoffrey Zakarian is one of the leading culinary professionals in the world right now. The skilled chef shares his passion for food with his talented wife, Margaret, who’s his partner in business as well as in family life—they have two daughters, five-year-old Madeline and three-year-old Anna. We sat down with the charming couple at The Lambs Club in Midtown and asked Geoffrey and Margaret to dish on raising kids in the city, appearing on Food Network, and waking up houseguests on winter mornings.
How did you get started in the restaurant business?
GZ: I was on an economics track [in college]. I went to France for a year…and I came back a changed man. [The business] just sort of found me there—the culture, the food, everything. I just loved it. I was 20 years old. I dined at 18 of the 21 three-star restaurants in France—one every two weeks. And I lived like a pauper so I could have those meals. I came back and decided I wanted to be a chef.
And what’s on your plate now, so to speak?
GZ: We have The Lambs Club, which we opened two years ago, and we have The National. We’re also the food and beverage consultants for The Water Club at Borgata [in Atlantic City]. We just signed a really good agreement with Norwegian Cruise Lines [to create] three restaurants and also a deal with Random House to do two cookbooks.
And then there’s TV. You’re quite the fixture on Food Network.
GZ: Oh, and there’s TV! I’m judging the latest season of “Chopped.” We just wrapped up the “Iron Chef” battles for this year. I did six of them in July and I spent May and June in Los Angeles and Las Vegas filming “Next Iron Chef,” where I was a judge instead of a contestant.
I find the idea of being on “Iron Chef” so nerve-racking. What’s it like?
GZ: It’s very nerve-racking. Those battles, you want to win them. But it’s great fun. The shows I’m on are real shows and they’re educational. People watch them, kids watch them. The fan base is great.
Margaret, tell me about your role in the business.
MZ: We’re definitely a team. I don’t cook for any of the restaurants, but we work together to create the concepts for the restaurants—whether that be the glassware, the sugar packets, all of the things you see and touch…and then day-to-day oversight in terms of concept direction and tracking customer experience.
How did you two meet?
MZ: We met ten years ago. I was working for another restaurant group and we met in passing at a business meeting…and then, I say, he never left! [laughing]
GZ: I was just completely annoying at all times. I just would not let it go.
MZ: And so, here we are ten years later.
What are some of your favorite family dishes to cook at home?
GZ: We do a lot of breakfasts. Right now the girls are really into eggs. They love eggs. So they will tell us that they want a frittata, scrambled, soft-boiled, five-minute…
MZ: “Soft-cracked,” they call it.
GZ: So we have a little egg cutter that we use to crack the top of the egg. We boil them, and they put their breadsticks inside. If they want salt, they add salt.
Are Madeline and Anna good eaters?
GZ: They love food; they love cooking, of course. They are very particular about what they eat. They eat off the dinner menu. There’s no kid menu, ever, so they’ve been eating what we’ve been eating since six months old. If we had veal parmigiana, we cut some up and put it on their plate. There’s no baby food… We have a rule that they don’t have to eat everything, but they have to try it.
What are some of your favorite places to take them in the city?
MZ: We love to go to the Met. They love to go to the MoMA. Whenever we go to a museum, I bring their art stuff and we just camp out in front of whatever painting they like and they try to copy it, draw their own interpretation. We try to look out for great restaurants to take them to, things that aren’t just kid-focused. And we went to the Statue of Liberty last week. So even things that are touristy.
Do you have any special Thanksgiving traditions?
MZ: This year we’re going to ride on Tom Turkey [in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade]. Food Network sponsored the turkey float and they asked us to ride along.
GZ: They wanted me to wear a Pilgrim outfit, and I said, “Absolutely not.”
Do you stay in NYC during the holidays?
MZ: We have an amazing New Year’s party in [The Lambs Club] dining room, and then we all go out in the street for the countdown. The street is closed, private, and it’s great because we have a ton of friends who are parents who aren’t traveling for New Year’s.
Any holiday entertaining ideas to share?
MZ: What we do is put out big cutting boards of different appetizer-type things and maybe one hot appetizer—like we make a great pizza, warm coming out of the oven.
GZ: Fry garlic and bacon together. Even if you don’t use it, it smells good—right? If you have guests that stay over and you want to get them up, you put a flat of bacon in a sheet pan and put it in the oven, and that bacon will wake everybody up. It’s amazing.
MZ: And then having everything set out on a buffet. Even calling on some of your guests to help finish your dishes is fun, too, and that kind of gets everybody talking. Because it’s really not about the food; it’s more about the dynamic of everybody that makes the best party.
GZ: And serve food that you can take with your fingers.
GZ: No plates. And I would start the party in the kitchen. Everybody goes to the kitchen first…you’re finishing a pizza, putting salt on it, and they love it. And there’s food that they’re eating and that’s what life is. It’s in the kitchen.
Be sure to watch Geoffrey on Food Network’s “The Next Iron Chef: Super Chefs” on Sunday at 9pm!
Jenna Helwig, Founder of Rosaberry, is a culinary instructor, personal chef, and freelance writer. She writes for New York Family’s Yummy Delicious blog.
For some of Geoffrey Zakarian’s delicious recipes, click here.