It’s 2 p.m. at the Culinary Institute of America, and Geoffrey Zakarian is prepping for the Flavor! Napa Valley Food Fight.
His opponent? Acclaimed chef and Iron Chef competitor, Michael Chiarello. The two will be going head to head in a Chopped-like cooking contest in half an hour, but you'd never know by the amiable atmosphere.
As Zakarian is readying for the competition, it seems as though the chaos of the scene is completely lost on him. Chefs are rushing in and out, stations are being set up, photos are taken, questions are asked, introductions are exchanged, and yet the seasoned chef takes it all in stride.
Then again, Zakarian was made for scenes like this. From being named Chef de Cuisine of 21 Club in 1987 to opening his Town and Country restaurants, Zakarian has proved his talent not only for modern American cuisine, but for creating unrivaled dining experiences as well. His impressive resume spans to critically-acclaimed books and addictive TV shows, and in 2013, he's slated to oversee three restaurants aboard the Norwegian Breakaway cruise ship. Chaos is probably his middle name.
We joined Zakarian on the kitchen floor—Kevin Brauch style—for a Q & A before the showdown.
You’ve accomplished so much in your career, not only as a chef but as a writer and entrepreneur as well. What would you say is the accomplishment you’re most proud of?
My two daughters, Madeline and Anna.
Have you been to the Palm Beach area?
Yes, my office is in Tampa, so we do visit Palm Beach.
What do you think of the food and dining scene there, and do you have any restaurant favorites?
It’s very resort-style, but I think they do a great job out there. We go to the Palm Beach Grill, The Brazilian Court and The Breakers—our girls love The Breakers.
Let’s switch from Palm Beach to Napa. What do you think sets Napa apart from other destinations in the world?
Well, it’s very hard not to like Napa. You have the land, the wine and the produce. The culture here is geared toward us.
Flavor! Napa Valley has a lot of emphasis on food and wine pairing. As a chef, what do you think is the secret to pairing food and wine?
You have to really understand the product. But you also have to understand, it’s different for you and for me. I might like a certain pairing, but you might not. It’s really about what you prefer. When you’re pairing, you’re really allowing a person to experience something different while exploring and teaching flavors.
If you could only drink one wine for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Any particular brand?
Krug Rosé or Dom Pérignon because of the small bubbles.
Describe your cooking style in three words.
Classic, modern, unexpected.
What would you say has influenced your cooking style the most?
The cooking I grew up with. I want to say my travels, but then I’m not being honest with myself.
Let’s pretend for a moment that you’re a contestant instead of a judge on Chopped. What is the one mystery ingredient you’d never want to see?
You know, I’ve gotten over that. I say the more awful the better. I’ve seen so many terrible ingredients that I don’t even know anymore.
What is your favorite Thanksgiving dish to make?
Stuffing. [Zakarian’s wife, Margaret, interjects, “Dressing!”] Oh, I meant dressing – sorry.
What wine would you pair with it?
I would pair it with La Roche, a French Burgundy.
What is one thing most people don’t know about you?
That I’m a musician—I play the piano.