BY LINDA MARX | PHOTOGRAPHS BY CARLOS HIDALGO
Photo: Television Food Network – Judges Richard Blaise and Daphne Oz flank Zakarian on the set of Food Network’s Cooks vs. Cons.
After opening Blue Door at the Delano 22 years ago, New York-based superstar chef, restaurateur and TV personality Geoffrey Zakarian is excited to bring SOUTH FLORIDA diners a pair of new concepts: Point Royal and Counter Point at the Diplomat Resort & Spa in Hollywood.
Walking off of the elevator at the Diplomat Beach Resort, the venerable destination that has just experienced a massive $100 million renovation, chef, restaurateur and TV personality Geoffrey Zakarian is ready to put the finishing touches on his new offerings: Point Royal, a coastal seafood restaurant with raw bar, and adjacent Counter Point, a quick-serve spot specializing in salads, sandwiches, snacks, breakfast pastries, coffee and cocktails. “The Diplomat has had a complete re-do, and I am thrilled to be part of the team,” says Zakarian, who lives in New York with his wife and three children. “It was once a glamorous resort that attracted the Rat Pack. And there’s something exciting going on there now.”
A modern waterfront restaurant, Point Royal is serving up lots of fish and oysters and has a topnotch bar proffering sophisticated drinks. Counter Point is concentrating on delicious grab-and-go items for members of today’s generation who seek instant gratification. Both destinations have personality, style and vibrance, because Zakarian spends enough time in South Florida to keep them fresh and functioning well. “Point Royal is a beautiful open area on the water, and Counter Point serves a continued need,” he says. “Everything is top quality, and I’ll be sure that both places remain that way.”
Zakarian has a distinct personality all his own. His straight-shooting style, peppered with cheeky insights into the industry, is a welcome addition to the personality-driven South Florida restaurant scene. The globe-trotting foodie is also a lot of fun to hang out with, thanks in no small part to his sharp sense of humor. Smart, dapper and droll, Zakarian loves his work, takes it seriously and toils long hours traveling to his various restaurant locations around the US. It’s that level of dedication that explains his ongoing success in an industry that tends to chew less determined chefs up and spit them out—pun intended. Hard work was a necessity for him growing up, so it’s a good thing he happens to thrive on it. “I was born into a hungry family where it was survival of the fittest because we had no money,” Zakarian says. “We ate Armenian food that was all cooked for me at a very young age. I never ate out of the can. It was always the real stuff. So I know what I want.”
Today, Zakarian is riding high in the restaurant business, and not just here in our midst. In New York City, he owns and operates The Lambs Club, a classic club room with a Mid-century American feel that’s highlighted by a large 18th-century French fireplace, and The National Bar & Dining Rooms inspired by both the cafés of Europe and classic American dining rooms. In Atlantic City, he conceptualized and created the entire food and beverage operation for The Water Club at Borgata, an 800-room boutique hotel where he offers New York-style cuisine in The Sun Room, Immersion Spa and the pools. In Greenwich, CT, he has The National, a restaurant with a strong focus on seasonal ingredients, hardwood grilling and craft cocktails. Last year, he opened Georgie at Montage Beverly Hills which serves Modern American cuisine, and The Garden Bar, a cool respite ideal for the cocktail culture and for enjoying exotic teas and light fare throughout the day.
Now that the Diplomat restaurants are open, he’s preparing to launch more places in America and looking for the right project in Europe. “I love eating, so while this sounds like a lot, it’s not work to me,” he laughs. “I get sunny and 80 degrees in Miami and Los Angeles, then I film my shows in New York. I usually overlap my work and filming.”
Zakarian is also a larger-than-life television personality with several different shows on the Food Network: Cooks vs. Cons pits home cooks against professional chefs, and the judges must determine by tasting their dishes who is the cook and who is the “con”; The Kitchen is lively culinary talk; on Iron Chef America, top chefs battle in Kitchen Stadium (Zakarian won the title during the show’s fourth season); and Chopped finds Zakarian as a lead judge alongside two other celebrity chef judges, in charge of the fate of four contestants vying for a five-figure cash prize.
The culinary entrepreneur, who loves dining out despite his talent for cooking, was raised in Worcester, MA, to an Armenian-American musician father, and Polish-American mother. His father, who was a music teacher, played trombone, did impromptu jazz performances at clubs, and actually taught students music in the family living room. It’s no surprise, then, that Zakarian grew up as enamored with music as he was with family food and learned to play the piano, which he still enjoys for relaxation. After earning a degree in economics from Worcester State University, he headed for France where the food profession found him. “I decided to take a six-month sabbatical before thinking about my career and bought a train pass to tour Europe,” he explains. “While there, I got into real food traditions and eating. Food awoke my senses.”
He was mesmerized by the European lifestyle of taking meals slowly and enjoying them to the fullest, as opposed to the habit of rushing through meals we’re used to here in America. Two hours for lunch, lingering over dinner, understanding the importance of fresh ingredients, and making the meal function like a work of art all held great appeal for Zakarian. They were concepts that stayed with him during his trek through Europe.
At the end of that six months, he was stoked by the idea of cooking. So he came back to America and enrolled at CIA (Culinary Institute of America) in Hyde Park, NY, to study the subject in depth. After graduating in 1981, he moved to Manhattan and took a job at Le Cirque, which was his first foray into a commercial kitchen. Within five years, he had worked his way up from pastry sous chef to chef, then to chef de cuisine, under French-born Chef Alain Sailhac. “I started working there with no pay,” he remembers. “I got a pastry maker and made soufflés. I liked working at such a great place with the greatest chefs in the country.”
Work weeks were brutal even for Zakarian. Still, he’d arrive early and stay late, loving every minute of it. During those years, he also staged at places like Arpege and Au Quai des Ormes in Paris, Auberge de L’Ill in Alsace, The Dorchester in London, Le Chantecler with Jacques Maximin in Nice, and Pierre Orsay in Lyon.
In 1987, he became executive chef at the famed celebrity hangout 21 in Manhattan and stayed for two years, serving some of the most important people in the world, which Zakarian refers to as “a fantastic experience.” From there, he became executive chef of 44 at the Royalton Hotel, working with Ian Schrager and the visionary French designer Philippe Starck. Seven years later, he came to Miami Beach to help open the Delano hotel when the town was on the road to sophistication. “Miami Beach was not pretty then, but properties on the water became game changers,” he says. “I opened Blue Door with Ian, Brian McNally and Madonna. I was living in the hotel and working around the clock. I couldn’t really enjoy myself because I was working so much.” And even though they opened Blue Door in the dead of summer, its success was phenomenal out the gate.
Flying high, the man who lives by heartfelt hospitality in all of his projects soon become executive chef at another hot spot, Ken Aretsky’s Patroon in New York. In 2001, he finally opened his own place called Town, which, like Patroon, was awarded three stars by the New York Times. His next opening was Country, where he combined everything he knew about food, wine, hospitality, European elegance and fine-mannered service. “Creating a restaurant always begins with a concept and storyline,” he believes. “Everything follows from there, from the menu to service to the lighting to the interior design. What you start with the right concept, the different elements fall into place naturally and the total experience for guests is exciting and memorable.” Country was awarded a Michelin Star and another three stars from the New York Times. Continuing to be inspired by fashion, design, media, the arts and other talented chefs who became personal friends, Zakarian has written cookbooks and worked as Chairman of the City Harvest Food Council, a food rescue organization dedicated to fighting hunger in New York City.
Although his success has come with ups and downs in business, he has survived openings, closings and legal issues, always coming out stronger from each endeavor. But perhaps the most interesting job he didn’t pursue was opening a restaurant in President Trump’s new Trump International Hotel, Washington, DC. As Zakarian explained to the Village Voice late last year, he withdrew his commitment and is seeking another Washington, DC, location, elaborating, “I’m going to DC to look at two spaces because my buddy Donald, he fucked up. He opened his fucking mouth.”
Zakarian was referring to the President’s remarks in which he stated that Mexican immigrants are “rapists” and “drug dealers”. When Zakarian decided to pull out of his agreement with the Trump team to open the restaurant, there were suits and countersuits, but Zakarian remains determined to open elsewhere in Washington. (Stay tuned, as the Washington location is scheduled to be his next project.)
With his wife, Margaret Anne Williams, a marketing executive, running his business and his children cooking and loving food, life is good for Zakarian. He plays golf and stays fit by doing Pilates and working with a trainer. He travels to Portugal, Paris and St. Bart’s to explore different cultures and dine out. And he loves to hop a plane to keep an eye on his projects. Zakarian’s only frustration is the very essence of what make him a success: he’s too busy. Sometimes it’s hard for him to to slow down and spend time with his friends. He calls his culinary life “dizzying but wonderful.”
“I’m always looking for time to do more things because there are never enough hours in the day,” he says. “But it all works out. I can’t predict the future, I just grab a basket of ingredients and do my best.”