Iron Chef and ‘Chopped’ judge calls Lewiston ‘My home away from home’
Behind the Screens with Joshua Maloni
Add cheerleader to Geoffrey Zakarian’s already impressive resume.
With aspiring restaurant owners in need of guidance – particularly with everything they’ve faced since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic – Zakarian is taking a “can-do” approach to “Big Restaurant Bet.” He is putting $250,000 of his resources into “the next rising star in the restaurant world” on a new Food Network competition series premiering Tuesday, April 5 (10 p.m. ET/PT).
The network explained, “Through six, one-hour episodes, Geoffrey presents eight talented chefs with the opportunity to take the next step in their culinary career with challenges to determine who has what it takes to run their first restaurant.”
President Courtney White said, “Ask any chef to name one of the greatest professionals they have ever seen in a kitchen, and Geoffrey Zakarian is on everyone's list. In ‘Big Restaurant Bet,’ we watch Geoffrey and his team put themselves out there like never before, as they risk their own business on the future of one very talented chef."
Joining Zakarian at the judges’ table is his wife and business partner, Margaret, and hospitality consultant and executive chef Eric Haugen.
Of course, Zakarian’s generous spirit is well-known in the River Region.
The author, Food Network star, Iron Chef, “Chopped” judge and “The Kitchen” host has endorsed Lewiston’s DiCamillo Bakery and Carmelo’s Coat of Arms over the years, while recently partnering with Gallo Restaurants owner Michael Hibbard on a line of sauces sold on QVC. Zakarian’s products also are sold at DiMino Tops Lewiston, and he is often seen in the summertime attending events at Artpark.
“I've been going there for 20 years,” Zakarian said of the village. “It's so beautiful. It's a beautiful part of upper New York state that borders Canada. It's just a beautiful slice of the country. And Niagara Falls – basically, we live on one of the seven wonders of the world. So, it's kind of hard not to like it.
“You’ve got vineyards across the gorge, you have incredible lakes, and just the physical geography is fantastic. I’ve just fallen in love with that whole area.
“It's quite fascinating. The escarpment is a fascinating geological phenomenon that goes on and on and on. It’s not just the falls. It goes all the way up and over into Canada. It's a fascinating geological area.
“I fell in love with that area. And it's a small town, a small village, but I always find the people with passion anywhere I go. And it's usually people who are artists. I found a few of them.”
Margaret, meanwhile, is cousins with Frontier House co-owners Jeff and Jerry Williams.
Zakarian shared more on his new series – and “home away from home” – in a recent interview. An edited Q&A follows.
Host Geoffrey Zakarian with aspiring restaurateurs, as seen on "Big Restaurant Bet." (Food Network photo)
Q: Talking about “Big Restaurant Bet,” the concept seems so interesting. … What was the genesis for this series, what appealed to you about it – and about the opportunity to help these aspiring restaurateurs?
Geoffrey Zakarian: Well, as you know, we’ve had a 15-year relationship with Food Network. with all the shows we’ve done. Our production company (Corner Table Entertainment), with Jaret (Keller) and my wife, and Tara (Halper), we were very much committed to trying to bring reality to reality. You know, there's a lot of competition shows that end up with a prize, or you win, and then that's it. There are very few shows that end up with like, “OK, you want x, well, we're going to give you x. Now you’ve got to make it work.”
So, it was a great premise; because there's so much more to opening a restaurant than just building a building, and renting a space, and then getting investors and opening up, and it's all fabulous and it's exciting. There’s so much more. There’s a whole two-year gestation period that's grueling. Grueling. No one knows that; and I think that's why we came up with this premise.
Every one of these chefs here could have their own restaurant tomorrow – no problem. Who gets successful, who's not successful, it's pretty much you have to really arm yourself with a lot of successful people to tell you the pitfalls. And it's still not guaranteed. So, that's the premise of the show.
And cooking is probably 30% or 40% of it. The rest is like management, leadership, tenacity, problem-solving, customer relations, employee relations, managing a building, managing rent, managing money. There's a lot there, right? So, it's going to be exciting to introduce the viewer to what really happens.
Q: You said that the chefs are talented. You said any of them could start their own restaurant tomorrow. Do you find, in general, that people underestimate what goes into starting a restaurant? That they think it's just something anyone can do? What was the mindset of these chefs? We know they're talented in the kitchen, but did they really understand – like you said – all the other things that go into running a business, and not just being a good chef?
Geoffrey Zakarian: Well, you know, you imagine that they would, because, when you're an executive chef, you are lucky enough to be on the edge, or working in tandem with an owner. You don't work the owner’s hours, but you see the owner’s problems.
They can each do it. And it is, technically, easy if you follow XYZ steps: find a space, get money, find a chef, hire people, open – that's not hard. It's time-consuming. But to be there in 10 years is very hard. And to set yourself up for this – it's a business. You're not just employing people so you can invest in yourself, so that someone can invest in you, and just give you a salary forever. This is not that case. You know, as soon as you sign up to open your own restaurant, the salary you were making as executive chef is now zero.
I tell that to people and their mouths drop. They’re like, “What do you mean? I’m not going to get paid?” I’m like, “No (laughs). You have to pay everybody else first.” So, it's a business decision. Then they're like, “Oh, I get it. Maybe I don't want to do this.” You know? “Maybe I want to stay as a chef for another year?”
Everyone's always wanting to open a restaurant – especially chefs – but a lot of these people are just not ready. So, part of our job is to find a person that's actually ready. They’re not going to have 100% of every talent; no way. We're going to fill in those gaps. But the person that's ready, we will find – and take that risk.
Q: It sounds like it's going to be a lot of fun to watch – and it sounds like it's going to be a very interesting look into what goes on in the culinary world. Like you said, having a payoff that we don't get on a lot of reality TV series.
We saw your wife when you had to do the at-home episodes of “The Kitchen.” But, as far as I know, this is the first time where she's actually listed as a regular contributor to one of your shows. She's going to be helping you evaluate the chefs. I'm curious: What did she think about the opportunity? What does she like about being part of your TV world?
Geoffrey Zakarian: Well, I say in a good way, she had no choice (laughs). Because this is what we do for a living. I mean, the show is what we do. So, it was like, of course, this is fantastic.
She was ready for it. She's animated. She gets it. She has a great personality. What you see with Margaret is you see her in action. She is not acting; she is herself. This is a real group of people that we really evaluate everything. And we really pare things down to their basic skillsets. Can this person do it? When you see us, together, it really is our team. So that was so exciting, working with Margaret, because it was just like, “come into our office and now put a camera on.”
Q: You mentioned you've been working with the Food Network for 15 years. We've enjoyed you on so many different programs.
Geoffrey Zakarian: Thank you.
Q: When did you think that this might be something you wanted to do? And how long did it take before you realized, “You know what: I'm actually pretty good at this”?
Geoffrey Zakarian: I’m almost there (laughs).
You know, the Food Network is a 30-year-old phenomenon that has made everyone leapfrog technically, emotionally and knowledgewise for so many years, in so short a period of time. I'm just happy to be a part of that.
I was always a part of food. I was a chef/restauranteur for many years, until 2007, when I got the nod to start “Chopped.” So, when I got on as a judge, people who didn't know my restaurants thought I was a judge. And then I won “Iron Chef.” And they're like, “Wait a minute, you're a chef!?!”
To me, it was like, “What? That's what I've been doing my entire career. I've been a chef.” So, it was very easy to go on a network and be around food, and talk about food, and be a quote-unquote “expert” on food to judge people; to judge other people's plates. That was very easy.
I had no idea what was to come. I had no idea that the power of the network, even 15 years ago, was powerful. Now, it’s like immediately you turn on the TV, there’s 25 chef shows on TV. Right? Between Netflix and Bravo, and all that, and Food Network and Discovery and HGTV, it's amazing what's happened. That happened, literally, in 15 years. On our watch. We watched it happen.
Q: It's funny, too, because a lot of people lately have been talking about “Law & Order” coming back, and how iconic a series that is. But “Chopped” is right up there, as well. I mean, “Chopped” is one of those shows that is so culturally defining – and, like you said, has led to so many other not just shows, but networks. Does it continue to amaze you how popular and influential that show is?
Geoffrey Zakarian: Yes. And what's even better about that – that's the first part of it. The second part of it is a feeling or an obligation to produce content, with Jaret and our partners, so that we can continue to feed the beast – in a good way.
There's so many stories that aren't told. This is one of them, “BRB.” You sort of realize and wake up, like, “Oh, my God, we have an opportunity. We’ve got to tell people this. This is what happened. They don't know.” And you might think that there's so many shows that people have seen it all. It's (just) scratched the surface, contentwise. Scratching the surface.
Q: Tell me a little bit about “The Kitchen.” I don't know how you guys make it through that hour without having to do a million retakes, with all the fun and laughter and everything else that goes on between the four or five of you.
Geoffrey Zakarian: Seriously, we've never, ever done a retake.
Geoffrey Zakarian: Never. What happens is a lot of that stuff, we're laughing so much, they cut it out, or it gets on the floor, and they let us recover and just keep going. It's the funnest show; it really is. From the standpoint of like it's going to camp with your best friends for a weekend. And you get together for seven to 10 days, and you're like, “OK, guys, who brought the vodka? Hey, did you bring the food? I got this.”
It's just like that. It's like “SNL,” right? It's so much fun to do.
Q: You talk about feeding the beast, and you talk about creating content and shows, and getting these new chefs in the pipeline. Something that is fascinating to me, when I watch a lot of content on Food Network – and particularly, of late, with Guy’s “Tournament of Champions” – it seems like there really is a lot of camaraderie between these chefs – and even with chefs that were on other networks that are now a part of Food Network.
Is that accurate? Is there really that much camaraderie between these chefs?
Geoffrey Zakarian: Listen, it’s absolutely accurate. It's the most camaraderie-laden industry. …
You have to understand what we do for a living: We feed people. …
We sometimes borrow each other's staff for too long, or we hire someone away. But that's just normal. I mean, that happens in every industry. Think of Microsoft and Google. They have offer letters out every day trying to poach people. You just get used to it.
So, the camaraderie is absolute. You'll never meet a more generous group of people that will give you literally the shirt off their collective backs to make someone happy, or put a meal in front of someone, or help someone. That's just the way it is.
Now, I want to eviscerate the guy next to me when I'm in competition. But I do it with the food. I don’t have to talk smack.
Q: Hopefully we're seeing the tail end of this pandemic. It's been very challenging for restaurants, restauranteurs, the past few years. In your opinion, what is something that's really good and kind and decent that people can do to support the restaurant industry, whether it be their local restaurant, or the chefs and the food preparers in the community?
Geoffrey Zakarian: Well, honestly, it’s going sounds sort of obvious. But it’s probably – given the rise in the prices of food – it's probably less expensive for you to go out to dinner than to cook at home, in some way, shape or form. You look at the work involved – because people never put into that equation it's two hours to make a meal, one hour to make a meal. Then it’s $75 for the family. They don't count the two hours.
So, I would say, increase your dining rights out by 50%. If you did that, you would help these guys survive. And by surviving, that means they can pay their labor first. It’s the highest expense of a restaurant. Labor is 400 times more expensive than rent. Everybody says, “Oh, the rents are too high.” It’s the complete opposite of the truth. They’ve got to pay the labor. If you don't pay the labor, no one's going to cut your carrot or make you your steak.
So, if they went out one-and-a-half times a week, go out three times a week. Allocate more of your food budget. …
I mean, I want people to cook at home. But in this time, go out a couple times a week more than you used to, and be very generous with the server. Because that position is a pretty thankless position, if there's nobody in the restaurant.
In the great days, you’re making lots of money. When it's dry, it's bone dry.
•Fans can keep up to date with “Big Restaurant Bet” on social media by using the hashtag #BigRestaurantBet. Find GZ’s tips for making his most-popular recipes, and catch sneak peeks of every new episode before it airs, at FoodNetwork.com/BigRestaurantBet.