Though they tend to shy away from honorifics, the Zakarians—chef Geoffrey, his wife Margaret, and their children—might well be considered America’s First Family of Food. Geoffrey’s face is instantly recognizable to millions: He’s a featured judge on the Food Network’s popular Chopped and Host of the Kitchen series as well as other programs, he is chef and partner of a number of acclaimed restaurants—from New York City’s The Lambs Club to Point Royal and Counter Point at The Diplomat Beach Resort. He also chairs City Harvest Food Council. Margaret, the president of Zakarian Hospitality and business mind of the family’s ever-expanding endeavors helps the operation evolve strategically and handles its day-to-day running. The couple’s two daughters, Anna and Madeline, are up-and-coming chefs themselves, boasting a large Instagram following. Only George, their 5-year-old, not in the family business—yet.
But behind their intensely public façade there’s a close-knit family unit—one that loves entertaining and being together. Winter is a special time for them, a chance to welcome guests in lavish style, enjoy some much-deserved rest and, of course, look forward to the year to come. On a busy fall day, between meetings, Geoffrey and Margaret took some time out for an intimate behind-the-scenes chat about their favorite foods, their business philosophy and the joys of the holidays.
The family could be considered a culinary empire at this point. What makes it work?
Geoffrey Zakarian: I would say we’re busy at making things and trying to grow at the right pace. I don’t know if that qualifies as an empire right now! We’d need a lot more employees. We’re getting to a place where we’re expanding in stuff that we want to do. I think we’re getting there. It’s a lot of hoping and wishing and dreaming and doing things we think we’re good at. We try to stick to things we love to do, because it’s really important. When stuff is built on our name, it’s really forever built on our name. Whatever happens in the next 10 years will hopefully be better in 50 years. We’re always striving to make sure everything we do holds up long term.
Margaret Zakarian: Once we’ve sort of set our sights on something, we work as hard as we possibly can to try to achieve it. We get up earlier, go to bed later, and try to do a little bit better than the day before.
How do you continue to grow your brand while staying true to who you are?
MZ: You have to be really strict with yourself. It’s tempting to maybe do something that’s not 100 percent on brand at times, and seems fast and quick and easy. You have to stay on the course of what you’re trying to do. Even if something is fun and exciting, it could be taking away your time and energy towards something else. We really need to stay focused.
How do you pick the projects that are right for you?
GZ: We always want to do something that makes sense for the company and the brand. We always want to do something that we believe we have the bandwidth to do and the time to do. Time is the critical thing that we don’t have a lot of. We have plenty of people who can do stuff. But it invariably involves our name and my and Margaret’s time, and so you have to be smart in how you manage those time decisions. A lot of what we look at are things that’s won’t take that much time. Maybe we’ll do something that’s not the most advantageous for us but it makes some sense, it fills some gap that we can work around one day and we take it so we have a foothold in there. Restaurants are very time consuming, so I’ll probably take less restaurant projects than anything because they are the biggest time suck for me. The opening, the planning, the programming and all that, and you end up getting on a plane and going somewhere. You have to travel so it really doubles those days. It’s all about what makes sense for us, the family, the company, and how it works into what we’re doing.
What are some of your favorite entertaining tips for the holidays?
MZ: I think no matter the holiday or the occasion, if you’re having people over, something we love to do is put out a really large ice bucket and fill it with lots of different champagnes and lots of glasses so it really encourages people to take some. It’s especially good to do if there’s people that don’t know each other, or family members maybe that haven’t seen each other—it really encourages everyone to come around to a central location, and then you can taste and try different champagnes. Everyone’s sort of talking and tasting; it’s a really fun thing to do. You could do it too, obviously, with red and white [wines], or you can have a whole mixed bag of things. We love to do something that’s very fragrant too, in terms of food. So when you’re cooking, when your guests start to arrive, it immediately kind of piques their attention— and smell is such a strong sense. We have this flatbread that we make a lot, where it has grapes, rosemary, salts and olive oil in it. When you bake it, it has the most incredible smell, so people immediately congregate in the kitchen right when it comes out of the oven to get a fresh slice. Bacon is something that also does that. So if you’re roasting vegetables and you put the bacon in, the aroma is just so wonderful. We also love to do little takeaways, so little gifts for guests to have at the end is really nice. Depending on what holiday and on what season it is, we make a large batch of granola. We just made some of this thyme-flavored granola. It was great. So it’s a little favor, something sweet, something guests can enjoy for breakfast— make little bags of that with a nice tag, like, “Thanks for coming,” or a special little logo maybe you’ve made for your party, or your family monogram. Put them out on a nice big silver tray.
Do you make any ethnic dishes around the holidays?
GZ: We usually make a lot of Middle Eastern things, like stuffed grape leaves and kibbeh, a lamb dish. Usually, one person makes a fantastic tabbouleh that lasts a couple of days; and a lot of very rich Middle Eastern cookies, which I try not to eat.
What items do you always have in your refrigerator or pantry?
GZ: Lots of vinegar, lots of great olive oils, mustards, pickles, capers, sardines, and a lot of condiments—the fridge is a great place to keep them, especially when you open them. There’s always bacon, a ton of eggs—we eat a lot of eggs in this family— oat milk, cashew milk, peanut milk and soy milk. On the bottom there’s always couple of drawers of very cold champagne. That’s great for those occasions when people pop over. Then we rotate whatever we have—it’s usually leftovers, going into breakfast the next day, or the next meal.
Geoffrey’s already written two cookbooks [Town/Country and My Perfect Pantry], plus partnered with Jaret Keller and Modern Luxury on Hamptons Entertaining, which came out last summer. What’s new for 2020?
GZ: We want to write something new. That’s a wish list item—to form a publishing arm to publish more things. But we haven’t determined yet how that’s going to happen. We’d love to publish something every 18 or 24 months; I think that’s the perfect time frame. But we’re right in the middle of developing a great digital series.
MZ: We’re launching a countertop airfryer oven and an immersion blender. There will be a lot more products launching in our cookware line, Zakarian Pro for Home—more cookware, kitchen tools, electric appliances. In addition to that, we are quickly growing our food line, which I love. It’s so fun to find amazing food manufacturers around the country that really specialize and make great things that we use in our own restaurants, and bring them to the home consumer, like cookware, accessories, olive oil, vinegar, coffee and cookies…. That will continue at a rapid pace in 2020. Also, the girls are launching a cookbook in October of 2020 for kids ages 10 to 13.
Do you have a New Year’s resolution?
GZ: I have never made one. And that’s a bad thing, but I believe in evolution, not resolutions. Every year, I just hope to be better than I was the year before. I hope to have a few more successes and a few less critical errors. I just want to get a little better and stay really healthy. I have nothing but feelings of being blessed every day. I just want a little bit more clarity, that’s all, and better luck sometimes with things that you always need luck around.
Photography by Fabrice Trombert