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Chef Geoffrey Zakarian Talks Food, Family and His Return to Fairfield County

Chef Geoffrey Zakarian is particular and deliberate in almost everything he does. Whether it’s his perfectly pressed suit and stylish glasses, describing the right way to make an omelet, instructing a staffer to adjust a curtain in his new Greenwich restaurant, The National, or quickly greeting a regular customer, he is completely focused. His wife and president of Zakarian Hospitality, Margaret, is a warm, equally poised complement to her husband. The pair chatted over espresso in the modern and bright bistro space of The National; in a far-reaching conversation, the former Greenwich residents bantered in the open and unguarded way of any married couple on topics from launching their newest restaurant in Fairfield County, CT, to what each of them brings to the business, and their other joint project together—their three young kids.

Photograph by Bruce Plotkin
Photograph by Bruce Plotkin

Serendipity: What would you say is the best part of working with your spouse?
Geoffrey Zakarian: I don’t have to pay her (laughing). We’re married and have three children so it’s a really good way to actually see your wife. This isn’t a 9 to 5 job so we’re always together and it’s a mess, but a good mess.

Serendipity: How does Margaret’s marketing and design background help your restaurants succeed?
GZ: I can look at a room and see, when it’s a gas station, where the bars and tables will go. I’m visual like that. And then Margaret makes it happen. And she knows how to message, from the look and feel of the uniforms and menu to how we stylize the website and tabletops.

Serendipity: What are you thinking about when planning an opening like this?
GZ: The most important factor in restaurants is lighting, first. Music is second. And then being able to understand the experience when you walk in the door—the five-second rule. I should not have to tell you “We’re a modern brasserie featuring farm to table…” It’s nonsense.

Serendipity: What’s the best job you’ve ever had?
GZ: The best job I’ve ever had is being a dad. I learned my trade and grew up fast at Le Cirque, from 1982 to 1986. I worked with guys on the line, like Daniel Boulud, Rick Moonen, Terrance Brennan. Le Cirque was the center of the world in New York. I saw porcini mushrooms, fresh crabs, Dover sole, white truffles, black truffles. It was an education.

Serendipity: Has anything surprised you about opening in Greenwich?
Margaret Zakarian: People want to buy a $19 burger and a $50 glass of wine. We have a huge wine by the glass list, and we’re expanding it.
GZ: We open expensive bottles. I love that myself. Sometimes I don’t want to buy a whole bottle, but I will spend $20 or $30 for a glass to try it. The demand has been insane. And the people here are so supportive, kind and generous with their comments. You don’t hear that in New York. In New York there’s so much noise.
MZ: People stop to make another reservation on their way out. In New York they don’t do that.

Serendipity: Do you think your kids will follow in the family business?
MZ: Our 8-year old daughter, Madeline, has recently become obsessed with fondant. I think it’s from watching Cupcake Wars. Her birthday is in April, and she wants to do April Shower cupcakes and make them herself. Our other daughter, Anna, who’s 6, made a tea shop in our living room. She took the baby’s table, made a sign, taped a menu to the wall, brewed tea, juiced grapefruit. We were playing Memory the other day and Madeline said I’m going to make a snack and got mushrooms, garlic, rosemary and sautéed them and ate them while we played Memory. I was like, can I have some? They are both so interested but will be interested in different areas of the business.

Serendipity: So do you eat together as a family?
GZ: Before bed we ask them what they want for breakfast. Soft boiled eggs or French toast…I do it every day. They leave at 7 for school, and I’m picked up at 7.
MZ: It’s really our family meal.
GZ: They also love to go out. We go to Felidia, Gato, BondSt. They’re very lucky. Steak tartare is their favorite.
MZ: They love to go to the Lambs Club.

Serendipity: What’s the craziest ingredient you’ve eaten in your career?
GZ: I eat so much crap on Chopped. They just mess with people [with the ingredients chosen]. Lamb testicles, undercooked, in the sac. I thought it was a joke. We had pork anus, which is a specialty in the Philippines.

Serendipity: Yikes! Switching gears—What’s your favorite dish at The National?
GZ: Our steak tartare. We worked so hard on it. It’s really hard to make it well. We grind the meat fresh. It’s wet enough. Most tartares are dry. We give the right portion of ingredients, of meat to toast. It all has to work so by the time the tartare is done, the toast is done.

Serendipity: March is our fashion issue. How does fashion relate to cooking and the restaurant business for you?
GZ: Every 20 years or so, things come back. You have a change of generation. French bistro [restaurants have] made a comeback because 22-year-olds, and probably their parents, Gen X-ers, haven’t seen it. You repackage it. Fashion is the same. Balenciaga and then Coco Chanel—it’s all based on a delta.

Serendipity: Margaret, how would you describe Geoffrey’s fashion style?
MZ: He likes to dress smartly. His father was always in a suit and tie. That sense of being a gentleman and being properly dressed. It’s not like he comes home and puts ripped jeans on. That doesn’t appeal to him. He’s fashion forward within a proper sensibility. He picks things to have fun with, but it’s never a crazy silhouette or wacky shoes.
GZ: I try to never looked too staged; I don’t dress in head-to-toe Tom Ford. Although, I wish I could ‘cause he’s really good. If you had a dirty apron at Le Cirque, they’d send you home. That was it—you wouldn’t get paid. The apron doesn’t get dirty. You wipe your hands on your side towel. Your apron is perfect.

Serendipity: What would you order for your last meal?
GZ: I’d be too nervous I’m going to die, so I’d have KRUG champagne.
MZ: My mom’s veal.
GZ: Thanks a lot.

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