Geoffrey Zakarian has always loved to foster a feeling of community in his restaurants. He’ll notice shy diners and invite them to tour the restaurant and kitchen, introducing them to everyone and drawing them into an engaging experience.
So during the holidays, when food and companionship are both especially important, Zakarian shines the most. At The Lambs Club at The Chatwal in Manhattan, where Zakarian is head chef and partner, a large holiday feast welcomes New Yorkers and travellers alike.
It’s a tradition. Every Saturday in December, plus Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the restaurant hosts Holiday Carolers Brunches. Live caroling creates a jubilant atmosphere, while hot chocolate and other cozy holiday favourites abound. The dining room’s stunning limestone fireplace breathes life into the phrase “hearth and home.”
His 30-year career has kept him busy, and it’s been an illustrious one, but he still makes time to interact with the guests at his restaurants. “I occupy a lot of time being real and accessible,” he says. He is also sure to make time for his family; he has a large Sunday-brunch-sized breakfast every day with his wife and children.
Zakarian’s professional successes have included winning the Iron Chef competition in 2011, opening world-class restaurants from California to New York, and becoming a fan favourite as a judge or host on multiple Food Network TV shows, including Chopped and The Kitchen. In addition to his position at The Lambs Club, he is also head chef and partner at Point Royal at The Diplomat Beach Resort in Florida.
Zakarian balances discipline and ease. He loves spontaneity — an essential characteristic for excelling on TV — but is never unprepared.
His lifelong credo has been to “[work] harder than the person next to me,” he says. Being a high-level chef and restaurateur has its challenges. “The hours and failure rate are brutal,” he says. “The learning is constant. It’s a chorus of information all of the time.”
“The guiding principle for me was to always show up early and pay attention,” he says. His tip for holiday baking follows a similar principle — “Bake often and bake the day ahead so it’s all done.”
Zakarian’s seasonal staples are squash, turnips, truffles, game birds, roasts, and generally “lots of vegetables and great red burgundies.” His favourite holiday food combinations include white truffle pasta and Barolo; braised short ribs with turnips and a California Zinfandel; and whole-roasted striped bass with fennel olives and lemon, paired with a very cold Gavi di Gavi.
A classical gentleman, Zakarian is famed for being one of TV’s best-dressed chefs — an art in itself — a passion that even influences his cuisine. “Food goes through similar style trends and redefinitions as fashion,” he says. “You need to know that landscape to understand how to achieve something timeless.”
Though he has a flare for fashion and presentation, he’s also minimalist when it comes to food. Don’t over-saturate the foods and mask their real flavours, he says. “Cuisine is when food tastes like itself.”
He suggests using top-quality produce and meats, and just eat less of them if you want to even out the cost.
If you’re preparing special meals for your family or dinner parties, Zakarian says presentation is secondary. “Make it yummy,” he says. Then you can get creative with large, beautiful, platters and family-style presentations on cutting boards.
He doesn’t over-embellish. He says he’s not an artist or an artisan — “I am a cook.”
Pomegranate-Ginger Sweet Potatoes with Pecans and Pumpkin Seeds
For syrup: 2 cups pomegranate juice / A 12-ounce can of ginger ale / ¼ teaspoon ground ginger / 1 tablespoon unsalted butter / Kosher salt
For sweet potatoes: 3 sweet potatoes (about 2¼ pounds) peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks / 4 sprigs fresh rosemary / ½ lemon, thinly sliced / 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil / ¼ cup coarsely chopped pecans, toasted / ¼ cup pumpkin seeds, toasted / Kosher salt
Preparation: Preheat oven to 400°F.
Syrup: In a medium saucepan, combine the pomegranate juice, ginger ale, and ginger. Bring to a boil and simmer rapidly until reduced to 1/3–1/2 cup. The mixture should be syrupy and coat the back of a spoon if you dip the spoon in it. Whisk in the butter, season with salt, and keep warm.
Sweet potatoes: Toss the sweet potatoes with the rosemary, lemon slices, and oil on a rimmed baking sheet. Season with salt. Roast until the sweet potatoes are tender, tossing once or twice, 30 to 40 minutes. Toss with the pecans and pumpkin seeds and roast 5 minutes more. Mound the sweet potatoes on a platter and drizzle with the syrup, making sure you hit all the potatoes.