Geoffrey Zakarian Talks Cooking Shows And His Best Cooking Tips - Exclusive Interview

If you've ever turned on The Food Network, chances are, you've seen Chef Geoffrey Zakarian. As an Iron Chef, a judge on the network's popular show "Chopped," and the co-host of "The Kitchen," Zakarian definitely has a presence on food television.

And while multiple television shows have certainly kept him busy over the years, Zakarian's reach as a professional chef is even broader than that. He has the experience of opening and redesigning multiple restaurants under his belt, including his work at The National at New York City's The Benjamin Hotel, along with the iconic Palm Court in The Plaza Hotel. Plus, with a line of cookware, food for home, and plenty of recipes to share, Zakarian has a true passion for food and a love for serving others through hospitality.

For Zakarian, the engine continues firing on all cylinders and there's no slowing down. From sharing the juicy details on what happens on cooking shows to his best cooking tips for you and his most recent partnership with Genova Premium Tuna, Zakarian took the time to sit down and dish on it all in an exclusive interview.

Geoffrey Zakarian shares why he became a chef

Going back to the beginning and your roots, what inspired you to become a chef?

I ask myself that quite a bit. Sometimes I say, "what am I doing?" You have to love eating and you have to love hospitality more than anything really. I'm smitten with eating and hospitality and hotel business and travel, and all that. It seems to me it's such a great way to sort of pass the time, and I like what I do. So, it's not like it was one instance. It's just that I love entertaining and I love taking care of people.

What upcoming projects do you have in the works that you can share?

We're looking at a lot of projects now that reopening is coming up. I have a great restaurant in the Middle East coming up in Doha next year. I'm working on a new Food Network series that I'm hosting and producing. We just started season 29 of "The Kitchen," so we are busy and firing on all cylinders.

Geoffrey Zakarian shares the worst thing he's ever eaten as a cooking show judge

Let's dive into your work on cooking shows. What are the best and worst things that you've ever eaten as a judge?

I don't remember the best things because the world doesn't remember the best, but you do remember the ones that were really hard pressed. That's one of the dishes that I had. Actually, quite recently, last season [on "Chopped"] it was Nutria. And although it sounds like a vitamin supplement, and it's like, well, if I said Nutria, you're thinking it was something you'd stir in a protein shake ...

Yeah, sounds like it'd be great for me.

But actually, it's a rat. It's an aquatic rat and it's just not cool. It's a river rat, it tastes like what you would think a rat would taste like, but we had to taste it and use it. I'm so glad that episode is done ... never going to use rat again.

Geoffrey Zakarian dishes on what really happens on cooking shows and his time on Iron Chef

What are some of the things behind the scenes that are happening for judges on cooking shows that we're not seeing?

Well, for judging, if it's for "Iron Chef," it's very hard and very good because you get really good food, but you've got to judge really good chefs who are, well ... it's the fine line of who's really better. I mean, it really depends on that day. Any given day, a chef can have an off day and not quite get the plot. They could be a Michelin star chef here and then have a guy who just has his first job, and he can win. It doesn't happen a lot, but it can happen. So, it really depends on the day and the stress and the pressure and how you're feeling. But being a judge on "Iron Chef" is a much more pleasant experience than say being a judge on "Chopped" because on "Chopped" you don't know what you're going to get, you don't know who these people are, and the basket is not designed for your benefit. It's designed for the TV show.

Can you tell us more about your experience on "Iron Chef"?

You've got to compete to become an Iron Chef, so I did that, and it was 12 weeks of competition, and it's really formidable. It's very intense, you're basically locked away for 12 weeks and you don't know what the challenges are or what the food is. You have very little idea, but you have 20 minutes, an hour, two hours, 15 minutes — they just make stuff up and you've got to go with it. There's so many talented chefs and they're all really, really good. You don't have any help either when you become an Iron Chef. It's very tough because you're on your own, you're alone. There's no teammates there to help.

Geoffrey Zakarian shares his best cooking tips

What are some of your favorite cooking tips or tricks that you can share with our readers?

I always tell people if you're going to cook, and you want to cook really well, start by cleaning out your pantry and getting only the best ingredients. Don't try to get things that are inexpensive. Get the best, get a small amount versus a large amount, and remember that anything you cook, you have to cook more than once. You're not going to get it perfect the first time. The great thing about food is you are able to cook, you're able to make a mistake, even a bad mistake, and still eat your mistake. You really can't do that when you're a carpenter.

And you can learn from that mistake.

Exactly. You screw up that piece of wood, it's very expensive and it's kindling. So, it's a problem, but that's what's great about cooking. I always tell people just don't worry about making mistakes. There's an old saying, you've got to break eggs to make an omelet, and that's very true.

Is there one tool that you would say someone should always have in the kitchen?

There's many tools, but you have to have a really sharp chef knife and a really, really good solid cutting board. You can start with a foundation of a knife and a board, and then everything happens from there on, and then you can add on tools as you need them, but those are the basics.

Are there any common mistakes that you see people always make in the kitchen?

Over-cooking chicken, over-cooking everything, as they want to make sure they don't get sick. You're not going to get sick from an undercooked piece of meat. You're going to get sick if the meat is not good quality and it's been stored improperly. So, it's mostly overcooking and under-seasoning, those are the two. They take a beautiful chicken or a beautiful piece of fish that they paid a lot of money for, and the poor thing is already dead, and then they kill it again.

Geoffrey Zakarian shares the one food people should eat more of

What's one underrated food that you think people should eat more of?

Well, I was going to say canned tuna, but that would be an obvious answer. Underrated food? Well, there's a lot of foods that people probably don't sort of gravitate towards because it might be in a can. I love all things in a can especially beans, chickpeas, black peas, all these things that you can really ... they're already cooked and you don't have to go through the trouble of cooking them, and a lot of the nutrients are still in them. I think the whole legume section of dried peas, dried lentils, all the legumes that are cooked and uncooked are really so inexpensive. You can do so much with them, and I think that people just sort of forget about it.

What's one food that you just can't live without. What's your favorite?

One food? Wait, what's that? Is rosé food?

It could. It starts with grapes.


Geoffrey Zakarian dishes on the food he really eats

Do you have a favorite fast food item?

Fast? What do you mean by fast food?

So, a typical drive-thru item.

I don't eat drive-thru food or fast food. Never eat it. It's so bad for you. There's no reason to have a drive-thru anything because what you want is so easily made at home, especially if you have kids, and it's less expensive to actually make it at home. You're going to have no fat, no fillers, no sugar, and all that stuff that you don't want. If you're going to drive through and get something, get some fries and some really good ice cream. Maybe if you know a really good ice cream maker that makes great ice cream, that's fun. But they call it fast food for a reason. Shortcuts.

What do you typically eat in a day? Do you have a typical meal schedule?

Every day I get up very early and I eat a full breakfast, a lot of protein, very little carbs, good carbs, like sweet potato and things like that. But I stay away from sugar, and I stay away from alcohol as much as I can. I try to eat a 10 o'clock snack, but protein every meal. I'm always going. I'm busy 24/7, I really have to power through the day. I'm very, very cautious of what I eat. And I don't not eat. I don't do fasting or any of that because I'm always so hungry. Fasting just doesn't make sense.

We just talked about, rosé, and obviously, you're a fan. What are some of your favorite food and wine pairings?

Nowadays, I mean, for me, I'm all into Mediterranean. Whenever I have a Salad Niçoise or something with tuna. I'm always doing rosé and I love grilled fish and rosé. I love grilled fish and Sancerre, a very chilled Sancerre. But I think for me, I eat a ton of fish, so I'm always in the sort of white spectrum and that whole grilling and Mediterranean food sort of brings me to those couple of wines.

Geoffrey Zakarian's thoughts on how the restaurant industry will bounce back

I want to talk a bit about the restaurant industry currently. As an owner of multiple restaurants, do you think that dining experiences can bounce back in the same way when the time comes?

Nothing will be the same because nothing is ever the same, even if it was another year and it was the same year, it would never be the same. It's going to be quite a while before the horse gets put back into the gate or into the barn, so to speak. But then everything is going to change. That style of dining is going to change. We're going to do more fast, casual and less restaurants will be able to be around, more will change. You'll have less restaurants, but restaurants will not be any less important than they are now. But it's a very fluid time for the restaurant industry and the hospitality industry, because it's happening in real-time. It's not like, "Oh, we can predict this." You can't predict what's going to happen because who could have predicted what caused it all in the first place.

Developing recipes with Genova Premium Tuna

What was the inspiration behind the recipes you created in partnership with Genova Premium Tuna?

Well, people wanted to travel, and they missed traveling around. They missed everything that they wanted in life. Most importantly, they missed the tastes of the world. So, for me, cooking is about exploring cultures and cuisines. I experiment in the kitchen all the time and I'm a big fan of the Mediterranean diet. It is very simple, and Genova Premium Tuna is a great way to bring a Mediterranean flair to a simple dinner, whether it's a special occasion or not. It really elevates a dish from good to great. It's made with the best cuts of fish, and they only use the best. They hand filet them. They drizzle them with just the right amount of olive oil rather than water, which is always my preference because olive oil really sort of sets that flavor and it adds so many great things for your nourishment, and it has no additives or preservatives. So, you really can't go wrong and that's why I love it. I've been eating it for many, many years.

Check out Genova Premium Tuna to grab Geoffrey Zakarian's latest recipes.