The Untold Truth Of Geoffrey Zakarian

Geoffrey Zakarian has maintained his prominence in the culinary industry for close to 40 years. You don't last that long without plenty of stories to tell. For Zakarian, most of them have been success stories, but there have been setbacks, too, including a sensational class-action lawsuit by former employees who claimed he took financial advantage of them. Given the longevity of his career, he seems to put the low moments into perspective. "You cannot enter this business without having those (failures)," he told the crowd at the 2015 South Beach Wine & Food Festival. "It's not possible to not get beaten up a bit, and I think it adds to you."

At 62, Zakarian remains among the top chefs and restaurateurs in the United States. He's achieved national TV fame, having starred several in Food Network competition shows including "Iron Chef" and "Chopped" and currently serves as one of four co-hosts on the network's food-themed talk show, "The Kitchen." He's taken political stands that put him in the crosshairs of the former President of the United States. And he's a family man who became a dad for the third time in his mid-fifties. How did Geoffrey Zakarian get here? His untold truth is, it's been an interesting ride.

Geoffrey Zakarian wasn't supposed to be a chef

Thanks to his father's Armenian heritage, Geoffrey Zakarian grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts. with an appreciation of Middle Eastern food. Hummus was often served for breakfast and lamb, yogurt, and rice pilaf were household staples. In college, his focus was finance, with plans to get an advanced degree. A post-graduation trip to France, however, put him on an entirely different path. "I was so moved by the food and the culture ... I decided to come back and change direction," he recalled to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "I was getting an MBA, so it was a very big departure. I saw that whole world of chefs and restaurants and all that glamour struck me."

His traditional parents were "slightly displeased," with the news, Zakarian explained to Reason. But he showed promise right off the bat. He was accepted to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), followed by his first job at New York City restaurant Le Cirque, an establishment renowned both for its three-star cuisine and high-profile clientele that included politicians, socialites, business executives, and Hollywood stars. In just five years, he impressively rose from pastry work all the way up to the chef de cuisine.

Geoffrey Zakarian is known as the godfather of the "sexy hotel restaurant"

For Zakarian, style has always been important as substance when it comes to fine dining. After leaving Le Cirque in 1998, he joined 44 restaurant in New York City's Royalton Hotel. As executive chef, he prioritized food and ambience equally, earning the respect of critics, who awarded 44 with three stars, as well as the crème of New York's fashionable crowd, like Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. Comparing his own creative process to a designer making haute couture, he told Food Republic: "Food is so like fashion, classics are the most important thing. At the end of the day it's all about mastering the basics and having a foundation that you can build from. It's like someone who knows how to adjust a hemline just that fraction that no one else might see, but it's what makes the silhouette."

He next opened Blue Door in Miami's Delano hotel, which was similarly lauded for its blend of impressive food, high style, sleek decor, and an A-list crowd of regulars. Zakarian, Digest Miami declared, had officially "ushered in the era of the sexy hotel restaurant." In the decades since, he's opened top-rated eateries in hotels and resorts in New York, Miami, Beverly Hills, and Sonoma, among others.

Geoffrey Zakarian's first solo restaurant opened to three stars

In 1997, he became executive chef at Patroon, an upscale New York dining spot that received three stars from the New York Times for "the smart likability" of Zakarian's cooking. In 2001, Zakarian took the leap of opening his first solo eatery, Town, in midtown Manhattan. For a Zakarian restaurant, Town was notably unflashy, the New York Times pointed out, but it didn't need to be — the food shone all on its own. In commending dish after dish, critic William Grimes hailed some for their innovation, others for their simplicity, and saved the highest praise for the flaming plate of sweets at the end of his meal. "This is," wrote Grimes, "the kind of dessert that can silence a table." He awarded Town three stars.

But is three times a charm? It was for Zakarian, who the New York Times applauded for his consistency in its 2006 review of his next project Country, a high-end American brasserie. Although it had opened a year later than expected, critic Frank Bruni gushed it had been "worth the wait." Calling it a "first-rate experience," Bruni fawned over dishes he described as decadent, luscious, and "flawlessly prepared." He gave it three stars. His next restaurant, Country received a Michelin star as well, cementing Zakarian's place as one of the most exciting new chefs around.

His employees sued him and he declared bankruptcy

The wave of praise and popularity Zakarian enjoyed crashed abruptly in 2011, when a group of 152 former kitchen staffers from Country banded together to sue him, accusing Zakarian of cooking the books in order to pay them less. Among their grievances: he stiffed them on overtime, short-changed their hourly wages, and deducted funds from their paychecks for staff meals they hadn't eaten. Per the New York Times, they sought $1 million in damages plus an additional $250,000 in penalties. Zakarian denied the charges but was forced to declare bankruptcy, his publicist explained, to fend off the cost of mounting legal fees.

Although he had left Country years before,"I realize and understand the responsibility that as a public face of a business, one can become a target," Zakarian said in a statement. "I remain focused on my craft and delivering great meals to my diners." In an unexpected twist, Zakarian's former business partner sided against him, submitting an affidavit in support of the workers and issuing his own strongly-worded statement: "I know that Geoffrey Zakarian's narcissistic behavior and arrogance caused Country to fail and inevitably allowed whatever wage and hour violations occurred while he was Country's operator." At the end of the day, Zakarian and his former employees reached a $200,000 settlement.

Geoffrey Zakarian made his comeback with the cruise industry

With this reputation still somewhat tarnished by the lawsuit, Zakarian's next career move came as a surprise. In 2013, he embarked on a three-restaurant deal with Norwegian Cruise Line. First up, the opening of Ocean Blue, a seafood restaurant on its new ship, the Norwegian Breakaway. It should be noted that cruise ship fare, at the time, hadn't exactly reached fine dining standards. That same year, in fact, headlines were made by the sheer number of passengers who had fallen sick with violent food poisoning on a single Carnival cruise trip. So for a chef of Zakarian's pedigree, cruises seemed a choice curiously beneath him. New York Magazine's Grubstreet heartily snarked on it, comparing it to the failed lobster shack experiment from French chef Jean-Georges.

But the last laugh was Zakarian's. Ocean Blue was a hit, not a humiliation, with reservations fully booked in advance from the start. Those who managed to get in raved about the food, with many cruise ship blogs posting glowing reviews. As a result, Zakarian became one of the first top chefs to open a restaurant exclusively at sea, with names like Thomas Keller, Curtis Stone, and Jamie Oliver later following suit.

One of his signature dishes is called "The Ugly Burger"

A healthy sense of humor has also benefitted Goeffrey Zakarian. Won over by the sloppy goodness of his hamburger at Zakarian's restaurant National at the Benjamin Hotel, New York Times's Sam Sifton declared it "a delicious, ugly mess." It was a moniker Zakarian decided should stick. He not only renamed it "The Ugly Burger" on the menu, but the restaurant's website also posted a step-by-step guide on how it's built — complete with meat ratio, bun choice, and topping recommendations.

The Ugly Burger was such a smash, Zakarian added it to several of his menus. He also shared the recipe, along with its eye-raising 22-ingredient list. Manhattan food lovers and tourists haven't been able to get enough since. "Extraordinary," one diner raved. "Meaty, juicy and fulfilling." And another: "The.Best.Burger.Ever! It was one of the best meals I've ever eaten and I would gladly go back again." Today, it remains one of his signature dishes. These days, you can even find him doing "Ugly Burger" demonstrations on social media.

Geoffrey Zakarian has avoided eating McDonald's most of his life

Although Zakarian's now considered one of the preeminent hamburger experts, there's one he loathed to try for years: McDonald's. The idea of fast food, he once shared with Reason, had always been a turn-off. "I don't go grab fast food and go sit down," he said. "To me, I can't imagine you have a choice between sitting down, having a meal, and having a conversation or just shoving food in your face. I could never do that."

Yet in 2015 he did, accompanying New York Times reporter James B. Stewart to a local outpost of the Golden Arches. There, Zakarian sampled not just the Quarter Pounder burger, but a chicken wrap, and French fries to boot. "It is what it is," Zakarian reportedly deadpanned after tasting it. The fries went over better, with Zakarian noting, "I'd come back for the fries and the coffee." Before leaving, he offered his two cents to the behemoth restaurant chain. "They need to tell a better story, talk more about quality, the source of the ingredients, address the health concerns," he advised. "I can assure you that if they had a great story and a better company culture, this same burger would taste a lot better."

Geoffrey Zakarian's wife is also his business partner

Considering how previous business partnerships have soured, it makes sense Zakarian ultimately decided to keep things in the family. His wife of 16 years, Margaret, was already an industry pro when they married, having done marketing work for some of New York City's top restaurants and nightclubs. In addition to a blushing bride, she made a steady co-pilot for his growing brand which now includes Zakarian's hospitality consulting group, his line of cookware and kitchen tools, his food products, and his partnerships with the delivery service Goldbelly. "It's a good way to see her," Zakarian told Serendipity Social of their business model. "This isn't a 9-5 job so we're always together and it's a mess, but a good mess." And a profitable one at that, with Celebrity Net Worth estimating the Zakarian's wealth at a cool $6 million.

Where his wife really shines, Zakarian says, is executing his vision, particularly when it comes to new ventures. "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," he explains. "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."

He became a dad for the third time in his 50s

Given that wife Margaret is 20 years Zakarian's junior, their children came along when he was a bit more advanced in his life. They share two girls, Anna and Madelyn, reportedly ages 14 and 12, and a son, George, now 7. Judging by the way he pumps iron (and his own kids) on social media, it looks like Zakarian can more than keep up. Not that he has to chase them — all three appear to love cooking just as much as their dad. In fact, his daughters already have their own family cookbook he endorses and sells on his website.

Sure, he looks like a softie, but there was one rule Zakarian admits he's always been strict about: no buttered pasta or dinosaur nuggets allowed. "They eat off the dinner menu," he explained to New York Family. "There's no kid menu, ever, so they've been eating what we've been eating since six months old. If we had veal parmigiana, we cut some up and put it on their plate. There's no baby food ... We have a rule that they don't have to eat everything, but they have to try it."

He feuded with a former president

Geoffrey Zakarian wasn't known for being especially vocal about politics. But that changed in 2015 when he nixed plans to open a restaurant in Donald Trump's new Washington DC hotel. His sudden withdrawal was prompted, Zakarian told the Village Voice, by Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric, especially his derogatory remarks about people from Mexico. Chef José Andrés, a day earlier, backed out of his deal with the same Trump hotel. Zakarian confessed he and the Trump family had actually been friendly, but he felt Donald Trump's comments went way over the line. "My buddy Donald, he f—ked up," Zakarian told the Village Voice. "He opened his f–ing mouth."

And then the 45th President called his lawyers. As he is wont to do, Donald Trump sued, claiming Zakarian owed him $14 million in losses. Zakarian, per Food & Wine, countersued, with the case finally settling in 2017 under undisclosed terms. Perhaps by now Zakarian's renewed his bond with Donald Trump Jr. which he said had been strained as a result of the lawsuit. "It's just not possible for us to socialize," Zakarian bemoaned at the time. "It's very strange. We're separated like a couple in therapy. I send him articles once in a while; he sends me stuff."

Geoffrey Zakarian thought Chopped would never work

Zakarian's been a regular on the Food Network since 2011, when he first appeared on "Iron Chef." He's done multiple shows with the network, including stints on "Chopped" as a judge and on "Chopped: All Stars" as a contestant. Yet while the hit "Chopped" franchise has been an invaluable platform for Zakarian to showcase his skills and continually build a national fanbase, he admits he was quite skeptical of the concept at first, telling the Milwaukee Sentinel Journal, "I'm a chef for 30 years before 'Chopped' came along in 2007. I didn't understand the concept. I thought, 'This is silly, this will never work.' My agent convinced me to take it. That was a good shot on his part. It's the longest-running one in the whole portfolio. Imagine if I didn't do that ..."

He's also a Super Iron Chef, having prevailed in 2011 against peers like Alex Guarnischelli, Elizabeth Falkner, and Spike Mendholson. Zakarian, a big golfer, explains he took a similar approach to the competition. As in golf, "if you have a bad hole, you just go to the next hole and you have to get the last hole out of your head. Anybody can beat anybody any day of the week."

He's not above easy kitchen hacks

Despite his culinary pedigree, Geoffrey Zakarian is an ardent supporter of kitchen hacks that take some time and effort out of the cooking process. In fact, he embraces them, like the one he tweeted in support of the microwave oven to make no-pan blueberry pancakes by nuking them in a jar or the one he demonstrated on his Food Network talk show "The Kitchen," which recommends using a cocktail shaker for easy scrambled eggs. And when cooking at home, he regularly posts hacks from his own kitchen.

He did endorse one so-called hack you may not want to try without having mastered some serious knife skills first. If you have the ability, he showcased a somewhat less-involved (but still potentially quite dangerous) way of peeling a grapefruit. But if you don't know what you're doing we can see this going horribly wrong. In any case, there's little doubt that Zakarian is decidedly pro-hack, declaring, "Sometimes the simplest hacks are the best!"