Geoffrey Zakarian's Transformation Is Seriously Turning Heads

Great American chef and TV personality Geoffrey Zakarian is well known for his 10 plus years as a judge on "Chopped" as well as many other Food Network shows, but there is more to Zakarian than you might imagine. The celebrity chef is revered for his countless successful restaurants all around the world as well as having a successful cookware line and multiple cookbooks under his belt. Surprisingly enough, the chef's life wasn't always on the culinary track. In fact, he didn't even have cooking and hospitality on his brain at all when he first went off to college.

Even though the food industry wasn't something he grew up wanting to be a part of, he has since made a name for himself, earning multiple accolades including the highly coveted Michelin star. Though he is mostly recognized for his TV appearances, he has done a lot since first joining the hospitality industry in 1982.

Geoffrey Zakarian grew up mostly on Middle Eastern food

Growing up, the Iron Chef was surrounded by home-style cooking. His mom is Polish and his dad is Armenian, so Zakarian had a lot of different types of cuisine in his home. However, the most common food he would have was Middle Eastern food, such as rice pilaf and lamb. "There was always a variety of braised vegetables. There were a lot of spices. We made our own yogurt. Something was always in process of being made," Zakarian told reason in an interview. Everything in his house was homemade, from fruit roll-ups to lamb stews.

In his restaurants, he still uses a cooking tip he learned from his mother when he was young. Since he didn't grow up with a lot of money, his mom would save everything when cooking to reuse it for another creation. In a special 2018 Mother's Day segment on TODAY, Zakarian shared that his mom would save and freeze any fat or drippings from certain foods. "It's these small flavor bombs that keep the food exciting," he said. "And the cost is zero!" It's tips and tricks like this that his family grew up on that still have a lasting impact on him to this day in the cooking world.

Geoffrey Zakarian earned a degree in economics

Zakarian grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, and didn't go far when it was time for him to go off to college. He attended Worcester State University, now known as the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, where he studied economics. After graduating from college, he took a post-grad trip to France where he found joy in cooking and decided to change paths. "I was so moved by the food and the culture and the beautiful way they treat product and how everything is just about that, I decided to come back and change direction. I saw that whole world of chefs and restaurants and all that glamor struck me," Zakarian said in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

France's appreciation for food and the culture in the region was Zakarian's first inspiration to be a chef. Everything was freshly made and people took time to create their meals which inspired him to learn how to do the same. Growing up in a household that revolved around food, he saw that it was more than just his family who spent time on what they were making. In an interview with reason, the celebrity chef said "It resonated with me. For lunch, they took two hours and they made it themselves. They don't just have a sandwich and sit on a bench. This is the way life should be."

Perhaps this is when and where Zakarian found the one ingredient he can't live without.

Geoffrey Zakarian's career started at Le Cirque

After his France experience, Zakarian went to the Culinary Institute of America in New York. He studied there for two years before getting his first culinary job at Le Cirque in 1983 under the French chef Alain Sailhac. Le Cirque is known for its high-profile clientele and its three-star menu, which allowed Zakarian to learn a lot about that sector of the hospitality industry. Starting off as a pastry sous chef, he moved his way up all the way to Chef de Cuisine, where he stayed there until 1987 (via Geoffrey Zakarian's website).

It's here that Zakarian learned the rules of a kitchen and found a foundation for his cooking techniques. He also was able to work for free in different restaurants in Europe as well. According to the Geoffrey Zakarian website, restaurants like Arpège and Au Quai des Ormes in Paris, The Dorchester in London, and Pierre Orsay in Lyon. It's European places like these where he was able to understand and work through the enjoyment he has for food. Zakaria found it's more about what goes into the recipes than the sustenance food provides.

He worked in restaurants for 30 years before 'Chopped'

Although Zakarian may be known for his many years on the Food Network, he spent 30 years before his debut on "Chopped" working in hospitality, curating iconic menus as the executive chef in numerous restaurants, and opening his own restaurants all over New York City and Florida. After departing from Le Cirque, Zakarian went to the "21" Club where he worked as the executive chef until a year later when he was hired at the Royalton Hotel. It wasn't until 2001 that Zakarian opened his very own restaurant, TOWN, in New York City, which received Three Stars from the New York Times.

In an interview with Entrepreneur, Zakarian spoke about the difference between being a chef at a restaurant and owning your own restaurant. According to him, when you are a chef in someone else's restaurant, you can separate your life and work from one another, but when it comes to owning a restaurant, a lot more depends on you. He states, "The minute you open your own restaurant, you're responsible. For all of it. And you don't get a salary. So it's sort of like this ridiculous equation that you have to swallow. But here's the thing: Entrepreneurship is a gamble, but it's the best gamble, because you're gambling on yourself." Zakarian opened Country in 2005, which also received Three Stars, making Zakarian the first New York chef to receive three consecutive Three Star reviews.

Geoffrey Zakarian is an accomplished author

After opening Country in 2005, the famous chef wrote his debut cookbook, "Town/Country," which offers two recipes (one Town and one Country) for each ingredient mentioned. The description of the book on the website states that it can help in whipping up a "Country recipe for a quick weeknight meal or Sunday supper or to create a night on the Town for an elegant Saturday-night dinner party."

Since then, Zakarian has published three other cookbooks, his most recent one being with his two daughters, Madeline and Anna, titled "The Family that Cooks Together." The chef's cookbooks are praised for having simple yet flavorful recipes and using ingredients everyone has access to. But in an exclusive interview with Mashed, Zakarian shares advice for people who want to become better cooks in their own kitchens, stating "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." Once you have that mindset, Zakarian's recipes will come out tasting almost as if he's cooking for you.

Geoffrey Zakarian declared bankruptcy

According to The New York Times, around 2008, when Zakarian's second restaurant, Country, closed down, 152 of his own restaurant workers sued Zakarian for $1 million in damages and $250,000 in penalties. The complaints in the class action lawsuit claimed that Zakarian avoided duties as the restaurant owner, did not pay overtime wages, and possibly manipulated pay records so employees were paid less than what was agreed upon.

In the end, the restauranteur declared bankruptcy to help pay for legal fees, according to a statement released from his PR team. When asked about the timing of his declaration of bankruptcy, Zakarian's publicist told the New York Times that defending against the class action lawsuit would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. A settlement of over $200,000 was eventually paid out to the workers.

In an interview with reason, Zakarian talks about the policies that make it hard to have skilled workers in restaurants. According to the celebrity chef, forcing restaurants to pay people a certain wage makes restaurants struggle to find employees and keeps forcing wages to go up. "It's not like we don't want to pay more. We can't. You have to stay open in order to employ people, so it's going to be catastrophic when [the minimum wage] keeps going up and up and up and up. It's going to hurt everybody. It's a shame."

Geoffrey Zakarian's TV career skyrocketed

Zakarian said "Chopped" would never work, but his agent convinced him to take the job. "I didn't understand the concept. I thought, 'This is silly, this will never work.' It's the longest-running one in the whole portfolio. Imagine if I didn't do that," he shared with the Milwaukee Sentinel Journal

Now, Zakarian loves being a judge on "Chopped," but it isn't the only Food Network show he's known for. In 2011, the same year Zakarian's restaurant Tudor House opened in Miami, the celebrity chef won season 4 of "The Next Iron Chef." He talked about his time on "Iron Chef" with Mashed, "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."

Zakarian now hosts a talk show called "The Kitchen" which first premiered in 2014. Between when he first started on the Food Network and now, the TV personality has appeared on many different cooking shows like "Big Restaurant Bet," "The Best Thing I Ever Ate," and "Cooks vs. Cons." He has made a name for himself as a TV personality and restauranteur since his first step into the culinary world. From those first years in restaurants to his very first year as a judge on "Chopped," Zakarian has become a household name for anyone familiar with the culinary world.

He went into the cruise line business

Shortly after declaring bankruptcy in 2011, Zakarian took on a new venture when he teamed up with Norwegian Cruise Line to become create three new restaurants for the cruise ship operator. The main restaurant was Ocean Blue, with a menu that featured high-end seafood dishes. He also created The Raw Bar, a wine bar serving raw seafood, as well as a more casual restaurant, Ocean Blue on The Waterfront (via Business Wire). In an interview with Total Food, Zakarian mentioned that all of his ventures have a common theme. "Whatever I approach with it — the bar, or the front of the house, or the back of the house, a book [...] a ship — there is always a vein of who I am, running through it."

Being a brand new business venture for Zakarian, there were doubts as to whether or not these restaurants would succeed. With obstacles like a lack of fresh produce and not being able to cook with an open flame on the ship, Zakarian had to come up with new ideas while also giving guests the well-curated dishes they expected (via USA Today). Zakarian very much succeeded, at least according to great reviews the restaurants received. Diners were so excited that the restaurant was fully booked before the ship even set sail.

He's known for his work with hotels

For Zakarian, the hospitality industry is more than just food. Instead it's all about the overall experience, which should offer something new and different to each guest, which is why Zakarian went into the hotel restaurant business fairly quickly (via Reason). It all started in 1988, when he was the executive chef for 44 at the Royalton Hotel. He then moved to Blue Door at the Delano Hotel. His third restaurant, which Zakarian opened in fall 2010, was The Lambs Club at the Chatwal Hotel in midtown Manhattan. It was soon followed up by another New York City hotel restaurant, The National at The Benjamin Hotel, which became especially well known for its "Ugly Burger" (via Geoffrey Zakarian).

In an interview with Mashed, Zakarian explained some of his enduring love of the hospitality business. "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. [....] I love entertaining and I love taking care of people." Zakarian has since opened restaurants in hotels in New York, Florida, California, and Dubai (via Geoffrey Zakarian).

He had a serious dispute with Trump

Back in 2015, Zakarian was set to open a restaurant in one of former president Donald Trump's hotels in Washington, D.C. Although Zakarian was somewhat close with the Trump family before this, he decided it was time to end the deal after Trump uttered racist remarks about Mexican immigrants. Zakarian dropped out after José Andrés did the same with his own restaurant a day earlier. In a statement to the New York Times, Zakarian said "the recent statements surrounding Mexican immigrants by Donald Trump do not in any way align with my personal core values." Zakarian emphasized that he employs immigrants from all over the world, while Trump's words offended not only his employees but also his guests.

Trump sued Zakarian for a rather serious $14 million over the broken deal. Zakarian then lawyered up and countersued the former president, echoing a similar legal battle taken on by Andrés. The two parties then went back and forth for two years before the Trump Organization finally settled with the chef immediately after doing the same with José Andrés. According to the Washington Post, the terms of the settlement with Zakarian were not disclosed, though both parties claimed to have wrapped things up in a more or less amicable fashion.

His family is a big part of his life

Not only is Geoffrey Zakarian a chef and entrepreneur, but it's clear that he's also a pretty dedicated husband and father. Although his wife, Margaret, is 20 years younger than him, the two have been married for almost two decades (16 years as of 2022, to be exact). What's more, they've been working together since practically the beginning of their marriage, with the launch of Zakarian Hospitality in 2005. Zakarian Hospitality is a wide-ranging business for the duo, who take on consulting gigs for fine dining restaurants, as well as developing a line of products and even establishing a foothold in media with their own production company. Yet, there doesn't seem to be much disharmony between the two. Quite the opposite, in fact: "It's so rewarding and fulfilling to do it all together," as Margaret told Tampa Magazine

The Zakarian family also includes two girls, Anna and Madeline, as well as a boy, George. All three are set to have the refined palates of their parents, too. That's because Zakarian, true to his culinary cred, doesn't allow them to have typically kid-friendly dishes buttered pasta or dinosaur-shaped nuggets for dinner. Instead, they simply eat what their parents eat, according to New York Family. Zakarian also believes in instilling values like hard work and persistence in his kids. As he told Tampa Magazine, children "definitely can learn work ethic from their parents. I don't think they've ever seen two harder working parents."