Chef: Start young

August 08, 2006|by FEDORA COPLEY

Many teens work in fast-food restaurants. Not all grow up to open their own restaurant in New York City.

Celebrity chef Geoffrey Zakarian, who started cooking as a teen, has opened not one, but two restaurants in the city - he named one Town and the other Country.

In a recent phone interview, Zakarian said he started helping his mom in the kitchen early on. In these early years, he said his style of cooking was down-home. Zakarian's reasoning is simple: "I loved to eat." He still feels, "anytime I can eat, I'm happy."

"I was always in the kitchen," he said. "Some of my friends said I spent too much time cooking with my mom."


He first started cooking in a restaurant around the age of 18. He got a job in a Lums restaurant, a sort of Denny's knockoff.

Zakarian attended the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in 1981. There he went into an 18-month culinary program. During 18 three-week periods, Zakarian studied different things - baking, French food, sauces, business accounting, etc. When he wasn't studying the arts of cooking at CIA, he took jobs in real restaurants for more hands-on learning.

Zakarian said he didn't really know for sure he wanted to open a restaurant of his own while he attended the CIA.

"I found out mid-'80s I wanted to open a restaurant in New York," he said.

Zakarian said, at the CIA, he was taught the basics of owning a restaurant. But the actual process is much more intense. Chefs run into problems. People don't show up for work. Compared with learning in a classroom, Zakarian said, running a restaurant "is much more complicated. It's a great learning experience."

Opening a restaurant is not easy. Zakarian opened his first restaurant, Town, in midtown Manhattan in 2001. He opened Country near Madison Square Park in October 2005.

He synopsized the three-year process of opening his second restaurant like this: "You need to raise a large amount of money, select a location, show blueprints, sign a lease, spend a lot of money on lawyers."

He said getting people to believe in your vision is key. Since the opening of Country, he has worked six months straight, Zakarian said, with not a day off. Sound like a stressful job you wouldn't want to have? It's natural to have doubts at times, Zakarian said, but with a balance of good and bad, the job is worth all the effort.

"It's scary. It's also very exciting," he said. One of the fun things about having a restaurant is the chance to meet new people.

Zakarian's restaurants are unique. Country is a simple restaurant with the air of a caf, whereas its counterpart, Town, is a chic, modern place. Zakarian said it's taken nearly a year of hard work, but there's no money in owning a restaurant at first. Hopefully, that comes later.

In his new cookbook, "Town/Country," which came out in April, Zakarian says both restaurants are represented. The cookbook features his favorite ingredients - 65 of them - and creates two recipes for each, a simpler, country-style recipe and a more refined, complex recipe.

"The Town way is slightly more formal and difficult to make," Zakarian said.

But both styles are tasty ways to enjoy one kind of food.

Having a dream is one thing, actually experiencing it is another. Zakarian said the best way to experience cooking is to "get a job." Find a good restaurant nearby and get a job, or volunteer.

Sauted Strawberries with Cracked Black Pepper and Fresh Mint

1 tablespoon salted butter
1 1/2 teaspoons brown sugar
1/2 vanilla bean, split
2 pounds strawberries, thoroughly washed, stemmed and quartered
Pinch of cracked black pepper
1 cup coarsely chopped fresh mint
2 tablespoons crme frache

Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add brown sugar and vanilla bean and cook until sugar begins to melt and butter begins to brown, about 3 minutes. Add strawberries and cook, tossing or rolling them in butter until well coated, about 15 seconds. Add pepper and cook until berries are warmed through, about 30 seconds more. Add mint, mix well and transfer strawberries to serving bowls. Top with crme frache and serve immediately.

Cook's notes:

"Instead of the usual sweet/sour contrast, this magically simple recipe uses a sweet/spicy combination to elicit the 'wow' response. Ripe strawberries are very floral and aromatic; they can easily handle a healthy dose of pepper along with the heady fragrance of the chopped fresh mint. They spend very little time in the pan - just enough to coat them with a sugary glaze."

Crme frache is slightly fermented, high-fat cream, milder than sour cream.

Serves 6.

- A Country restaurant recipe from "Town/Country" by Geoffrey Zakarian

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