Geoffrey Zakarian’s Culinary Career Advice
The chef, restaurateur and “Chopped” judge visited our New York campus to speak to culinary and management students.
Geoffrey Zakarian didn’t realize he wanted to be a chef until age 21. The economics major traveled to France on his summer break from college and discovered the Michelin Guide. He chose a one-star restaurant for lunch each Friday until a game of roulette in Monte Carlo afforded him three-star meals.
“I watched this drama, this theater. I felt like I was royalty,” Chef Geoffrey recalled of his first fine-dining experiences. “It was that combination of hospitality, the treatment, the food … Right then I said I want to be in a restaurant, I want to be a chef. I didn’t have the experience from the kitchen side, I had it from the entertainment side. Then I was hooked.”
He returned to the U.S. with a journal detailing his Michelin-starred meals, which he used to negotiate a spot at the Culinary Institute of America, then went on to work at Le Cirque, 21 Club, 44 at the Royalton Hotel and Blue Door at The Delano Hotel, Miami, before opening his own restaurants in New York and Miami.
Today, Chef Geoffrey has cruise ship concepts, two cookbooks, 10 years of television and radio appearances and noteworthy acclaim, including a Michelin star, a James Beard Award and three consecutive three-star reviews in The New York Times.
Last week, The Lambs Club chef/partner shared career advice with ICE culinary students, including these highlights.
You need to get out there and fail. Forget about being successful. I’m really good at failing, and I’ll show you how to fail up because it’s really important you fail up. You’re going to make some huge errors, and you need to really understand that those errors are okay. There are only two things that are really bad in life: not trying, not giving 100 percent, and getting sick, physically sick. Everything else is going to work itself out. You should compare yourself to who you were yesterday and say, “Today, I’m going to be a little bit better.”
On Instagram envy:
It’s very dangerous to go after someone else’s success or vision because it defeats your vision. Find something you can really, really do well, even if it’s one thing. Focus on what you know, what you are, what you really like. Focus on that and be an expert at that. The world today is about specialization.
On first jobs:
Go work for the best of the best. Go to the very best and take a very low entry job and just kill it. I mean kill it, seven days, delay gratification. Work and do whatever that person wants for a year or two and they will give you all the knowledge … and they might pay you, too.
Dream big. If you’re not frightened to death of the person you want to work for then you’re not dreaming big enough. That person was where you are at one time. They dreamt big. Think of it as a continuum. Then once you get in there, that person becomes a human being. Put your head down and go to work. It doesn’t take long to identify talent.
On kitchen promotions:
I never thought about a paycheck at Le Cirque. I went from assistant pastry chef to pastry sous, then I went on the line with Rick Moonen as a sauce cook, then I went as a meat cook, then I went to the sous chef, then I went to executive sous and then I was chef de cuisine in five years. First American chef ever to do that. Not ever did I talk about money or goals, I just worked.
I was not ready to be a sous chef, and I got promoted. I would do anything Chef Alain Sailhac told me to do, and he watched me closely. I had to really work smarter not harder. I had to lead people, and that’s a very different skillset. The next level of sous: now you’re talking to the chef, now you’re ordering food, now you’re making specials. If someone’s out, you’ve got to cover their station and you have to get payroll, you have to train someone and bring the commis in, it’s a lot of work. I outworked everybody and tried to be fair to everybody. When you work harder than someone else, they will do anything for you. You have to show up before they come and be there after they leave.
Work really hard, try to focus on what you love and make yourself the best you can be. You will figure the rest out through taking initiatives on your own: take care of yourself, eat healthy, sleep a lot when you can. Lay off booze; lay off drugs; exercise.
I just make myself the best that I can with what I have, and I keep my life in a way that is simple. I have my children, my family and my work. Is there a balance? No. Is there burnout? If you drink too much, eat too much, don’t take care of yourself. A lot of people burnout, most because of substance abuse, which is big, big, big in our industry. I’ve never had balance in my life. I try to keep contentment as close as possible.
Knowledge is anywhere you want it at any time. When you’re not busy working, you can study. When you’re not studying, you can work. When you’re not working or studying, you can travel, very easily today. The United States has the greatest restaurants in the world right now, right here.