"WHAT WE'VE WITNESSED in the past 25 or 30 years is just incredible," says Geoffrey Zakarian about the food and restaurant revolution in America. As one of the country's most visible and influential restaurateurs, chefs, and food personalities, Zakarian is uniquely qualified to discuss the proliferation of top-notch restaurants and exploding interest in new forms of culinary expression. If our national cuisine was once bland and derivative, he observes, it's now the global center of experimentation and innovation.
Zakarian is an Iron Chef on Food Network's Iron-Chef America series and he's a regular judge on the channel's massively popular Chopped, in which contestants whip together a three-course meal using mystery--and usually incongruous--ingredients. (In one typical episode, participants were asked to create an appetizer using watermelon, canned sardines, pepper jack cheese, and zucchini.) His 2006 cookbook, Town/Country: 150 Recipes for Life Around the Table, was a best-seller and last fall's My Perfect Pantry: 150 Easy Recipes From 50 Essential Ingredients has been praised for its accessibility and surprising flavors. Zakarian operates no fewer than five restaurants in the New York area, including the highly regarded Lambs Club and the Plaza Hotel's Palm Court. In 2016, he'll be opening his first place in the nation's capital, the National in Washington, which will be housed in the Old Post Office Pavilion.
Chefs of Zakarian's generation--he was born in 1959 in Massachusetts--used to go to Europe to train and experience cutting-edge cuisine. Now, they roam New York City and other domestic destinations from Portland to Little Rock to Miami. For Zakarian, "free enterprise and entrepreneurship," immigration, and demands by millennials for better and more interesting meals are the engines driving creativity in the food and restaurant business. An outspoken critic of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's minimum-wage plans and President Obama's health-care mandates, he remains optimistic that entrepreneurs will prevail. "They do their damage," he says, "but we still keep moving forward."
Zakarian spoke with Reason TV's Nick Gillespie via phone in May.
reason: Why has American cooking and food culture gotten so much better over the last 30 or so years?
Geoffrey Zakarian: Very simple: free enterprise and entrepreneurship. Even with this wacky market and administration we have now, you can't put Americans down. What they've grown up with in their psyche is still about freedom of expression, about entrepreneur-ship, and about the whole story of immigration. Coming from nothing still resonates very strongly. It still happens every day, [though] it's more difficult because there are more steps now because of the bureaucracy.
reason: Talk about the changing food scene in New York City.
Zakarian: When I came here in 1981, there were a handful of [well-regarded] restaurants, mostly French. Never the diversity we have today. It took [hundreds of years for the French] to develop their classical cuisine and export it to the hyper-extent that it is today. We used to go there and study. I did. I went and studied in France. Now you don't have to do that. In 35 years, we've surpassed that. You go study in the United States, go to great restaurants in the United States, study with great chefs in the United States. So what we've done is condense that 300 years or whatever it took the Europeans to have this great food culture into about 30 or 40 years. We have the ability here to go into business, go out of business, make mistakes, get back up, and just make it happen. Sometimes we fail marvelously, but failure is part of winning, so we just have a system here that allows us to do that.
Now the greatest food in the world is in New York City, as far as range and price and activity and interests and specialty and specialness. There's no city in the world that's better than New York City.
reason: How does a national or regional cuisine flourish? What are the elements of fusion and innovation and experimentation that lead both to drawing on tradition but also building something new? Was there a particular moment in your cooking history where you were like: "Ah, I got it, I'm bringing in this from over here, I'm bringing in this part of me, and I'm doing something totally different."
Zakarian: It's not that linear. It's like a small leak that just drips and everybody is affected by that leak in a good way. You have everything here. You can do Spanish...