The National Opens in Greenwich: A Conversation with Chef, Restaurateur, & TV Host Geoffrey Zakarian
The National, the newest restaurant from celebrated chef, restaurateur, TV host, author, and philanthropist Geoffrey Zakarian, is now open in the heart of downtown Greenwich, at 376 Greenwich Avenue.
We were invited to sit down with the chef just 24 hours after he opened the doors to the public. Sitting in a corner banquette, our candid conversation spanned his 30-year career, including his love for Greenwich, formative culinary influences, and his advice for aspiring chefs.
The National feels like an extension of Zakarian himself. They both exude a studied yet casual New York elegance, are utterly charming, and yet quite approachable. A former Greenwich resident, it is no surprise he chose to open the restaurant within this community he knows so well. The modern american bistro feels at home on the Avenue and inside, boasts the welcoming charm of a neighborhood café with a seasonal menu positioned to please.
As our conversation concluded, I sidled up to the bar, watching the bartenders expertly manage a steady stream of customers and craft cocktails, as couples and families settled into the dining room. A comfortable din filled the space while Zakarian quietly floated around, attentive to the front of house details until he disappeared into the kitchen, no doubt doing the same with his team in the back. Sipping my Greenwich Means Thyme, the restaurant was humming as if it had been here for years.
Our interview is excerpted below.
You wear many hats. Chef, restauranteur, TV host, Chopped Judge, cookbook author… what is your favorite role?
Being here. Hospitality is a great thing to be in, chatting with people and the art of all this is very intriguing to me, always has been and thankfully I am good at it.
It is good to do this with your base as the kitchen. I have the kitchen down, that is where I come from. But in the restaurant business this [front of house] is where everything happens. Any good thing in the kitchen can be ruined by the house not being right. We put a lot of training into everybody, the staff are trained 6 to 8 weeks. I brought my master mixologist, sommelier, and culinary director here. We surround them with the very best and we teach them the very best. I told them, it's like a PhD program here.
You once lived in Greenwich, did that play a role in why you chose this location?
This is where I landed when we came to Connecticut, and we raised a couple of kids here. I love it very much. It’s a place I feel that works on a lot of levels. You have the sea, the country, horses, and you can be in the city in 45 minutes. It’s a fantastic place and that’s why I am here.
I have a great partner, Lou Ceruzzi, who owns the building which made it possible. Greenwich is a very particular place. They want it perfect. We are happy we were allowed to build here. And I want this to be here a long time, I want this to be an institution. This is a neighborhood cafe. We published our own guide to Greenwich, including where we get our honey and fish from, about the Bruce Museum, Diane’s Books, the reindeer festival. I want to show people I am part of the community.
This is a cafe, you can sit here and have a burger, sit at the bar. You can do whatever you want here, I am a very easy restauranteur. This place is for the guests. When you feel that you are welcomed you will pay it forward. That is important.
How would you describe your approach to food and how does it manifest itself at The National?
I want yummy food. It’s gotta be delicious. I have been doing this for 34 years and I have no tolerance for pretense or silly plating. I don’t touch food. Cuisine is when food tastes like itself. So that is what this whole menu is based upon. There is something for everybody. Everything is made fresh here, it’s that wholesomeness you taste, but when you see it is is unassuming. It has to be approachable so you want to come back a couple times a week. We designed for that.
You’ve worked with amazing chefs across the world including Daniel Boulud and Alain Passard. Who or what experiences have most informed your career?
They all do in a strange way. I got my start at Le Cirque. I started in 1981 there and worked for incredible chefs and that informs my food, it is very classical food that is French. But I have done a lot of traveling and worked with a lot of progressive guys that we have done different things and have modernized some, but I always go back to my roots. It’s hard to single out one. Everything here is a mixture that I have crafted in my own voice.
I noticed that you are heavily involved with City Harvest, food rescue is an important issue to us here at CTbites. How important is your work there?
Very. I am the Chairman of the Food Council. We rescued 60 million pounds of food last year in New York City. We have twenty trucks going out every day. It’s very important to me because it is something frightening. A lot of the problem is what people eat. Even if they have money they eat badly. That is another problem. This problem is they don’t have enough to eat and they eat badly. The food we give away is really good food. There is no processed food there is no junk. It is fresh vegetables and nutritional items. This is a win-win, it is 100% privately funded. I am very proud of it.
You just opened The National here in Greenwich, so this may be an unfair question, but what’s next for you?
We are opening in Fort Lauderdale in 2016 and probably somewhere else. We are writing our third cookbook. We have four TV shows going on.
What do you do in your (sparse) free time and how do you stay creative and come up with new ideas?
We are always constantly on the lookout for everything possible. I don’t stop looking. I inhale stuff. Much of it passes through as trendy and nonsensical. A few things stick. What’s modern, what works, I find a lot of inspiration in what people do wrong. Tonight I want to do a deviled egg. I had one that was just okay. So tonight we are doing a schmeared deviled egg with smoked salmon and bagel crisps. It’s a take on a bagel and lox.
What’s your go-to cocktail?
I am a plymouth gin drinker. We have something called Greenwich Mean Thyme, a gin-based citrus cocktail with fresh thyme – a play off on where we are. Then we have the Martha’s martini for two, named after Martha Stewart. She was just here two days ago. I brought it over to her and mixed it myself for her.
Do you have any advice for aspiring chefs?
Go work for the greatest chef in the world at whatever it costs. [Think] I’m going to suck their brains for 2 or 3 years, then I am going to name my next job. That is what they should be doing. They shouldn’t be going for the highest paid job, that is just wasting their youth. Your youth is for learning. It’s getting all this in, getting a base, traveling, living penniless. You will make all the money back in spades. Do that, and whatever money you are giving up now, will come back 100 times later.
When I left culinary school I realized how little I actually knew. I landed at Le Cirque and I had that experience, living penniless and working 7 days a week but it was the greatest experience of my life. That was it that made me who I was. That is why I learned, that is why I know, that is why I won Iron Chef. That’s this industry, that’s what you have to do.
The National is located at 376 Greenwich Avenue.