At the age of 22, Geoffrey Zakarian, who had grown up and gone to college in Worcester, Mass., went to live for a few months near Monte Carlo, where he was researching a thesis on urban development. He took a room in a French town where every corner had a pastry shop with seven different kinds of frangipane tart and where the average lunch lasted as long as Easter services in Worcester. Zakarian loved food, but he had always thought of it as what your mother put on the table at 5:30. Suddenly he saw it in a new light. He envisioned himself as the owner of a stylish restaurant, greeting beautiful women and important men coming to eat his food. Back at home, he announced to his conservative Polish-Armenian family that he had decided to become a chef.
"Oh, no!" his mother wailed. "It means... you're going to marry... a waitress."
Twenty years later Zakarian (now married to a psychotherapist) has escaped the fate his mother feared, of going home to a woman who calls strange men "honey," but his career as a chef has landed him in an even more perilous situation. In early March he put his fate in the hands of fickle New Yorkers, opening--six months behind schedule--an ambitious new restaurant he named Town. Those were six months during which the value of a share of Yahoo went from being equal to the cost of a dinner to that of a glass of wine. Any moment now, the industry expects, New Yorkers will start tightening their belts, rather than loosening them for $29 entrees of "lamb rack/crispy spaetzle/citrus fruit and olives." And at the same time, more experienced restaurateurs like Terrance Brennan and Tom Colicchio were getting their latest ventures off the ground (Artisanal and Craft, respectively). More than $2.5 million was sunk into kitchen equipment, interior design, graphic design, staff salaries, black truffles and single-malt whiskies before the first customer pulled out his credit card. Zakarian's business plan called for investors to be repaid over 18 to 36 months, depending on how quickly the place caught on, which meant his fate was dependent on two of the most powerful and independent men in America, Alan Greenspan and William Grimes, the restaurant critic of The New York Times. Last week Grimes delivered his verdict. (He liked it.) Now it remains to be seen whether the tidal wave of luxury that washed over New York in the 1990s will carry Zakarian into the next decade and give him the place he's been dreaming about ever since he alighted in the south of France.
What drives a person to put in 15-hour days at a physically demanding job that holds the barest promise of getting rich, if you don't go broke instead? Partly it's the esthetic challenge; Zakarian has spent a decade refining his sensibility, which he defines as "modern New York food, not an ingredient lovefest, but simple and done well." But it's also wanting to be at the center of things. Zakarian had been executive chef at ultrachic 44, in the Royalton Hotel, where Conde Nast editors blot colleagues' blood from their lips before picking at their lunches, and then the superswank Patroon, where moguls stab their dinners with forks as big as babies' hands. It gave him a taste for feeding celebrities. In what other profession can you cook quail for Oprah Winfrey one day and a lamb chop for Monica Lewinsky the next?
Beginning last winter, NEWSWEEK followed Zakarian as he pursued his dream. Here are some notes from that hectic, exhilarating year:
Zakarian and his partners meet with David Rockwell, the most-sought-after restaurant designer in New York (Vong, Nobu, Ruby Foo's). Rockwell is designing not just Town but the hotel of which it is a part, called Chambers, one of the small, pricey "boutique" hotels that are all the rage in New York, with white-walled, high-ceilinged rooms meant to evoke downtown lofts, except it's actually a block from Tiffany's. Because the restaurant has to share a 50-by-100-foot lot with the hotel lobby, Rockwell has located the dining room in a soaring, skylit atrium. The effect he's striving for is urban, sophisticated, like a vest-pocket park between two skyscrapers. To reach it, patrons will descend a dramatic staircase, with a large landing where customers will stop to admire the room. "And in six months if the restaurant is doing great," Rockwell predicts, "you can put a table for four there."
Rockwell and Zakarian visit the site, a vast, dank, gloomy concrete pit beneath an intricate nest of ducts and pipes. The opening is planned for August. "You'd be surprised how much these guys can get done in the last 72 hours," Rockwell assures his client.
Zakarian takes three weeks off to work, unpaid, in the kitchen of Arpege, Alain Passard's three-star restaurant in Paris. He returns with some ideas to try in New York, like Passard's way of cooking a whole fish in salted butter, on a pan set on the side of the oven so it just warms through at 180 degrees. Zakarian has a preliminary menu in mind, which includes some of his signature dishes from Patroon, such as foie gras terrine, with a jelly of sweet peppers he buys from a woman who grows them herself in upstate New York. "You don't want to just copy yourself," he says, "but it took me so long to get the dish to this point, we destroyed so many pounds of foie gras doing it, it would be a tragedy not to keep it."
Even at this conceptual stage, nothing goes on the menu without a mental accounting of its cost, down to the garnish. "The little sprig on the plate is what kills your profit," he says. "Steaks you can charge for, but people resist digging into their pockets for a couple of leaves." His theory of pricing is not to be overaggressive--Alain Ducasse has just opened his eponymous restaurant with a $175 prix fixe, scandalizing and tantalizing New York in equal measure--but, Zakarian says, "if you're going to lie awake worrying if what's on the plate is worth what you have to charge for it, you probably shouldn't be in this business."
Town gets its first mention in the press: a Wall Street Journal article about fancy bathrooms in restaurants. "When visitors to Town need to heed nature's call," the paper writes, "they will be greeted by a wall decorated with hundreds of small plastic snow globes, each featuring a tiny Statue of Liberty suspended in a puddle of glittery, blue-colored water."
With the opening now planned for November, Zakarian hires a general manager, Monica Sapirstein, and an executive chef, Fernando Zapata--among the first of nearly 100 people who will be needed to get out three hundred meals a day, seven days a week. That means paying out salaries--executive chefs are paid in six figures in New York--with nothing coming in. But, Zakarian reasons, there are a lot of restaurants opening and a small pool of good people to hire. Sapirstein's job is to recognize on sight a few hundred food writers, critics and celebrities, and galvanize the staff to cater to them, with such subtlety and discretion that the customer can delude himself into thinking he's not being fawned over. "It's not that they don't want fawning," Zakarian explains; "they just don't want it to be obvious." This is a change from years ago--when Otto Preminger walked into a room you didn't pretend not to know who he was--and, if anything, it makes the job harder.
Still not finished. Zakarian is philosophical: "I've never had December off before. I can go to all the parties. The only downside is I wake up three nights a week with anxiety attacks."
At last, the space is ready. Everything is in place and adjusted, from the $85,000 Jade range in the kitchen to the ceramic elephants behind a ceiling panel--recommended by the feng shui master to counteract negative energy from the headquarters of the American Cancer Society, two doors away. Even the plastic snow globes have been installed in the restrooms, although with only 15 minutes to spare before the opening cocktail party. Zakarian rejects the idea that that's cutting things close. "If they were putting them up while someone was in the bathroom, that would be close."
William Grimes is having dinner. Unlike his predecessor, Ruth Reichl, Grimes doesn't go around in disguise. He relies on simple ordinariness to go unrecognized, but it doesn't always work. Everyone is on edge; Zakarian, whose habit is to go out at least twice an evening and quietly greet everyone in the restaurant, restrains himself; he can't pretend not to recognize Grimes, but neither can he acknowledge his presence.
The review is in: Grimes gave Town three stars, of a possible four; only 13 restaurants (out of 104 he has reviewed since starting the job) have gotten that many. One of Zakarian's partners hears it on television and calls the kitchen, where Zakarian is "expediting"--arranging crispy fennel on a plate of smoked salmon, a $14 appetizer. The cooks and waiters celebrate until 2 a.m. In the morning, the phones start ringing at 7:30, and by 10 o'clock 150 people have called for reservations. Zakarian, bleary and hung over but elated, arrives at 9:30 and takes a congratulatory call from Bobby Flay of Mesa Grill. Flay reminds him they had a golf date that afternoon. It was going to be Zakarian's first half day off in three months. "We'd better try for August," he says. Things are about to get busy.