Last year’s Iron Chef winner Geoffrey Zakarian operates The National restaurant on the ground floor of The Benjamin, a chic 209-room historic hotel in Manhattan. The New York Times review last May was positive overall, describing it as “a new neighborhood bistro… with a smart, accessible and not terribly expensive menu [designed to] evoke grand European cafes.” But then food writer Sam Sifton called his National Burger “ugly.”
The comment about the burger’s lack of physical beauty didn’t go unnoticed by Mr. Zakarian. Today, the renamed “Ugly Burger” is the marquee lunch dish at The National, served with pickled jalapenos and thick bacon. Equally awesome is the garlic/vermouth mussels with handcut fries, housemade ketchup and pomegranate ice tea served with frozen ice tea cubes.
Chef Zakarian has hosted groups ranging from Estee Lauder to Harvard for full buyouts, chef demos, cooking classes and “interactive stuff” upstairs in The Benjamin’s group space. We spoke with Mr. Zakarian to learn a little more about his experience with groups and how he really feels about farm-to-table cooking.
Prevue: What was your initial vision for The National?
Geoffrey Zakarian: I did a lot of work studying the area and it needed a really fun, attractive neighborhood joint that people could just walk into and feel completely welcomed several times a week. There was no deep reasoning about what type of cuisine to do here, it just felt natural. Just a great bistro, you know? The food for me is really the easiest part of the equation because I’ve been doing it so long.
What’s the biggest challenge opening a new hotel restaurant in Manhattan?
What was difficult was getting the feel right when you walk in that door, the customer has to get it within five seconds. And when you walk in The National, I think you feel it and get it within five seconds. So I think that’s why it’s so popular. We’ve had many groups rent out one side; they like the feeling that they can sort of come in and take over the place.
What is your favorite event that you provide for groups?
A lot of people are interested in taking cooking classes with a known chef; that is definitely something requested from corporate groups. I really enjoy when we do a 1-hour ‘Conversation with the Chef.’ It’s me with a microphone, where the group can ask questions. People love to just chat about food, it’s a wonderful way for everyone to share their passion.
We’re available for cooking classes, chef demos, interactive stuff. When I do a full flown demo, it’s about touch, feel, see. Then we all sit down and the groups ask questions and they really get into it. That really seems to be something people like, you know, there’s this mystique everyone has about chefs and what goes on in the kitchen.
What’s the one question you always hear?
People ask me why I’m not fat. My answer is because I don’t want to be fat.
What is your take on farm-to-table cuisine in Manhattan?
I don’t want to become controversial here but I’ve been cooking farm-to-table for 33 years. I’d just like to let everyone know that food still came from farms 30 years ago, and I think that a lot of people have hijacked this term to make their food more interesting and appealing, which doesn’t work for people who do it seriously. I’ve been trained in kitchens my entire life where we’ve shopped with farmers and had 4 o’clock runs to the market and dealt with nothing but farmers.
So you feel the phrase has been abused somewhat?
That term I think is very much misused these days. I’d like to go on record saying that, because I think it’s a natural thing that a chef goes and finds the best product possible and serves it to you as quickly as possible without messing it up too much. I’ve been doing that for 33 years and I don’t include it on my menu because I think it’s a bit offensive.