Industry Insiders: Jason Zukas, East Coast Chopper

Jason Zukas is recognized most often as a winner on Food Network’s TV show Chopped, but the Tom Collicchio look-alike has achieved more than 15 minutes of reality TV fame. A Queens native, Zukas couldn’t afford culinary school, so he taught himself to cook with the help of a Culinary Institute of America instruction book. The education paid off; Zukas has worked at some of the city’s most reputable restaurants, including Ouest, La Bottega and Blue Water Grill. In August, Zukas was named chef at Charles, filling in for Kristine Mana-ay (on maternity leave). We met Zukas at Charles midday for a quick chat about the ups and downs of the restaurant biz.

When did you know you wanted to be a chef? When I was a kid. Just having Sunday dinners with my grandmother, growing up in a house filled with food and family. I’d call my grandmother asking for recipes. Everyone in our family got together because of food. I always knew I wanted to cook. I started pretty young.

You’re self-taught. Do you think there’s an advantage for chefs who went to culinary school? No. I think there’s less of an advantage. They don’t have the passion. Someone who didn’t go to school really works to achieve a goal. Some people just go to school, learn a couple techniques and think they’re chefs. But it’s the total opposite. Being a chef comes from the heart, not from what you learn at school.

You’ve worked at some great restaurants. Where did you enjoy working most? That’s a tough one. All of them had their good points. I really enjoyed working at Ouest. That was a good time, and there were celebrities every night, one after another. Everyone from Bill Clinton to J-Lo, De Niro, Steven Spielberg.

The most exciting person to cook for? It would probably be when Steven Spielberg called up and said that his helicopter was landing, and he came in with Tom Hanks, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Bruce Springsteen. We kept the restaurant open a little later for them.

You were recently asked to fill in for Kristine Mana-ay at Charles. Do you plan on changing the menu? I’ve probably changed 70-80% so far.

What would you describe as “your” food? My food is Mediterranean soul food.

Could you give me an example of the quintessential Jason Zukas dish? That’s tough. That’s really tough. I hate when people ask me questions like that. I love doing slow, braised meats with a little bit of a Mediterranean flair. My lamb shank on the menu really describes me. Slow cooked over Israeli couscous. It’s really, really good.

Any plans to open your own place? Yeah, of course. That’s my dream.

What neighborhood would you choose? I’m loving the West Village right now. It’s a great spot.

Tell me a little about being on Chopped. Great experience. Being on Chopped opened up a lot of doors, even though it was very, very nerve wracking. I didn’t think I was going to win at all, didn’t think I had a shot, going up against the competition I was against. But it worked out and I won.

Would you do it again? Yeah. 100%.

Charles doesn’t have a listed phone number. You can only get a reservation via email. What are your thoughts on the whole mysterious restaurant-as-nightclub vibe? I think it’s great. It gives a little mystery to the restaurant. People don’t know what to expect. It’s all through word of mouth, like an old speakeasy. You’ve got to know somebody to know somebody to get in. Just makes the experience better.

Do you think it puts more pressure on the food? Yeah, definitely. Because people want to see something a little different. They’re going to say, “I waited this long to come here.” They’re going to want something amazing.

What’s the hardest part about being in the restaurant industry? Probably not having any time to yourself. When I get home, I’ve been thinking about food since 5 in the morning. You have no life. Your life is the kitchen and the restaurant. That’s the hardest part.

What are your go-to spots? My favorite bar to go to is 5 Burro Cafe in Forest Heights, Queens. A Mexican restaurant. Really good Mexican food. Good margaritas. Tequila.

If you could eat with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be? Mick Jagger.

What’s your favorite meal of the day? Big dish of rigatoni with meatballs and sausage. That’s my favorite meal ever. From an Italian grandmother.

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