Industry Insiders: Mark Zeitouni, High Standard

It’s November, which means executive chef Mark Zeitouni is back at the Standard Spa, Miami Beach, cooking light yet flavorful foods with an eastern Mediterranean edge for his health-conscious guests. He recently wrapped another successful summer at Sunset Beach on Shelter Island, where the similarly light menu nods to Saint-Tropez, but his focus on seasonal produce and local ingredients ensures plenty of variety for sun-seekers fleeing the big city for some zen-like calm by the ocean. BlackBook caught up with Zeitouni while he was still in New York–on a fishing boat, no less–and got the lowdown on how he grew to love fresh, simple, “un-muddied” flavors.

Where were you born and where were you brought up? 

I was born in Staten Island, New York. We moved down to South Florida when I was in elementary school. I took to everything from horseback riding to fishing to tennis to soccer. For me, it was like moving to heaven. I finished up school there and went to the University of Florida. I started out in the engineering school and finished up in design and art school. In college I worked in a Japanese restaurant and at that point, after cooking for a few years, I decided I really didn’t want to be a starving artist and there really wasn’t much else you could do with an art degree, so I went to cooking school. They were building a new cooking school in South Florida, so the stars seemed to be in alignment.

How did you wind up at The Standard?

After graduating from cooking school and cooking around Miami, I met a chef who took me to San Francisco and I worked there for a while. The produce and everything that they were doing in San Francisco was just mind-boggling at the time. A few people I knew told me that this job was open at The Standard, and they actually came to me and said, “Mark, that job is perfect for you, it’s a health spa. You’re known for light cooking. You cook a lot of vegetables.” I went down there, and everything just kind of clicked. My style and what they were looking for and what the hotel was about was a great match.

Your background in cooking involves a lot of vegetables and lighter takes on dishes. Does that have to do with you being into fitness and wanting something more healthy but also flavorful?

Some of that. I’ve never been a gym rat, but I love cycling and playing around outside. But I think it’s more about listening to your body. I’ve always been into very bright foods that are what I would call un-muddied. I really wasn’t into the French styles of cooking where they would cook stuff down and cook it and cook it and add twenty different things to it and it just would get these muddy flavors. I’m like, let’s keep it as pure as possible. Let’s not cook it if we don’t have to, let’s use very bright flavors, things like lemon juice and vegetables. I would always opt to make a sauce out of a puree of a vegetable rather than a veal sauce or a heavy chicken sauce. When you’re cycling, for example, the last thing you want to do is eat a heavy meal laden with cream and butter and then jump on your bike. After I was hired at The Standard, I was looking back and wondering, “How did I end up as the chef of a health spa?” It really just seemed like a very natural thing to me. So I don’t think it was anything forced, it was just the way I was heading anyway. It just happened to be a great match.

As far as The Standard is concerned, what would you say is one of the signature dishes that you’ve made there that’s really proven popular, and what about it do you think makes people like it so much?

We do a mussel dish there that’s basically mussels cooked on a very hot skillet, and the only thing we really do to them is add a little bit of sea salt and cracked pepper. And we also do a lot of what we call simply grilled food, which is the same thing, with just fish. And I think that’s what we’re really known for. What we do special is what we don’t do to the food. We’re known for very fresh ingredients and for really highlighting the innate flavors. With this mussel dish, for example, it’s probably one of the only mussel preparations you’ll ever see where it’s not being cooked in a liquid. It’s not being cooked in wine or some type of stock or something like that. We also do a ton of vegan items. We are the type of retreat hotel where people come to stay with us for three or four days at a time and usually don’t like to leave the premises much. They’re coming from places like New York or LA, and they really want to come there, take some classes, get some massages, sit by the pool and hang out on the water. We try to have a menu where you can always find something that’s going to fit within your diet or food taste. We also do a raw vegan lasagna, which has become a signature dish at the hotel. It uses a cashew cheese and dehydrated vegetables and nuts. It’s very light food. The flavors are very bright, and there’s nothing confusing about it. Even though it’s a couple of different flavors layered in a lasagna, you can taste each one of them separately.

Yet as light as they are, there’s still some energy there, some protein so people can still work out, go to the beach and stuff?

Yeah, actually, most of those people have much higher caloric intakes. Somebody who’s practicing yoga for an hour and a half a day has a much higher caloric intake. You just have to make sure they’re not empty calories.

How did you wind up at Sunset Beach?

Even though the food at The Standard is healthy, it’s definitely not the type of experience like at Canyon Ranch where you really feel like you’re on this health diet. It’s healthy, but it’s also flavorful. So what really works for it at Sunset Beach is that our restaurant is on the water as well. I think that when you’re eating outside in an environment like that it’s not the same as when you’re sitting in an indoor dining room. At The Standard Miami, a lot of my guests are in robes and bathing suits and flip flops. So over the years, we would hire chefs for Sunset Beach, and André [Balazs] would say, “Hey Mark, can you go up there and help them cook like you know I like it when you’re sitting on the water?” Over time, I became more and more active in the menu and what was going on at Sunset Beach. Andre and I would talk about what we wanted to achieve at Sunset Beach. In Miami, when people get on the plane and fly down there, the last thing they want to be reminded of is the hustle and bustle of New York. So with Sunset Beach, we wanted people to be able to leave the city by car, by bus, by train, and now by our little sea plane, and be able in a very short amount of time to feel like they’ve been transported somewhere much farther away. It’s another outdoor restaurant. You’re going to be doing activities, whether you’re going to a party in the Hamptons later on in the night, or you’re eating lunch there and you’re going to go lay on the beach, and it’s all about how you are going to feel after you eat that food.

What are the differences between the two menus? Are there overlaps between The Standard and Sunset Beach?

Definitely. The menus are about 50% similar. The thing that is different though is that in Miami, where the spa is modeled after a Turkish style bathing spa, we do a lot more eastern Mediterranean foods. We have all sorts of hummus and baba ghanoush, and the cheeses are more towards the side of feta and cheeses like that. At Sunset Beach we want people to be able to close their eyes, assuming there’s not a New Yorker talking loudly next to them, and feel like they’re in Saint-Tropez. So at Sunset Beach, we’re not a health spa, but we definitely want light food. Food that you can sit at a table outside and snack on, that’s wonderful for seaside eating. We’re definitely modeling it after a Southern French coastal restaurant. So we do things like bouillabaisse, or a crudité modeled after Club 55 in Saint-Tropez and rotisserie chicken and things like that. We also serve a whole fish. We have sea bass, fluke on the menu, local scallops, lobster, all from the Long Island area. In Miami we serve snapper, grouper, Florida lobster. I wouldn’t serve a Maine lobster in Miami, but then again I wouldn’t serve a Florida lobster in New York. At both places we always have what we call market fish, which leaves it open for myself and my assistants to order whatever’s fresh and also pair it with whatever produce is available. So in Florida we have corn and tomatoes and local greens. Those are actually all available in the winter and then you have similar items here. We’re getting a ton of zucchini and fiddlehead ferns and all different types of kales and squash up here. And those dishes just give us the ability to basically say, ok here’s a very simply grilled local fish and here’s what the farmers have. Generally, with those we don’t even put a sauce with it, we just put a little olive oil with it and some lemon. But most of the guests I have, and most diners who are used to eating in coastal areas, generally just want a really fresh piece of fish grilled and a little sea salt and lemon. And those are things I think that really define what we do, because even though it is simple there is a lot of ways you can screw it up.

Sounds like you cook the kind of food you like yourself. Is that right?

Yeah. Last night I was at a dinner party in the Hamptons and it was basically a platter of grilled scallops, grilled shrimp, clams, and some cold orzo salad and tomato salad. I was with the general manager of Sunset Beach and some people who eat there quite a bit, and it was funny because after years of working in fine dining in San Francisco, it’s coming back and cooking with my wife’s mother and filling a table like we did last night that has really become the inspiration. It’s taking that type of experience, sitting there with friends eating super fresh seafood, simply grilled, but bringing that to a restaurant setting. That is something that I still look to as motivation and what we try to achieve at those two hotels.

What do you have planned for this fall? Heading back down to The Standard, any new innovations you have planned for the menu?

Yeah, I’m heading back down there. In fall we have stone crabs and Florida lobster. There are a few things that I think fit up here that will work down there as well, like the bouillabaisse. As the temperature in Miami drops slightly, especially by the water, putting a bouillabaisse on the menu is a good idea. And the fall is actually one of my favorite times of the year because I love pumpkin and some of the heartier squash, and then you start getting into some of the fruits that start coming later in the year.

All this healthy food, healthy living, environment, outdoorsy stuff. Don’t you ever eat junk food?

Every once in a while, I’ll eat a bag of Cheetos. But it’s like once a year.

I’m glad you didn’t say Pirates Booty because Cheetos at least give you the satisfaction.

Somebody brought home some Pirates Booty. I don’t even know what that is. Whether it’s Cheetos or something else, it’s still processed, it still has preservatives, it still has sodium in it, it still has all of these things in it, so just because they put it in a different wrapper I don’t really know how much better it is for you. I find that the biggest problem with most Americans’ diets is they don’t eat just vegetables, uncooked vegetables, whether it’s a cut up tomato or a sliced cucumber. And listen, I fight that as well, it’s very easy to go through the whole day just grabbing a piece of bread and eating that, not eating something that’s healthy. It’s a slippery slope.

People are in a hurry and the easiest food is the processed stuff. It is a little more work and sometimes more expensive to eat healthily.

Someone once told me that the hardest thing about being a vegetarian is having to plan. If you’re going to try to be a raw vegan or something like that you’re really going to have to carry around dried fruit with you because you get to the point where you’re so hungry and you didn’t plan and you just end up saying screw it and grabbing a chunk of bread or something like that. I’m not perfect in any way but there are a few easy things you can do. For example, I wish most Americans would stop drinking soda. Corn syrup is horrible. But I try not to tell people what to do.

Hopefully people will start to realize the effects of junk food on their health and how they feel when they eat it.

If you focus on how you feel after you eat something, generally you’ll start eating better. If you go to McDonald’s and you get a Big Mac and fries and a giant soda, and then you question how you feel two hours later, I guarantee you’ll start to change your diet.

You’re probably busy all the time, but when you do have some spare time, what do you do? Do you hang out at the beach?

Actually I’m on a boat right now. I just got done fishing. We’re heading back into the coast. I love fishing and cycling. Those are my two main activities. Occasionally, I’ll go out and play golf but I’m not very good at it so it’s frustrating.

What did you catch today?

Striped bass and bluefish.

The world record great white shark was caught out there off Montauk.

Thank God we didn’t see one of those.

Other than your own restaurants, name a couple of restaurants where you like what the chefs are doing and that you honestly enjoy going to.

I went to one the other day where it’s a guy from San Francisco that I used to work with and it really brought me back to Northern California cuisine. It’s called Almond, and it’s in Bridgehampton. I really enjoyed that. In Miami, I pretty regularly go to Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink. He does a whole roasted fish in his wood oven that’s just to die for.

Still more healthy food. When you want to go out and get a steak is there a steakhouse you like?

I haven’t been to one in ages. Usually I’ll just cook it at home. I can’t actually think of a steakhouse. It’s been a long time.