Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Zach Bell: The love for cooking. I attempted to go to school for physical therapy while I was working in the kitchen at the Marriott in Orlando, but that didn't cut it. It was boring compared to the kitchen.
AB: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with and without a culinary school background?
ZB: Yes and no. People say it’s not necessary, but at the end of the day I think it is really important. And in the corporate world, I think that it’s sort of mandatory. But if you’re going to school and you are not born to be a cook, it isn't going to make you a cook. I think schools need to do a better job outlining expectations and the reality of a culinary career.
AB: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
ZB: Daniel Boulud is a mentor. When Daniel comes down we talk about the menu, but we also really talk about the operation and its challenges. Daniel has taught me to always look for things that are not in their place, to ensure that every aspect of your operation is perfect and that the guest’s experience is wonderful.
AB: In which kitchens have you staged?
ZB: I spent a couple days at The Tasting Room with Colin Alevras. Then in Alsace at Le Cerf in Marlenheim and the Chateau Du Domaine Saint Martin in Vence.
AB: What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen?
ZB: I ask them if they know who Daniel Boulud is, as that is not necessarily obvious down here. I ask when are they are available to try out and do a trail...and some ask what a trail is. I try to feel out whether they are just looking for a job or if they are really going somewhere.
AB: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
ZB: Put your head down and absorb as much as you can. I ask my guys to do the order for their station – it’s an opportunity for them to learn to run their station with someone else’s money, to think about parties coming up and what they need to order. It forces them to be responsible and start to think like they are running a business.
AB: What ingredient that you like do you feel is underappreciated or underutilized? Why?
ZB: The good ol’ white button mushroom. It can have such a great, meaty, roasted flavor. Then you can poach it, and it’s totally different. You can shave the big ones on top of salads or make a nice velvety mushroom soup.
AB: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?
ZB: Preserved Meyer lemons, Zaatar, olives, smoked eggplant, and pompano.
AB: What’s your most indispensable kitchen tool?
ZB: My 3¼-inch Victorinox serrated paring knife. It's an animal with artichokes, and it’s a great shallot knife. When it comes to service there is not a lot of cutting a la minute for 300 covers, so you don't need an array of knives at your station. It is nice to have one knife that can trim things down nicely, that doesn't take up a lot of space. And it's cheap! I've got plenty of fancy knives but I love this one.
AB: What are your favorite cookbooks?
ZB: Le Grand Livre De Cuisine D'Alain Ducasse: Bistro, Brasseries Et Restaurants De Tradition.
AB: Where would you like to go for culinary travel?
ZB: India – to learn more about spices
AB: What are your favorite restaurants off the beaten path in your city? What is your favorite dish there?
ZB: Middle Eastern Bakery – they have better pita than in New York.
AB: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
ZB: We are starting to get some key players coming to Florida. David Bouley, Michael Mina, Morimoto, Gordon Ramsay – the culinary scene is growing up and getting more serious.
AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
ZB: It’s a very carnal profession. Your work is right there, you hit all 5 senses for each diner, and you are immediately judged as soon as a dish is served. How many other professions have that? It's immediate. You can't hide if you are a cook. Every chef should have someone cook their dishes for them to sit down and taste it like their diners do – with all the components together on one plate, at one time.
AB: Which person in history would you most like to cook for? What would you serve? Who would you most like to cook for you?
ZB: I've already cooked for Paul Bocuse, Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud. Now I think maybe I’d like to cook for a writer. I would love to have Jacques Maximum cook for me.
AB: What are some of your favourite food-related charities?
ZB: Share Our Strength – we’re the lead off city this year. And I work with Daily Bread Food Bank for Miami – you call with your extra food and they pick it up and take it to the food bank. I was also a chef chair for March of Dimes.
AB: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
ZB: I would probably be a physical therapist.
AB: What’s next for you? Where will we find you in 5 years?
ZB: Most likely still with Daniel Boulud, in charge of one or more operations.