|Eric Ziebold – A Day with A Winning Washington Chef
By Carol Joynt
It’s not unusual in Washington to meet people who’ve come here from somewhere else. Usually, they gave up the sticks for a chance at power, or at least access to power, on the Hill or in the White House. So, when a man, especially a chef, gives up Napa and bypasses New York for a chance at culinary fame in the capital, that’s news. In this case, it’s 36-year-old Eric Ziebold, the chef at CityZen Restaurant.
Remember his name because if you are a lover of food and style and quality, you will want to give him a few hours of your evening the next time you visit Washington.
|There are two ways to enter CityZen - from the outdoors and the interior of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Both entrances give the message it is a restaurant that values style.|
|The word of his talent is spreading. He just won the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic. That’s no surprise to the so-called “foodies” of this city. For them, CityZen is a mecca since it opened in 2004. While famous faces do show up regularly – Robert DeNiro, Matt Damon and the Obamas, for example – the power of the place is what comes out of the kitchen. It is a clubhouse for the city’s well-heeled connoisseurs. Some come once a month. Some more often.
Zielbold’s accolades would be no surprise to superstar chef Thomas Keller, either. For eight years, Ziebold was Keller’s Chef de Cuisine at The French Laundry in Napa. When Keller opened Perse in New York, Keller wanted him there, too. Ziebold briefly tried out Perse but wanted Washington.
|At 9 o'clock in the evening the dining room is full, with more guests expected.|
|He’d worked here before, when he finished at the Culinary Institute of America, and after the California years he yearned to return and stake his claim. The Mandarin Oriental Hotel offered him the opportunity and he took it. The room they did up for him is one of Washington’s most dramatic and contemporary, and it complements the exquisite food.
Ziebold grew up in Ames, Iowa. His first restaurant job was as a dishwasher at Aunt Maude’s. He was 16. Fortunately, the owner was a classically trained CIA graduate and an ideal mentor, and even though Ames was not a culinary hub, at Maude’s Ziebold was tutored in French standards like Duck a l’Orange and Coq au Vin and learned how to make a proper béarnaise and hollandaise.
|The Parker House rolls.|
|He arrived at CIA still a virgin in some of the luxuries of haute cuisine – “I had no idea what truffles were” – but he left well versed and on a fast track. Like his former boss Keller, Ziebold applies the best influences of the world to his own very American style. His food is delicate, complex without being complicated, and dense with flavor.
This past Saturday he invited me and my camera into his kitchen for the full day. We were with him and his crew from just after noon till almost closing, an adventure for the camera and the palate. If you come, and you should, you will likely find him there. So far, he’s bucked the trend of opening an outpost across town or the planet. Oh, and worth noting, the Keller connection remains strong. In fact his girlfriend, Celia Laurent, is Perse’s Director of Special Events.
|Clockwise from above: Eric slices away the kernels and places the cobs in their own pot; The cobs are used for cooking up a base of corn "milk"; Corn "milk" on the stove.|
|Eric Ziebold arrives at Cityzen around noon. The restaurant's opening is many hours away. He won't leave until approximately 11 p.m., after dinner service. He starts his day with a breakfast he makes for himself and then begins his own prep work. A few of his staff are with him in the kitchen: Sous Chef Rachael Harriman, Pastry Chef Amanda Cook and her assistant, Johan Ramirez, and 16-year-old apprentice, Willy Aghajanian. On the day NYSD spent with Eric, his first project is Toigo Farm Sweet Corn Soup, which he'll serve with Roasted Chanterelle Mushrooms. Being Iowa born and raised, Eric knows his corn. He makes the soup only on the days when the corn is right.|
|Clockwise from above: Teenage chef's apprentice, Willy Ahgajanian, spends a lot of time peeling and slicing. He makes work on a lemon an art form. His mother drives him into town from their suburban home and picks him up again at the end of his workday; Sous chef Rachael Harriman begins her day early like Eric. Sauces and stocks come first. Here she works with fresh lobster.|
|Pastry Chef Amanda Cook with fruits simmering on the stove.||Asst Pastry Chef Johan Ramirez pours and whisks while nearby he also has two blenders whirling.|
|In the basement, Mike Matis and Joe Baker create CityZen's signature Parker House Rolls, making sure each weighs precisely 12 grams. They bake in the oven during dinner service, are gently tucked into a wooden box, and arrive at the table warm and golden, a puff of irresistible butter-rich dough.||Also in the basement in the early part of the day, line cook Michael Malyniwsky preps what will be staff dinner; in honor of the season, freshly ground hamburgers with all the fixins'. Eric Ziebold says he likes staff dinner to be inspiring.|
|The early stage of a later dessert sensation.|
|At 3 o'clock the tempo at CityZen picks up considerably. Managers, captains and wait staff arrive to set up the dining room and the bar. In every corner of the restaurant there is activity, with a hum of ease and purpose. It's like the coming together of the cast of a show, a show they put on five nights a week. Everyone knows their marks. The number of staff in the kitchen has doubled.
By opening Eric will have 14 people with him in the open kitchen, plus another 15 on the floor. Eric continues to work on the corn soup, reducing, blending, putting it through the sieve, blending it again, repeating this process over and over to create rich flavor and perfect texture.
|Clockwise from top left: Eric Ziebold gets his hands into the soup; These components will be blended and strained into a perfection of fresh corn flavor and silken texture; Blending ...; and straining, to be repeated again and again, and again.|
|Midday at CityZen ...|
|Clockwise from top left: Sharon Johnson at the bar; Brian Millstein updates the wine list; As the clock ticks closer to 5 o'clock, details get full attention (3).|
|The latter part of midday ...|
|CityZen sommelier Andy Myers attends to his wall of wine; A prized 2000 Echezeaux, just one of the 2,000 bottles of wine at CityZen.|
|Carlton McCoy, the captain who specializes in the cheese cart, prepares the Sprinz, what he considers the king of hard cheeses.|
|Captains Juliana Santos and Carlton McCoy prepare to taste the wine specials with Sommelier Andy Myers.|
|Midday almost done ...|
|Amanda Cook focuses on the macaroons.||The many components of an evening's menu created by Eric Ziebold ...|
|By 5 o'clock most of the details at CityZen are in place in the dining room. There is a relaxed cappuccino break. In the kitchen, the pace quickens. Every station is a scene of intense activity. Eric finishes the corn soup and takes a moment to relax and have, yes, a hamburger, the staff meal. It is the calm before showtime. At 5:15 the captains and managers meet with the dining room staff to go over the night's rundown.
They expect 97 covers. Each guest is discussed, and those who are regulars are discussed in terms of their preferences. For example, do they prefer sparkling or still water? Who will be treated to a complimentary glass of champagne or other drink of their choice. Which tables have made special requests. Who's having a birthday or anniversary. Andy Myers, the sommelier, goes over the wine special. Sous chef Rachael Harriman outlines the night's tasting menu.
|The dining room staff enjoy a brief cappuccino break before their 5:15 meeting.||Andy Myers briefs on the wine special, a Spanish Txakoli rose.|
|Time for the meeting. The first dinner guests will arrive shortly.||CityZen G.M. Mark Politzer, now in jacket and tie, goes over particulars of the evening's service.|
|Eric pauses for a hamburger before the restaurant opens.|
|Line cook Kerwin Tugas makes sure he has everything he needs for when the rush begins.||Eric Ziebold gives instruction to Jonathan Collins, a summer intern from the Johnson and Wales Culinary School.|
|CityZen - ready for the night's show.|
|It's 9 o'clock in the evening and the kitchen has been putting up food since 5:30. It is calm. Every one is busy, there's lots of movement, but no chaos. Eric Ziebold moves from station to station. One minute he's beside Sous Chef Rachael Harriman, the next he's with Pastry Chef Amanda Cook, and a moment later he's visiting with some customers in the dining room. The movement of food from prep and saute pans to plate is constant. Periodically, Mark Politzer visits Rachael to check on things, or is it just to say hello because they are an item? In the dining room, the customers are contentedly enjoying their meals and each other.
They have no sense of the long day that has proceeded the Clam Sashimi, the Butter Poached Maine Lobster, the Pan Roasted Loin of Kanagy Farms Shoat, a type of pig and Eric's current menu favorite. They don't know the corn soup poured from a pitcher into a bowl in front of them is virtually as fresh as fresh picked corn and was strained more than a half dozen times. Because the tables are packed, some people eat at the bar, and are having a good time. The staff are happy. It's Saturday night. Sunday they'll have a baseball game, and Monday off, and their summer holiday is only a couple weeks away. Then it will be September, fall, time for a new menu, new excitement, but the same dedicated routine.
|Finally, the food ...|
|Clockwise from top left: Japanese Yellowtail Tataki in Asparagus Ravigote; Cuttlefish Ratatouille with Flageolet Stuffed Squash Blossoms; Extra Virgin Olive Oil Poached Australian Barramundi with Heirloom Tomatoes, Rock Shrimp Tempura and Preserved Lemon; Fricasse of Marcho Farms Veal Sweetbreads and Maine Lobster with a Ricotta Cheese Beggar's Purse.|
|Clockwise from top left: A mushroom fritter. Tiny, yes, but, true to the cliche, bursting with flavor; Shaved Sashimi of Geoduck Clam with Marinated English Cucumber, Pearl Onion and Pickled Shitake Mushroom Salad; The Toiga Farm Sweet Corn Soup with Roasted Chanterelle Mushrooms; Peach Sorbet with Pineapple Gratinee.|
|The tiny macaroons.|
|Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol Joynt is the host of The Q&A Cafe, a talk show at Nathans Restaurant in Washington, D.C.|