On the Line: Zachary Geerson of Citizen Kitchen/Journeyman

Chef Zach is not afraid to forge his own path. His thought process and execution is a sharp contrast to most cuisines found in Orange County. And when Journeyman opens in the not-so-distant future, you’ll understand exactly what I’m referring to. In the meantime, we learn a little about his preferred flavor profiles. Oh, and it’s fine to say “balls”, chef. We won’t censor you.

Name in indispensable tool in the kitchen that isn’t a knife.
A good attitude. It’s cliche, but I don’t care. It’s cliche for a reason, and I don’t give two craps how good a cook you are if your attitude sucks balls (Can I say balls?). If you have the desire to learn and cook great food, the only way to go is up.

Are there any signature dishes at Citizen Kitchen?
Our Leafy Greens Salad with smoked onion vinaigrette and seeded honey or our Truffle’d Fries that are actually roasted, smashed, then fried fingerling potatoes! Our Kimchi Burger or our house made sausage are also really good. It’s hard because we can put whatever we want on the menu.

How would you describe the difference between both concepts to someone that is unfamiliar?
Citizen Kitchen is our lounge style small plates and cocktail-focused restaurant and Journeyman is going to be our pre-fixe, fine dining style restaurant focusing on great flavors and a sense of discovery and exploration into new flavor profiles and dish concepts, focusing on wine and non-alcoholic pairings (juice and house-made sodas).

What was the turning point when you decided that you wanted a career in hospitality?
I was 19 and washing dishes at a local restaurant, and the chef there showed me how cooking can be artistic (I have an artistic background). I used food to be creative, and then learned my fundamental techniques and loved that there was always something to learn and get better. And at the time, chicks dug chefs (smiles).

How would you describe your cooking style, and could you break down a dish that is an example of your style?
We try to look at cooking and creating dishes from many viewpoints, and sometimes they get inspired by art or a movie or by nature and definitely by other chefs. It’s hard to say what my exact style is. I cook whatever I think is delicious and hope my guests agree. Sometimes we try to use our food to bring up current events. I guess the idea is called Progressive American?

A dish that I love right now is Winter Squash with Sunchoke, Mustard and Watercress. We designed the plate to be a smiley face panna cotta out of butternut squash with confit, pickled, salted and smoked winter squashes as a garnish, pumpkin seeds and imported virgin pumpkin seed oil. The way the dish looks is very playful and breaks down the guard of what people think about our fine dining style. The face design is inspired by Jordi Roca’s Citrus and Coffee dessert (Michelin-starred Cellar de Can Roca, Spain).

Most important qualities you look for in a sous chef.
A good sous chef has to be technically proficient, organized, dedicated and just the right balance of crazy with a huge heart.

You’re making breakfast; what are you having?
Scrambled eggs, toasted ciabatta bread made by my wife with cheese, and coffee. Lots of coffee!

Favorite place to eat:
Taco Maria.

What did you learn from work experience that you wish was taught in culinary school, if anything?
I feel typically the lessons you learn from life experience aren’t things that can be taught in a school. I had the opportunity to go to the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, and I feel very fortunate to have learned so much. I guess that I wish there was a way to set up better expectations for culinary students that think that as soon as they graduate that they become a sous chef or chef. Don’t rush to get there, and enjoy the time that you get to make mistakes and learn and grow before you make that step.

Tell me about a recent food find.
We just recreated a favorite flavor of ours that you find in bonito flakes (typically used for dashi) by salting cod, smoking it, then drying it out over the course of a couple of days! It adds a great briny, salty note with a hint of smoke that is great on one of our opening dishes of cauliflower with white chocolate, poached egg, turnip and burnt butter.

Where did you grow up, and where’s home these days?
Born and raised in Fort Myers, Florida. Currently I live in Fullerton. I ended up in California on a whim, figuring that if things didn’t work out in OC that I would be fine living out of my car and washing dishes for Thomas Keller at the French Laundry (laughs).

Tell me something most people don’t know about you.
I used to be an avid breakdancer, and at one point in my life performed with a hip-hop team in front of 50,000 people in the Indianapolis Colts stadium.

Your favorite childhood memory:
I have so many great memories, but there are the times my family would get together on Sunday afternoons and eat together. And then we’d have dessert and play card games or board games and literally stay up until 12 or 1 in the morning spending time with each other.

Last thing you looked up online.
World Food Conventions.

What is your guilty pleasure food?
I love ice cream. Especially mint chocolate chip!

Hardest life lesson you’ve learned:
I used to be told that if you do what you love that you never work a day in your life. I used that as a crutch to do just the bare minimum, and whenever it got hard I would find something new to love. Now, I cook and love it, but I work my ass off to make sure that I get better every day and actually run a successful business (Restaurants have to make money.). I love it, but I work hard to make sure nobody f’s it up. And that in itself is hard, and any chef can verify sometimes we do what we love at the expense of those who love us. That to me is a hard lesson to learn and accept and fight for better work environments for my teams.

What profession would you like to try if you weren’t in this business?
Life coaching.

Citizen Kitchen and the upcoming Journeyman are located at Hotel Fullerton, 1500 S Raymond Ave, (714) 635-9037; www.ckfullerton.com.

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