Steve Iskenderian is the culinary brain behind many of the new menu items at Zankou Chicken. Blessed with a terrific palette, he is in charge of the restaurant chain’s recipes and food quality. Steve studied culinary science at Glendale Community College as at the renowned Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, a city near Napa, California. Steve is also an avid martial artist, a skill that he believes is immensely valuable in running a restaurant. In this illuminating interview, he talks about everything from cooking to fighting—fighting to be the best in business, that is.
What are the most important ingredients in making food taste great?
For food to taste its best you have to have your recipe right. You have to have a good recipe—something that’s palatable to the masses, the majority. Then you have to execute the recipe—you have to have the right group of people who care about what they’re doing and pay attention to detail. So it’s not just the recipe about a dish but the recipe as it applies to the restaurant.
In order to come up with the best recipe you have to spend a lot of time researching. These days we have a lot of online resources for doing that. But any recipe you find is almost never perfect. It can be a recipe from a top chef and you can make a dish exactly according to that recipe, but it may not come out good. That’s because there are always subtle things that are part of the recipe but are not mentioned in the written recipe.
The most important ingredient I think, overall, for making the best-tasting food is wanting to be the best. You have to want to be the best. Most people who come up with the best food are after recognition of that—that they are the best. They’re not after the money. What’s most important to them is recognition from their peers and from the rest of the world that they’re really good at what they do. Any professional always wants to get that recognition from peers. And the best way to do that if you’re a chef is to have a successful restaurant.
What are the essential team qualities of a kitchen staff?
First, you need experience. You need people who have worked in the business before. That’s definitely the biggest quality. Also important is the desire to excel. Some people just want their hourly pay and want to be gone, but then you have others who want to impress the boss, who want recognition. You want to have employees who feel like they have to prove themselves to you with their work ethic. That’s always good.
Team qualities can be developed by rewarding employees who try hard. You don’t start with the team qualities. You start with the personal qualities that people have, like the desire to work hard. For the most part, the Hispanic population has a really good work ethic. They work hard. Because they came here from nothing and they’re always afraid of going back to that. They’re the ones who also really appreciate the nine or ten dollars an hour pay, which the average American doesn’t.
If you start with an employee who has a lot to offer, he can go one way or he can go the other way. He can end up being the worst employee if you mistreat him—you don’t pay him what he’s worth, don’t give him opportunity. I’ve seen that happen. Or, he can turn into a really good employee because he had the personal characteristics when he started out—the work ethic, the loyalty and honesty—and you (the owner or manager) nurtured those qualities. A really good employee will not last if he doesn’t have the support from the top.
Our dad used to say that the smoky flavor is really important in a kebab. Is there a secret ingredient in making kebab taste good?
There are three things that are the most important for good kebab. Number one is the quality of the meat. Number two is the way the meat is treated and marinated—certain meats have to be cut against the grain, for example. Number three, the way you cook the meat. You could have the finest beef in the world—$100 an ounce, let’s say, or beef from Kobe, where the cow has been massaged its entire life—but if you overcook it, it’s going to taste the same as the beef you buy from Vons or anywhere else. If you don’t cook beef right, it’s over. Chicken is different. It has more moisture and is less likely to overcook. You can still overcook and dry out chicken, but you have a little bit more room for error.
With beef, your margin for error is in the seconds—between overcooking the meat and getting it just right. Thirty seconds or a minute could make or break beef. That’s because when you take beef off the grill, it actually continues to cook, and that has to be taken into consideration. And you can never do this by the watch because the temperature of the fire is different at different times, depending on how long you’ve had it on. If you’ve had a fire on for a while it’s going to be hotter. Besides, the cast-iron in a barbecue is another heating element. There are some new, flattop grills that come with thermometers. But they’re not respected by chefs who know their stuff—who know how hot the grill is from the moment they put a piece of meat on the grill by the sound of the fire or how fast the meat starts to cook. They may be bought by some fast food chains who want to remove the margin for error by their employees. No one with any real restaurant experience will purchase these types of gimmicks.
Is cooking food an art or a science—or a mix of both?
Food is both an art and a science. When you talk about baking, it’s more of a science. Anytime you bake, it’s lot more of a science. When you cook, you’re making something that comes from the heart. The science part of it is what you learn—the recipe, the experience and all that. You heat a dish, you wait till it gets hot, you flip it around once, you check the temperature. The art part of it is what you do that distinguishes your dish from all the other dishes. The right question to ask is, “Can your dish be better?”
Who’s your favorite chef and why?
My favorite chef is the chef who taught me, whose classes I took. He’s not the best chef in the world. His name is Andrew Feldman and he’s in charge of the culinary department at Glendale College. He’s the best because his classes were fun. My favorite restaurants to go to are the ones that only the locals know about. Because there you don’t have the expensive tickets, the long waits, and you’re most likely to go back. If you go to a fine dining restaurant run by a celebrity chef you’ll probably go there once. But look at Zankou Chicken. You could eat there almost every day. The price is right, the food is quick. I’m more interested in the bang-for-your-buck type of places. One of my favorite celebrity chefs is Morimoto, a Japanese chef, an Iron Chef. He has a restaurant in Napa that’s really cool. Mario Batali is really good chef. He has restaurants in New York, Vegas, everywhere. I like his character. I always used to watch his shows. And I loved the ‘Frugal Gourmet’ show too, by the late Jeff Smith. I used to watch it when I was a kid.
Martin Yan is another one. He’s Chinese and one of the first celebrity chefs, sort of like a pioneer. He had his own TV show. His cookbook—‘How to Make Chinese Food Easy’—was the first cookbook that I bought. To this day, it’s the best cookbook I’ve ever had in my life because the recipes in it are so easy. You can easily make really good Chinese food. Chinese food is one of my favorite things to cook. It’s healthy and it’s fast.
The key with Chinese food is to get the heat really high, right?
Yes, you need a special wok in which the metal is very thin. And there’s an art to cooking the food. The hard part is to cook the meat and the vegetables simultaneously so that they’re both done right. What Panda Express does is boil their vegetables. When the meat is ready, they toss the vegetables in and they’re done.
You took a lot of cooking classes; wine-making classes, bread-making classes. Do you recommend that restaurant owners take such classes? How much of cooking is learned and how much is raw talent?
A restaurant owner who’s successful is likely a chef—or there’s a chef somewhere behind the success—who’s already taken classes and doesn’t want to take any more of them. Or, you have a restaurant owner who’s failing and doesn’t have time to breathe and therefore doesn’t have time to take classes. But do I recommend taking classes? Yes, absolutely. If a restaurant owner doesn’t have a formal education already, then they should get one. You learn a lot. I took a course at CIA—the Culinary Institute of America—in Napa. I also took a bread-making course.
How was the bread-making course?
Kicked my ass, that bread-making course! It was a five-day course on artisan bread. I don’t even like baking. Why I took the course I don’t know, but to be honest, it helped me a lot. I know how to spot good bread now when I shop. Every bread-baking company that’s an artisan bread-baking company—meaning they bake sourdough bread and things like that, they usually have a mother starter—a mixture of flour, water and yeast that’s fermented for years, decades. The one they had at CIA was over 50 years old. They’d take a little piece of it and throw it into a batch of bread about to be baked.
They also do the same thing with cheese. The first time I saw one was at the restaurant at the Ahwanee Hotel in Yosemite. The cheese starter there was about 100 years old. Whenever there was a fire or an emergency in the kitchen, the first thing that the staff rescued and spirited away was the starter.
There was a bread company there once that got burned down, and the only thing the owner wanted to save was the mother starter.
You recently changed our falafel recipe. Tell us the story about what happened and why the falafel tastes so much better now.
In 2009 I took a trip to Beirut, Lebanon. There’s a famous falafel place there called Falafel Arax. It’s a little place in a neighborhood that hasn’t changed much in the past 50 or 60 years. And this restaurant’s been there for about 50 years. The restaurant is no bigger than, say, the combined size of three booths in a typical American diner. All they make is falafel. I tasted their falafel and loved it. I came back inspired. I didn’t know falafel could be that good. So I started trying to make better falafel back then. It took a long time. I changed our fryers. We used to fry the falafel in woks. And the reason our father chose the wok was because it heats up fast, and every time you add oil to cook the falafel you have to heat up the oil. So I wanted something that kept the wok hot. And I noticed in Lebanon that the fryers were shallow and wide. I came back and looked for the same kind of fryers and found them. What we use now is a funnel cake fryer, which has a flat bottom that enables the heat to be distributed more evenly.
I still don’t know how they do it. The funny thing is, I made it once and got it exactly how they did it. But I couldn’t do it again. So our falafel is different. What makes it better is the ingredients we use. We make falafel fresh every day in every single restaurant and it’s fried to order—it doesn’t just sit there. Earlier, it used to sit there for 30 minutes or an hour. That’s the biggest difference. The falafel we used to have were in the fridge for days. That’s why they were so salty. The reason they had so much salt was because they had to be preserved for days. The other difference is that before we used to blend the ingredients in a huge food processor, which used to create a mush. Sometimes there would still be a big piece of something that hadn’t been processed. Now, we grind the ingredients in a meat grinder. So every single piece is cut the same way and the consistency is always the same. And the falafel is crunchier because the texture of material is a little bit coarser. Also, I changed the spices and made them more balanced. There are about a dozen different spices in the falafel. Things people have not even heard of. We also add fresh ginger, parsley and cilantro.
What’s your philosophy of food and restaurants in general?
My basic philosophy of the business is that restaurants are something that are tied to immigrants. When they come to America, the first question they need to answer is, What can we do to make money? And almost every household knows how to make a good dish. So they open a restaurant. A lot of times they fail because they don’t have restaurant experience or the support. They’re missing a lot of ingredients necessary for being successful—and that’s why restaurants have a high failure rate. But it’s funny—the first business immigrants traditionally think about when they come here, to this day, is the restaurant business.
My philosophy from the point of view of food as a business is that it’s very interesting right now because our food tastes are changing. The Food Network has changed the food business. People are more food savvy. In the years to come we’re going to see the fast food chains either going out of business or evolving.
Yes, MacDonald’s is closing 700 stores and Quiznos is going out of business.
That’s right. Because these fast food chains developed when the supply did not meet the demand. There were so many people in this country and there weren’t enough restaurants. Everyone cooked at home. When the fast food chains went public and began to grow, they sacrificed the integrity of the food. Now, businesses that put the integrity of food first are killing these fast food places. People would rather pay a little more and eat good food. Another thing that hurt fast food chains is the calorie count that they had to post on their menus. As of a few years ago they didn’t have to do that. Now, if you have more than 20 restaurants, you have to post the calorie count for your menu items. Who wants to eat a 900-calorie burger?
People also know a lot more about food because of the Internet.
Exactly. There’s that also.
What’s your favorite quote?
It’s by Babe Ruth.
“The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.” Babe Ruth
You’re a big practitioner of mixed martial arts. What are the similarities between business and mixed martial arts?
I’m glad you asked me that because I think about this all the time. In business, every day is like a fight. And how you perform in the fight has to do with how well you’re trained. As a fighter or a businessman you always have to practice, always have to learn new things, new techniques. There are so many ways to become a better fighter. You have to think outside the box. In that way, the restaurant business is very similar. To be good in the restaurant business you always have to adapt to the changing times. The UFC champions of five years ago would get murdered by the new fighters right now. Part of the reason for that is that there are more people getting started earlier in mixed martial arts. They’re more athletic. It’s a harder game now. And the restaurant business is becoming a harder game as well. If you’re not learning, adapting and getting better, you’re finished. Thank God, we’ve been learning and adapting a lot. I don’t think there’s a restaurant business out there that’s changed as much as we have so fast.
So, every day is a fight, and you’ve got to train. I was working on rice yesterday for three hours straight to make our rice better. I made batch after batch, tasted the rice, and then did it all over again. After you’ve done something like that you feel like a fighter. You say to yourself, “Wow, this is tough.” You need a lot of patience and resolve to be good.
So is the fight not so much against your competitors but against yourself? You’re trying to master yourself.
Any good restaurant is always in competition, whether there’s competition out there or not. There’s always someone ready to come and take your head off. If there isn’t a contender now, they’re on their way. You always have to assume that. You always have to be ready. Just like a fighter, you have to be ready, always training to be the best. The vision I have for Zankou Chicken is to have the best food, to be competition proof. If you expand too much, go too far, sacrifice the quality of food, you’re going to get taken out by the competition sooner or later.
Better to be lean and mean.
Exactly. Better to be lean and mean. Protect what’s yours and be untouchable.
What are your top Do’s and Don’ts for success in the restaurant business?
Number one, don’t open a restaurant because you think you’re a good cook or you have a good dish—the best lasagna. Go and get an education first. Take a few culinary courses at your local community college. There’s no difference really between the courses offered on the community level and those offered by the finest culinary schools. That’s because when you’re starting out you have so much to learn that it’s going to take you a while to get to the point where you’d want to go further in your education. You’re going to learn a lot at your community college.
Number Two: Have partners, so you split the liability and responsibility. That way, you have more help. It’s so hard when you’re on your own. Pick the right partners, obviously.
Number Three: Don’t pay high rent, especially if it’s your first time in the restaurant business. Don’t spend too much money. Find a place that’s already ready to go and doesn’t take a lot of money to start.
But people say that location is everything.
Not when you’re starting out.
What’s a typical day at work like for you?
To be honest there’s no typical day at work for me. Every day is different. I like going into our office to see what’s going on and I like stopping in at our restaurants to see what’s going on there as well. There’s no substitute for spending time at your restaurants. And I’m always working on new recipes—new ways to make things better. I enjoy doing that, and that’s part of the recognition I want. Every chef wants recognition. Every chef. I want people to say, Steve did a good job. That’s all I want. And of course, the thing that drives me is my family. I want to provide for my family and make them happy. I want us to have the good things. I want us to win.
What’s the difference between someone who has a refined palette—someone who makes great food on weekends—and someone such as you who makes food on a professional level?
You used a very interesting term—refined palette. To have a good palette you don’t have to be a professional chef. You just have to have been cooking a long time. I have a good palette, but there are other people, like my mother, whose palette is a lot better than mine. She’s been cooking and tasting food her whole life. When she says something I listen. On average, women have better palettes than men because women have been cooking longer than men have over the millennia. But there are also people with strong palettes are used by companies to taste their products. There are actually scientific levels of palettes.
Can a good palette be turned into a refined palette—or are there limits?
The palette refines with time. It gets better as you go, the more you practice it. Just like a fighter—the more you train the better you become.
Is it advantageous in the restaurant business to work with food scientists?
No. They can’t help. Food scientists are not used in the majority of restaurants. The only time scientists are used when you send wholesale food to labs to get nutrition facts. If you’re in the food manufacturing business—for example you make hummus to sell at grocery stores—you have to have nutrition facts about your products.
How would you define passion from the point of view of food?
For me, passion comes, first of all, from being humble. You have to be humble to have passion. Everyone who’s great at what they do have a certain modesty to them. For passion to continue, you also have to have a sense of curiosity in making something better. You always want to be better. And that’s where I think modesty comes in. You don’t want to think you’re so good already that you don’t want to become better.
I also feel like passion is either inherited in a certain way or developed over time. People are born with a passion for certain things. I know I had a passion for food since I was a kid. I had a curiosity for food and cooking and I enjoyed it. It was also nurtured in me because my family is in the restaurant business. So, you also have to have the right environment for passion to develop.
What’s the best part of your job?
The peace of mind that comes from knowing that I’m doing my best for my future and making my family happy.
What’s the worst part of your job?
Because we’re a family business, sometimes the business gets in the way of the family. We’re business partners and family at the same time. Sometimes we disagree, feelings get hurt, and you don’t want to hurt your brother’s feelings or your mother’s feelings. But on balance, when we disagree, the end result is better because we’ve argued about everything. We’ve covered all the ground there is to cover. Sometimes there’s no escape. You go home and you talk about it. It’s late at night but you talk about it.
Learning how to compromise and not always get your away is another element. To go back to the rice example, I’ve put a lot of time and effort into trying to come up with a better rice recipe for our restaurants. I was thinking recently that my next step is to make a presentation—to make my case for why we need to change our rice recipe. But I thought to myself that the next part of this project is not to convince my family to change the recipe. Rather, it’s to put the information out there and walk away. Never try to convince people. The truth is convincing enough.