By Taryn Sauer
“IT ONLY TAKES 30 SECONDS OF CRAZY THOUGHTS TO CHANGE YOUR LIFE,” Chef Zach
J. Geerson says with raised brows, a decided smile across his face.
It’s a quote from a movie that’s stuck with him—one of the many quotes he’s used to frame his life so far.
We’re seated at The Hotel Fullerton’s Citizen Kitchen and he’s been talking about continuously drawing inspiration from everything around him; constantly absorbing the many culinary books he’s collected throughout the years.
Gesturing to the adjacent wall, he says the array of changing colors could be used for plating sauces. He wonders how he could reflect that smooth wash of pigments across a dish.
Or better yet, use a TV screen with a scene of the ocean as a plate and top it with a perfectly seared fish. (Just one of the many, wild thoughts swimming inside Chef Zach’s head).
“Think about how much that would increase the experience!” he says, as his gasoline-colored tweezers shine against his chef’s whites, the rainbow lighting just as colorful as his ideas.
A PEEK INTO CHEF ZACH’S BACKGROUND
Chef Zach is the type who flourishes on creative release. The Hotel Fullerton has placed no
handcuffs across his wrists; Chef Zach is able to utilize the kitchen to amplify his cuisine his way.
“I love it here because there’s a lot of freedom,” he says.
Since joining the team in November 2015, Chef Zach has been able to host a private dinner
for The Culinary Institute of America’s family tour; redesign and rename Hotel Fullerton’s previous restaurant, “Griswold” to “Citizen Kitchen;” and conceptualize a second, in-house
restaurant, “Journeyman’s” (opening by Summer 2017); all the while occupying the position of Executive Chef and Food and Beverage Director of the entire hotel.
This flurry of changes is nothing new for Chef Zach, who whirl-winded into Orange County
shortly after graduating from the C.I.A. Originally from Fort Myers, FL, Chef Zach got
his start as a dishwasher at Cru and quickly ascended to sous chef after proving his limited knife skills—he used to carve sticks with his dad— during the restaurant’s reopening.
It was here that he learned how to hold a chef’s knife and slice instead of, simply, cut. It was here that he met Chef Harold Balink, who would influence his entire career and still serves as his mentor.
But a career as a chef was never Chef Zach’s original intention. In fact, culinary school wasn’t either, but the process of creating masterful dishes overtook his senses and he let that guide him.
His passion accelerated him through 18 months at the C.I.A, after which he served as MIT to Chef Scappin, whom he also worked under at Cucina in Woodstock, NY.
“This is where I got my line chops; this is where I burned myself and cut myself,” he reflects.
He reveals a thick scar at the bottom of his palm, a reminder of a night where he hustled, solo, during a dinner rush. After cutting his hand, he threw a bit of dirt and cayenne pepper into the gash, wrapped it with a towel and duct tape and kept going.
“The pain was not as bad as the idea of failing,” he says.
That same thought process is also evident in another aspect of Chef Zach’s dedication to his craft.
“I always did one thing that made me feel uncomfortable, that was a good way to grow,” he says.
It’s that mentality that got him all the way across the country against the worries of his family. He told them the worst that could happen would be that he would have to live out of his car and then go beg Thomas Keller for a job.
“I’ll just go ask for a job at one of the world’s best restaurants. No biggie,” Chef Zach says, chuckling.
Needless to say, that was never necessary. He worked with Chef Jorge at Tempo Urban Kitchen in Brea for a year, occupying positions in both the front and back of the house.
While he was able to check an achievement off his list during his stay at Tempo (he wanted to be a pastry chef at some point in his life), he said he never really felt like it was his restaurant.
So when the chance to set up shop at The Hotel Fullerton came across his plate, he took it—but not until he knew he’d have free reign to evolve the kitchen.
CONTEMPORARY: AS OF NOW
Now at Citizen Kitchen, with Journeyman’s in the works, Chef Zach has checked off his list in full: he wanted to be an executive chef, do pastry, work at a hotel, work in a small restaurant and then eventually open up his own restaurant and do banquets and catering. Check, check and check.
When asked what’s next for him, he said the new list consists of all the same things, he just wants to do everything even better. And while he acknowledges technique over
creativity, he’s still in the game to break some rules.
“There are things that you are technically not supposed to do, that we’re going to do,” Chef
Zach says. “Because if we don’t and somebody else does it, then I’m going to be pissed.”
And although, Journeyman’s is “shrouded in mystery,” it’s promised to be a time-stopping
experience and reflective of his contemporary global cuisine. Surely, there are many more concepts to come. Chef Zach’s passion, scribbled on the pages of his wood-grained notebook, spills onto every plate, elevating the palate to explore new flavor combinations.
Chef Zach lives in La Habra, CA with his fiancé and fellow Pastry Chef, Liv Prach, who
accentuates his spirit and balances out his tempestuous mind. At the end of his career, he
hopes to open up a 12-seat restaurant and serve hand-made pasta to friends, family and locals who just want to come and hang out.
FROM THE CHEF’S MOUTH
KITCHEN GADGET OR TOOL Pasta roller
SPICE/CONDIMENT Szechwan Peppercorn/Aioli
OC RESTAURANT McCallans Public House in Brea
DISH TO EAT Fresh Pasta
JUNK FOOD Swedish Fish
RAW INGREDIENT Fresh Herbs or citrus fruits
FAST FOOD Carl’s Junior El Diablo Burger
FOOD TV PROGRAM Chef’s Table on Netflix
HOURS YOU WORK IN A WEEK 75-90
WHAT FIRST INTERESTED YOU IN THE HOSPITALITY INDUSTRY? The challenge and girls
CULINARY EDUCATION 2 1/2 years at the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, NY
BIGGEST MYTH ABOUT WORKING IN THE KITCHEN Anyone can do it.
HOW MANY UNITS DO YOU OVERSEE? 3 Banquet Halls and 2 Dining Rooms
SIGNATURE OR FAVORITE DISH TO MAKE I love working with pasta, but every dish I make is my favorite for a moment.
IF NOT A CHEF, WHAT WOULD YOU BE? Restaurant Consultant or Designer. I love coming up with new concepts and designs.
WHAT 3 WORDS BEST DESCRIBE YOUR CULINARY STYLE Contemporary / Global / Inspired
WHAT 3 WORDS DESCRIBED YOUR MANAGEMENT STYLE Firm / Consistent / Love
ADVICE FOR CULINARY STUDENTS Do it for love and keep your head down. Whatever you invest in this work, the industry will give you back 10 fold. So, give it everything and you won’t regret it.