The Wizard of Zod

Why New York wants to grab New Jersey’s hugely talented, most idiosyncratic chef, and why he doesn’t want to leave—yet.

Zod Arifai with his father, Durak, also a chef, at Blu in 2009. Photo: Chris Crisman

“Zod is one of those singular, eccentric, brilliant figures that you occasionally see in the restaurant business. There isn’t another guy quite like him and no other food just like his. He’s the Tom Waits of gastronomy.”
Josh Ozersky, restaurants editor, Citysearch; editor of The Feedbag, A Gastronomic Gazette; and author of Meat Me In Manhattan and The Hamburger: A History

Even if Zod Arifai someday becomes as famous as his supporters think he should be, there probably will never be a Zod Arifai recipe book. Unlike most chefs, Arifai, chef/owner of Blu in Montclair, doesn’t collect recipes, follow them, or adapt them. “Never mind not copying somebody else’s recipes,” he says with a laugh. “I won’t even copy my own recipes.”

Jotting down his creations would come in handy if he wanted to resurrect a dish, Arifai admits. But he has no interest in such scribblings. From time to time over the last decade he has served (usually) salmon or scallops with a toasted almond sauce. But no two iterations of the sauce have been the same. Sometimes he balanced the flavor of the almonds with mango or pineapple juice. In the early days of Blu, which opened in the fall of 2005, he served sautéed salmon with an almond citrus sauce using fresh-squeezed lemon, lime, and orange juices.

“I totally forgot I had done that,” he says, “until I saw somebody on eGullet say that they had really liked it.” This spring he redesigned the sauce for a dish of sautéed sea scallops with fava beans, green peas, and asparagus. Omitting the lemon and lime, he put a heap of toasted almonds in a commercial blender with fresh-squeezed orange juice, orange zest, rice vinegar, browned butter (“browning gives it a nuttier flavor and aroma”), and a little bit of honey. He ran the blender on high for about six minutes. The sauce came out silken. “If I do an almond sauce two years from now,” he says, “my flavors might change, my idea of the sauce might change, it won’t be the same thing.”

Conventional wisdom says you don’t put anything starchy—like potatoes or polenta—into a blender, or they get gummy. Arifai has been doing it for years.

“I thought, Let’s see what happens. What have I got to lose? A couple cups of polenta? So what?”

It took many tries before he was able to get both to come out perfectly smooth and creamy. Various blender experiments resulted in what he calls polenta gnocchi, which he serves with lamb sirloin. His polenta gnocchi contain no potato or flour. He starts by cooking the cornmeal granules the conventional way, in water. Then he ladles it into his Vitamix blender in a 1-to-10 ratio of polenta to milk, mushroom broth, or water. He flips on the machine for several minutes. “It comes out like a cream soup,” he says. He pours the mixture into tubular molds and chills it, then slices the lengths into polenta-like pieces and browns them. The insides come out warm and custardy, more ethereal than even the most pillowy traditional gnocchi.

“I call Zod and ask for help sometimes when I’m working on a dish,” admits Arifai’s close friend, Humberto Campos Jr, chef and co-owner of Lorena’s in Maplewood. “One time he said, ‘Put polenta in a blender for like an hour and a half.’ I said, ‘How did you come up with that?’ He said, ‘Oh, just experimenting.’ He’s like a mad scientist that way.”

The key thing to understand about Arifai, 46, is that he’s self-taught. While it might be argued that culinary school gives chefs the tools to be creative, Arifai holds the opposite view. “School can keep chefs from being creative, from doing things differently,” he says. “When I first started cooking”—in the early 1990s—“I spent countless hours learning by trial and error. Very often between Point A and Point B you discover something else, and then it branches out. I still experiment all the time.”

“Because he’s self-taught,” says Ed Schoenfeld, a leading New York restaurant consultant who has been trying to put together a deal that would bring the chef to Manhattan, “Zod’s food is not derivative of other chefs.”

Moshe Davidesko, owner of the Stage House in Scotch Plains, also has been talking to Arifai about opening a New York restaurant. Arifai has so far resisted these blandishments. He got divorced ten years ago, when his daughter, Brianda, was one. “I wanted to be 100 percent part of her life,” he says. “That was more important to me than anything else.” Brianda, now 11, spends weekdays with her father in Montclair, and weekends with her mother in the Bronx. Arifai drops her off at school every morning, and she comes to the restaurant after school every day to hang out and do her homework.

“If I moved to New York,” he says, “I would never see my daughter. I wouldn’t get home until 2 or 3 in the morning, and I’d be too tired to get up at 7 and take her to school. Do I spend time with my daughter, or do I follow my heart and go to New York? It’s kind of a sacrifice, but for me, right now, it’s the right thing to do.”

In the kitchen, as in other things, Arifai follows his own compass. Cooking fish, for example. “I started with the fact that everybody used to put flour on the fish and then put it in the pan. At least me, who wasn’t used to eating fish this way, could still taste that flourness. Why were they doing it that way? To keep it from sticking. So common sense told me, Why not just use nonstick pans? So I developed a technique that I think nobody else does. I cook the fish only on one side, then turn it over and turn off the flame and just let it sit in the hot pan over the pilot light for 3 or 4 minutes. By the time the order is picked up, the fish is cooked perfectly.

“While it’s resting, I’m drizzling aromatic oils over it. I make these herb oils ahead of time. If you add fresh rosemary, thyme, or sage to the oil you’re cooking the fish in, the herbs tend to overcook.

“For the same reason, I don’t throw chopped fresh herbs into vegetables, which is what almost everybody else does. But then you bite into this piece of rosemary or thyme and it’s unpleasant. Number two, if you’re eating with your wife or girlfriend or mistress, now you’ve got a piece of herb stuck between your teeth. I said to myself, There’s got to be a better way.”

One of the most popular dishes at Blu is Arifai’s duck, which he cooks with an adaptation of the same one-side-and-flip technique, resting it for 10 to 12 minutes. Most restaurants, after searing meat, will slip it in a hot oven to finish cooking. Arifai uses his oven, kept at 200 degrees, only for warming. He thinks duck’s texture and flavor, contrary to popular opinion, shows best at medium rare to medium.

“His duck is phenomenal,” says Francesco Palmieri, chef/owner of the Orange Squirrel in neighboring Bloomfield. “The skin is perfectly crispy and seasoned just great. It’s one of the best pieces of duck I’ve ever had the opportunity to eat.”

“Zod is even more obsessed with perfection than most Manhattan chefs,” says Alan Richman, GQ wine and food critic.

Of Albanian descent, Arifai was born and raised in the small town of Peqan (pronounced PehCHAHN) in Kosovo. “My mom, Lule, was a really good cook,” he says. “She inspired some of my cooking because she could take just a few ingredients and create these dishes that were just delicious.” His father, Durak, started as an army cook, then became a local chef and later worked in Italy and Switzerland.

In Kosovo, the family lived in a thick-walled, old stone house and grew their own fruits and vegetables and raised their own animals. “We used to eat the whole animal—feet, tail, head, ears, tongue, eyes, nothing went to waste,” Arifai recalls. “My father would roast or boil a whole head of an animal and put it on the table and we’d pick at it. There’s a lot of gelatinous meat in the head, and it’s great.”

Arifai’s family moved to America when he was 9. He remembers walking down the street in his new hometown of Clifton and hearing music, pouring out of windows, that literally stopped him in his tracks. It turned out to be hard rock and heavy metal—Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, KISS. “I had never heard anything like that before.”

He fell in love with the chunka-chunka rhythm and wailing vocals of Led Zeppelin, and especially its “Immigrant Song,” about people “from the land of the ice and snow,” singing, “On we sweep with threshing oar/ Our only goal will be the western shore.”

“We didn’t get accepted right away in schools,” Arifai explains, referring to himself and his two younger sisters. “They looked at us as weird foreigners with poor English. So I think this whole new sound uplifted me, and I liked ‘Immigrant Song’ because I was an immigrant, too.”

Within a few years he had taught himself to play guitar and formed a teenage rock band with his best friend, Joe Muscaglione, who he met when Arifai’s family moved to Garfield. Muscaglione’s father had an Italian restaurant in Guttenberg, where the pals worked as busboys after school. Today, Muscaglione, a former wine director at Mario Batali’s Babbo in New York, is vice-president and managing partner of BMC Fine Spirits, a large importer and distributor in Las Vegas. The two are still close.

“Before we got our driver’s licenses, we used to ride our bikes or take the bus to eat in local restaurants together,” Muscaglione recalls. “We ate at Le Cirque when we were teenagers. The maitre d’ said, ‘Are you meeting your parents here?’ We said, ‘No, we’re here to eat.’”

After high school, they toured with their cover band, Spit-N-Image, and later with a hard rock band they called Vulcan. “Zod had a powerful singing voice,” Muscaglione says. “We were very tight, very well rehearsed, very organized.”

Rock and roll stardom being a trophy for the young, when they had not made it by age 25 they dissolved the band in discouragement. “We thought, Here we are 25, we’re old already!” Arifai says with a laugh. He got back into music at 28, playing bass in a jazz-rock band called Bang. At its peak, the group played the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. But in 1993 that band broke up as well, leaving Arifai wondering what else he could do with his life.

“The only thing I knew other than music was food,” he says, “so I thought, Maybe I’ll pursue that as a career.”

Reviews of Blu often mention that Arifai worked at Bouley and Aureole in New York and Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago. What they don’t mention (not that Arifai has kept it a secret) is that he stayed just one week at Trotter’s, two weeks at Bouley, and two months at Aureole. His stint at Bouley influenced him the most.

“David Bouley was never in the dining room,” he says. “He would cook on the line with the rest of us. I would see him sweating and I’d be like, Wow, this guy is a demigod, and he’s got bubbles on his hands from burns like I‘ve got bubbles on my hands from burns. That was a big inspiration. I said to myself, If you want to be great, that’s what you gotta do.” At Blu, Arifai never sets foot in the dining room during service.

In December 1995, he got a chance to put his meager experience to the test when he and a friend opened a modest place in Lyndhurst called Juniper. Barely four months later, Juniper earned a rare Excellent from the New York Times. “One bite,” wrote Fran Schumer, of his salmon, “and people who are thoroughly bored with this fish will remember what they liked about it in the first place…Mr. Arifai’s chicken will renew your interest in this other ubiquitous entrée.”

No one was more flabbergasted than Arifai himself. “I swear I did not know how to cook when I opened Juniper,” he says. “I didn’t know anything about running a restaurant. I knew so little that my first fish order was $1,800. Normally for a small restaurant starting out it would be a couple hundred dollars. But I had no idea how many portions a 10-pound salmon gives you, so I ordered four salmons. I had to learn all this stuff from scratch.”

Learn he did. Today he is no picnic for purveyors. “He’s one of the toughest guys I’ve ever seen,” says Mitch Goldstein of Mitch’s Seafood, Arifai’s Fulton Fish Market supplier. “He knows his fish, he’s on top of his game. He won’t hesitate to send something back if it’s not up to his expectations. I might disagree with him, but it’s barking up the wrong tree.”

Juniper closed in the summer of 1997 after Arifai’s partner ran into financial troubles. By January 1998, Arifai was back as chef of Ten Square in Morristown. Again, critics raved and business was brisk. But in late 1999 he was lured to Brooklyn by the new owners of a restaurant called Crisci.

“They spent $3 million and wanted to turn it into a great restaurant,” says Arifai, who did his part. Thanksgiving week that year, William Grimes, then the New York Times restaurant critic, praised Arifai’s work at Crisci in his Diner’s Journal—saying, among other things, that “his intricate New American approach shines” and that his meat dishes “dwell in the land of deep, deep flavors.” But after one of the owners died of cancer, the other decided to scale down the operation, and Arifai left. He had been there a total of six weeks.

At that point, Arifai decided to spend more time with his daughter, and for the next five years worked normal hours as a restaurant consultant. Eventually, though, “I got tired of going into different kitchens every six months and showing these people how to present things better and how to cook things better.

“I decided to open a restaurant of my own that was simple and casual, where I could cook everything myself and I didn’t have to throw my whole heart into it. That’s how Blu came about.”

But Blu quickly took on a life of its own. “The appreciation of the customers changed my mind,” Arifai says. “I thought, Maybe I don’t have to go to New York. Maybe I can do cutting edge, really modern food. I’ll see how far it can go.”

In terms of reviews and customer satisfaction, Blu, with its mere 45 seats, has accomplished a lot, partly because Arifai never abandoned the premise of moderate prices in a modest setting. When he opened in October 2005, his most expensive entrée was $16. Today it is $24, for his scallops with white corn, green peas, and an almond emulsion, and his duck with braised red cabbage, caramelized turnips, and fig-and-red-wine emulsion.

“He’s a really great chef,” says GQ’s Richman. “I wish I could eat there more often.”

Arifai and his friends eat out every Monday, when Blu is closed, sometimes for lunch as well as dinner. He is a tough critic, and even at highly rated restaurants will find things he considers “horrible,” “inedible,” and “cooked to death.” His vocabulary of praise is limited but clear in hierarchy. Dishes range from “good” to “really good” to “really, really good” to “excellent” to “amazing” to “great” to, at the tippy top, “really, really great.”

All his favorite restaurants are in New York—David Chang’s Momofuku restaurants, Wylie Dufresne’s WD-50, Drew Nieporent and chef Paul Liebrandt’s Corton, Daniel Boulud’s Daniel, and, most of all, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Jean-Georges. These restaurants, he says, have largely moved beyond molecular gastronomy (a movement partly based on turning liquids into powders, gels, and “caviars”)—a trend he describes as “putting the wow first and the flavor second” and which he dismisses as “passé.” Instead, these restaurants share his ideal of “heightened, balanced flavor combinations.”

In pursuit of that ideal, Arifai keeps experimenting. He recently had me taste an olive oil and red grape “frappé” (“an emulsion, but with more body”) that he has begun to serve with salmon. It tasted uniquely airy, tart, and gently sweet. “It’s not like I’m a better chef than anybody else,” he says. “It’s just that my imagination runs wild.”

Arifai works at a withering pace. He says he hasn’t missed a single service since Blu opened three and a half years ago. His load got even greater when in December 2007, he opened the even lower-priced Next Door in the storefront next door to Blu. He does all the cooking for both restaurants. Before he closed the restaurant for ten days around the Fourth of July, he admitted, “I’m getting a little burnt.”

“Zod finds it hard to delegate,” observes Ed Schoenfeld, the restaurant consultant. “I was talking to him a couple weeks ago. He was talking to me on his cell, answering the phones for both restaurants, and cleaning a piece of fish, all at the same time. Someone like Zod should have a team around him where he can just do his thing.

“He tells me, ‘Eddie, I’m working for myself, I don’t have to answer to anybody.’ But I tell him, ‘Ten years from now, when your knees hurt and your elbow doesn’t work, you’ll be better off if you have people around you.’ I have a partnership with somebody who is very wealthy and has a large number of successful restaurants. We’re talking with Zod about coming into Manhattan. In New York he could make a better living and life would be better for him. I’d like to see him do great, because he really deserves it.”

“The question,” says Josh Ozersky, restaurants editor of Citysearch, “is whether he can run a whole crew or he needs to be in a boutique setting.”

In any event, Arifai hears the Siren call. “In North Jersey, we’re always going to be in the shadow of New York,” he says. “New Yorkers look at us like a foreign country. They tell me, ‘I can’t go to Jersey. I don’t have a passport.’ Why do they look at us like that? I don’t know. I know that if I was in New York, I would be booked two months in advance.”

Moshe Davidesko, the owner of Stage House, agrees. “People in New Jersey who know how to appreciate really good food, prefer to go to New York, because they feel that’s the center of the world and you can get the best there,” he says. “I prefer to stay in New Jersey. But in New York you can find more people of all ages who are dating and going out and having fun. In New Jersey, dining out is more family-oriented.”

Arifai recently advertised the unglamorous job of line cook for Next Door and received a resume from a respected chef who had once had a highly regarded restaurant in North Jersey. “I thought, Something is wrong with this business,” Arifai says. “We’re slaves to our stoves, we don’t save, we get into divorces, lose families, become alcoholics, and we get nothing back. That’s what I’m thinking about.”

But at 5:08 pm on a recent Friday, he seemed fully recharged. With fast, broad strokes of a damp cloth, he gave his station a final wipe down. He looked around the kitchen with satisfaction. “I’m all set,” he said. “I’m ready to rock.”

***************************

“He harnesses flavors beautifully, unexpected flavors. But his stuff is never weird. There’s always a good
logic to it…I’ve tried to get some of my clients in New York to hire him.”
— Ed Schoenfeld, prominent New York restaurant consultant

“The first place I recommend to my sous chef, the waiters here, other food people, is Blu.”
Mitchell Altholz, executive chef, Highlawn Pavilion and the Manor, West Orange

“To me, his is the best restaurant I’ve been to in New Jersey. You leave a place like that, and the first thing you think to yourself is, What can I do to improve? ”
Francesco Palmieri, chef/owner, the Orange Squirrel, Bloomfield

“I eat at other restaurants a lot. To me, his is the best restaurant I’ve been to in New Jersey. I try to
go three or four times a month. Sometimes I bring my customers. I’m not a jealous restaurateur.”
Didier Jouvenet, owner of Chez Catherine, Westfield

“A lot of time my wife and I tell him, ‘Just create a menu for us, whatever you feel like.’ He always finds a way to come with a surprise. In my opinion, he’s a genius. I love the fact that he’s in New Jersey, don’t get me wrong. But he should go to New York.”
Moshe Davidesko, owner of the Stage House, Scotch Plains

Click on the following links to read more stories from August’s Special Dining Issue:

The 25 Best Restaurants in New Jersey.

Readers’ and Critic’s Choice Restaurant Poll: The results of our 26th Annual Readers’ Choice Restaurant Poll.

Savor City: Paterson, the one-time Silk City, is a Great Falls of ethnic eating.

Save My Restaurant: Owners learn to be careful what they wish for after inviting Gordon Ramsay and his reality TV series Kitchen Nightmares to right their ships.

Jersey Lightning: The Laird family of Scobeyville has been distilling applejack a long time. How long? They once gave George Washington the recipe.

 

Click here to leave a comment
Click to enlarge images

By submitting comments you grant permission for all or part of those comments to appear in the print edition of New Jersey Monthly.

Required
Required not shown
Required not shown

Advertisement