Some restaurants we go to because they’re trendy or new. But others we frequent because of a unique sense comfort and elegance that’s timelessly appealing. After a year and a half in operation, Zoë restaurant (located on a quiet street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan) started in the first category and is now amongst the second. Regulars come and come again and again, and for good reason.
Zoë Feigenbaum, the 30-year-old chef-owner, has been quite busy over the last four years. After an apprenticeship at the French Culinary Institute, she trained at the three-star Michelin restaurant Per Se, and was soon hired as the executive chef of The National, an American bistro near Bowery. If Feigenbaum looks familiar, she made her TV debut on Bravo’s reality show Chef Academy, and subsequently appeared on two other Food Network shows (Chopped and Chef Marks the Spot).
In September 2011 came Zoë, her personal dream project.
Praised for its black kale salad, its Reuben sandwich and its uni bucatini, Zoë’s menu unites classic American cuisine and fine dining—seemlessly jumping from octopus escabeche to fish tacos, from egg sandwich to confit byaldi. For the full experience, you can order a seasonal tasting menu prepared by Zoë Feigenbaum herself.
On the day I arrived, her cozy, luminous restaurant was cheerily buzzing for brunch. Groups of girls sat chatting and sipping cocktails. A long table of diners celebrated a baby shower. Surrounding us all were several couples engaged in romantic conversation. Keeping an attentive eye on her guests, Feigenbaum (wearing short hair and pink pants) introduced herself with a radiant smile, then checked if I was satisfied with my fried chicken and blueberry pancakes. She’s a charmer.
EBONY: After almost two years running Zoë, how would you describe your feelings?
Zoë Feigenbaum: Exhilarated and… exhausted! Even though everybody tells you how hard it is to start your own business, you don’t really know until you are deeply involved in it. It is like giving birth and starting to raise a child. But the excitement carries you, and doing it for the first time makes you bold and unaware of the difficulties. I am really happy with what I achieved so far.
EBONY: Considering that being a chef was not your initial professional path—
ZF: Right! Five years ago, I was working as a director of publicity in publishing. I enjoyed my job, but I was not really attached to it. And then one day, challenged by my sister [chef Emma Feigenbaum], I auditioned for the reality TV show Hell’s Kitchen with Gordon Ramsay. And they cast me on the show.
But at the last minute, I realized that if I was going to cook, I would rather go to school and learn with people I admired instead of being yelled at by Ramsay. So I went to culinary school, trained at Per Se and did catering work for a while. After two years of being the executive chef at The National—where I learned a lot, designing menus and managing teams—I felt ready to take the chance and start my own business.
EBONY: How do you feel being a young Black woman chef in such a tough industry?
ZF: I feel like I am no different than anyone else. It is a hard industry to work in, but it is challenging in ways that are not discriminatory. The kitchen and people are not soft, and I grew up as a shy person. So I certainly had to adapt myself. Actually, the truth is that I am considered old and seen as a career changer, as someone who is less likely to succeed since I started out later!
EBONY: You are described as a chef of New American cuisine, but how did you find your style?
ZF: My food is definitely inspired by cuisines from all over the world. Southern, Mediterranean, French, Eastern-European, Latino, Asian. Basically the food I grew up eating in New York. I ate bagels for breakfast and lox for brunch, pizza for lunch and Chinese food for dinner. My family was obsessed with food. We would eat out all the time, and around the dinner table, when other families watch TV or talk about politics, we would constantly talk about food!
EBONY: Your menu pays an obvious tribute to your origins.
ZF: Of course. This is who I am. My mother is African-American and comes from Virginia. My father is Jewish and is from Brooklyn. It was very important to me to print my heritage on my menu, so we serve grilled shrimps and grits, fried chicken with buttermilk biscuits and a Reuben sandwich, with a corned beef that we cured ourselves, pickles that we brine ourselves.
But you know, the funny thing is that my mother attended classes at the culinary school Le Cordon Bleu years ago in France, and today she lives in Italy where she makes the olive oil that we use at Zoë. So when I was a kid, she would be more inclined to cook coq au vin than Southern food! I had to go to Virginia and scout the recipes of my family.
EBONY: What’s in store for the future? A book? More TV shows? Another restaurant?
ZF: It is a little early to plan for the future. A TV show or a book, why not? Eventually. I love to share my recipes. Another restaurant? I have ideas for a new concept, and I am looking at other locations in the neighborhood. But I have to concentrate on Zoë right now, make sure that my first child gets stronger!
Noémie Videau-Zagar is a food critic, chef, author (Goûtez New York, Gourmandes et Fières de l’Être, Cuisinez New York), and co-owner of Pistache NYC. Follow Pistache at PistacheNYC.com, on Facebook and Twitter @PistacheNYC.