Interviewee: Tim Zagat

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Interviewee: Tim Zagat

Interviewer: Judith Weinraub New York City

Date: December 3, 2009

Q: This is Judith Weinraub. I’m with Tim Zagat in his office on Columbus Circle. It is December 3, 2009. Good afternoon.
Zagat: Good to be with you.
Q: Why don’t we start with your telling me a little something about where and when you were born, how you grew up, your education, anything you feel.
Zagat: I was born on May 13, 1940, before the Second World War had started, at least to the United States. My mother and father were both New Yorkers and had grown up in New York. My mother was originally from Alabama, in Montgomery, Alabama. My father was originally from New York City. My parents agreed on virtually nothing, but they negotiated everything. My father wanted to have a son named after him, and so my real name is Eugene Henry Zagat, Jr., but my mother said that she wanted to be able to scream at us both and have us know who was being screamed at, so she said that she wanted to have the choice of my nickname. So I was born Eugene formally, but my first week of life I was Nick Zagat. That didn’t stick, at least with her, and then the second week I was Henry or Hank, and the third week of life I became Tim Zagat and that was that.

I grew up on Central Park West at 94th Street, in apartment 10F, and I haven’t gone very far since then because I still live on Central Park West in another building but also in apartment 10F. When I was a little boy, I first went to Alexander Robertson School, which was just a charming really miniscule school.

Q: I don’t know what that is.

Zagat: It’s a church school, first Scotch Presbyterian, I think, or anyway, church school. It was right on 95th Street, and I started when I was two years old and loved it. My sister started two years later, when she was two years old. We would go out to Central Park and had all kinds of good times in the park and loved it.

My parents didn’t like the same things when it came to where to live. My father liked New York City, so we lived in New York for about five months a year, and my mother liked Stamford, Connecticut, where we had a house, we lived there for five months a year. My mother liked exotic trips, so we would go to places like Guatemala and Haiti, and my father liked non-exotic trips where he could sit and read and eat, so we would go to places that were very comfortable when it was his month. But we did travel more than, I think, most people.

When I was starting fourth grade, I went to Riverdale Country School up in Riverdale in the Bronx, and I went there because my grandfather had been the classmate and friend of the headmaster who founded the school, a fellow named Frank Hackett. Frank Hackett was the headmaster for three years when I was there, from fourth to sixth grade, then it was three more years before he died. He was a presence. Frank Hackett could out-sing the entire school. We used to have daily chapel and I got a lot of religion, not specific religion, but a lot of “Be good, think of others,” you know. All of the kind of moral things were beat into you again and again and again, to, I think, everyone’s benefit. At the time I wasn’t aware how much good it did me, but I think it has done me a lot of good throughout my life. Riverdale is a great school, and I was there for nine years.

Q: Do you remember what the food was like?
Zagat: The food was very mundane, very mundane. Chicken à la King was a highpoint in the—nobody thought the food was particularly good at Riverdale at that time.

Anyway, I was trying to think of what other things my parents disagreed about. I think everything.

Q: Did they disagree about food?
Zagat: Yes, they did. My father liked to go to restaurants, and in those days the food in New York, the best restaurants might have grilled chicken, steak, potatoes, no green vegetables in the wintertime, no fresh berries, of course, from October until May. It was a very limited menu and there were not very many different types of cuisine. In fact, in 1979, when we started our survey, there were about twenty different nationalities in New York, and today we count over a hundred. So in a thirty-year period it’s gigantic.
Q: Makes a big difference.
Zagat: I’d be happy to talk about that change, if you’d like.
Q: We can get to that.
Zagat: Food was not the strong point at Riverdale. There were a lot of other wonderful things about it, very good athletics, and it got me into Harvard, or, at least, I thought maybe it had something to do with it. Seven out of thirty-five people in our class went to Harvard, and several of us roomed together and we have remained lifelong friends. Our class reunions are kind of amazing in terms of the percentage of people who come back. Anyway, I played a variety of sports at Riverdale.

My mother liked to cook, or at least she—

Q: I was going to say, a good thing or a bad thing?

Zagat: It was not a very good thing, and I would only say this since she is no longer going to come back and hit me over the head, but she does have a presence. I mean, every time I say something like this, I have a feeling she’s sitting behind me saying, “Oh, Tim. Oh, Tim.”

My father and my grandfather liked to go out to eat in the best restaurants that exist in New York, and there was some pretty good—the Pavillon and the Café Chauveron and Café Arnold and Tony Soma’s. Tony Soma’s was the—what’s the actress? Anyway, I can’t remember. She was Nicholson’s girlfriend and has been in all kinds of movies. Anyway, she was a daughter of the Somas.

My father would have us go out as much as possible, and maybe that’s because he knew what my mother’s cooking was like. She thought that pretty much everything should be frozen first, and that food wasn’t safe unless it had been frozen, and she didn’t think just anybody knew how to freeze. She wanted somebody with a lot of experience, and therefore she thought A & P had more experience freezing more things, so that’s where she went for her frozen things. She would make a Thanksgiving dinner and have ten pounds of turkey left and she’d freeze it, and then that would be the 1955 turkey, and the 1957 ham would go into the freezer too. Then she would, in 1961, discover the six-year-old ham and turkey, she would pull them out, heat them up, put them in a casserole, pour in mushroom soup or onion soup or both, beat them around, and she would be very proud of her casserole. She did this for parties and she did it too often for us alone.

So the main question I had when I met Nina and she started cooking food for us was, “How old is it?” She never understood why I was so upset, but, I mean, it was, “How old is it?”

We used to very often, particularly when we were in Stamford, Connecticut, there was a good pizza place called Mario’s on High Ridge Road, and we would leave the table—this was when we were old enough to drive, which is sixteen—leave the table immediately, go down to Mario’s to get some food, to get some pizza.

Anyway, I was at Harvard and had four wonderful years and played soccer and generally had a lot of fun, learned more from my classmates than I did any other way. Then I got out of college and I was elected Vice President of the United States National Student Association, which is a long story, but I traveled for four years speaking at colleges all over the United States, and I went to 197 colleges to speak, and it was a very interesting year. I was talking about student government activities and insurance and civil and student rights.

Q: What was the purpose of the organization?
Zagat: It was an association of student governments at approximately 300 colleges and universities. It had held 330 or 340, but with the Civil Rights Movement, the southern schools withdrew. The purpose of the organization, dependent on who you asked, it was basically to cooperate among schools and student governments, but there were certain people like Tom Hayden and Students for a Democratic Society who were wanting it to be very political, and it just, by coincidence, happened that the CIA, which I didn’t even know was involved, was funding a large part of its activities because they wanted it to be political. It call came out after my tenure, in a big article about it in Ramparts magazine. But the CIA was supporting a lot of youth organizations, youth and labor, and they wanted to have stands taken that they could go to international student congresses and talk to the outs around the world, and make contact with them and maintain communication, and also on the possibility that somebody would get elected president of Algeria, which, in fact, happened, they wanted to have people who knew them from the United States’ government perspective.

So in my first year at NSA, was there as a freshman, I came out against our taking a position in favor of Algerian independence. I said, “We are not elected student government leaders, so we’re not elected to take stands like this.” Turns out, the CIA wanted us to take stands like that because it made it possible for them to have connections, and we were actually funding something like fifty to a hundred Algerian so-called students, but people had been injured in the fighting and they were in the United States under our auspices being treated.

So there were lots of other—for example, the same thing was true for Cuba. They wanted to have some people who were their people, who actually knew what the hell was going on in Cuba. Now, it’s a rational thing for the CIA. It was strange—[former Washington Post reporter and editor] Bob Kaiser knows all about this because he was involved, but you didn’t expect the CIA to be coming over your left shoulder. You would have expected them to come over your right shoulder, at least I thought they would be to the right of us. They were actually way to the left, and they wanted to encourage political action. I was opposed to that, and I ran for president of NSA and lost by twenty-five votes out of two thousand or so, and was saying we should allocate our efforts to strictly student rights on campus, civil rights in the United States, insurance, getting good insurance for college students, and doing a lot of things that the AARP, for example, does for elderly people. We should have been working to make students’ lives better and get more scholarships and stuff like that. My candidacy, which I lost, as I said, my campaign manager was [Massachusetts congressman] Barney Frank, and it was my last campaign and his first.

Q: Was he in the organization as well?
Zagat: Yes, he was in the organization. Anyway, he’s a great friend of mine for many, many years.
Q: He’s a wonderful guy, yes.
Zagat: I think he’s great. But then after that I went to the Peace Corps, and shortly after I got there, Bill Moyers called me and said, “We have some problems. I’d like you to do a little study on them.”
Q: Were you scheduled to go overseas at that point?

Zagat: I was supposed to be in Washington. I was on staff. Anyway, he said, “We’re ordering the same reading materials four or five times over,” and the people who handle the finances kept on seeing the same books being bought for different operations repetitively. So I went around and talked to everybody and found out it was just lack of coordination. So I wrote a short memo saying activities need to be coordinated, at least at this level, and he said, “Would you take charge of it?”

I said, “Boy, yeah.” So I became head of the Book Coordination Office of the Peace Corps. We published thirty-four books out of three different countries, mostly taking American textbooks and turning them into the local idiom, instead of saying “Plug into the wall,” saying “Clip onto the battery” and things like that. Instead of Joey White and Cecilia Brown playing in the snow, it became Joseph Inugu and, you know, just making it feel more appropriate to the particular countries.

We had Peace Corps CARE packages of books. The major thing is we had what were called book lockers. They were really trunks, metal trunks, and we would supply each volunteer with a full trunk of books, half of which related to the volunteer’s job and half relating to having something to do in the bush, where you didn’t have television by way of entertainment. I had to pick all of those books and make sure that they got all over the world. Over time we changed the way these things were packaged, and found some very strong cardboard that was amazingly much stronger than the trunks. I picked thousands of books because we were working with different people in different places. Shriver had said he was going to get a million books for Africa before I arrived.

Q: This is Sargent Shriver.
Zagat: Yes. He had stimulated every women’s club in America to go in the closets and in the attics and get books and ship them to us, and we had no place really where we could put them. I had to arrange to get that all sorted out. Ninety percent of the books were totally useless, and it was just a mass of stuff. We had some people in Washington who sorted it all out, and we sent a million books to South Africa, I think it was, or Nigeria. We sent some books that were useful, but we probably had gone through ten million books before we came up with the million.

Anyway, there was a lot of stuff, and I was a young person and I was put on the senior staff of the Peace Corps, which was really exciting. I would see Shriver every day and I’d see Bill Moyers. Bill only told me recently, but he got me a huge jump in my civil service rating, because I wouldn’t have been allowed to do this job if I didn’t have a CS-15 or something, and I started with CS-5 or CS-6, and I don’t know what he did, but it sure was good for my economy.

So anyway, I got through that, and my mother was saying, “This is wonderful. Stay down.” And my father said, “If you want me to pay for law school, you go now.” So I then was lucky enough to get into Yale law school and was lucky enough to be asked to sit next to a young lady named Nina Safronoff, who was a very good cook.
Q: Back up a little bit. Was law school an inevitable choice for you?

Zagat: No, but I had originally thought I wanted to be a politician, and it seemed to me that law school was the best place to go for that. I never did become a politician because I began to realize all of the difficulties, that, first of all, somebody wants to kick your teeth in every two years, and not only your teeth, but your family’s. Number two, you have to raise money from your friends in order to give it to television stations. Number three, you have to do this work at night and on weekends, when everybody else wants to be with their family, including me. Number four, I figured I had too thin skin. I just didn’t like the nastiness of politics these days, at least for quite a long time.

So anyway, I went to Yale law school, where I was assigned to sit next to Nina Safronoff, and we started studying together with a group with a few friends. The most distinguished of them was a guy named Walter Dellinger, who became Solicitor General of the United States, I think. He’s still a friend of ours. Nina and I started studying more and more, and all these women I used to date sort of disappeared. After the first year of law school, I guess the beginning of the second year, it seemed to me we were always together. Then I called her mother and asked her mother if she could arrange a wedding on short notice, four weeks, and her mother asked me the logical question, “Is there something urgent that we need to know about?”

I said, “No, it has nothing to do with that.” I think everything I do, I like to do quickly, and I’m not a person who’s very deliberate. Once I get going, fixated on something, I’m very stay-with-it-and-go.

Anyway, so her mother said, “How about six weeks?”

I said, “That’s fine.”

Then I called my parents to tell them that we were getting married, and that was when Nina walked in and found out that she was getting married. You have to understand that you should never propose to somebody unless you know that they want to get married. I knew she wanted to get married, so why bother proposing?

Q: So her mother knew before?
Zagat: Her mother knew before she did, but she knew. She knew. I know she knew. She knew that I wanted to get married, and I knew that she wanted to get married, and you didn’t need to say anything, so I didn’t. Why waste time?

So anyway, we were married just after spring vacation in our second year of law school, and we went that summer for three months in Europe. We bought a car in Wolfsburg, Germany, a brand-new Volkswagen Squareback, and we slept in the back, had air mattresses, and we drove all over Europe, and we did the same thing the next year, after the bar exam.

But as for food, Nina is a really good cook. She wasn’t doing the Jill [Julie Powell] routine, you know, Jill and Julia. She didn’t cook everything in Julia’s cookbook, but she did a fair share. Nina liked Craig Claiborne, I think, and whatever she was doing, I thought it was a hell of a lot better than what I was used to growing up.

After we were out of law school and through the bar exam, she joined Sherman & Sterling and I joined Hughes Hubbard & Reed.

Q: So you took the New York bar?

Zagat: Yes. Charles Evans Hughes, who had been Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and also ran for president of the United States against Wilson. So we were there, and almost about a year later or maybe less than a year, I was asked if I’d like to go to Paris. I thought that was a great idea, but then we had to negotiate Nina’s going. Her firm was so conservative, they would never have let a woman go abroad, except for the fact that their conservativism played in our favor. They would never separate a husband and a wife. So she went and said, “My husband’s going to Europe and I don’t want to be left alone here.”

They said, “Oh, Nina, dear, you go to Paris too.” So on the basis of their conservatism, she got to be the first woman to go to the Paris office of Sherman & Sterling. I happened to be the first male to go to the new Paris office of Hughes Hubbard & Reed, which was a much smaller office; it had three lawyers in it at the time.

We had two kind of blissful years of, number one, trying to take advantage of being in Paris and reading Hemingway’s Moveable Feast. We really tried every second weekend to go somewhere that was interesting, and caught a plane or got a train and traveled a lot. We also ate a lot, and had an incredible budget for eating out because the senior partner in our office didn’t like to take people out as much as he would have normally have to, so he would assign less important people to us to take out, which was very nice. So we were eating on the firm in a way that nobody in New York ever would have.

Nina went to the Cordon Bleu and ultimately became the lawyer for the Cordon Bleu, and learned a lot of new things about food. She was doing a good job of French food and American food.

Finally, somebody set us up with a Chinese housekeeper, who was unbelievable in every way. She couldn’t speak a word of English or French, but to give you an idea, the first day she came in and we couldn’t talk, she was with the family, the Chinese family that she was with, and he said, “You’re not going to need to talk to her.”

Nina and I were saying, “We’ve got to talk to her.”

But the first day she cleaned everything, every window, every glass. You name it. The house was spotless in a way that it had never been when we were first there. The next day, she went through all of my clothes, and everything was sewn, everything was put into the closet just neatly, anything that needs to be pressed was pressed. And the third day she started producing Chinese food, and our icebox was always full of egg rolls and things that were delicious. She was a fine cook. So we had French food, we had American food, we had Chinese food, and we had a very good diet.

When we came back to New York around 1970, shortly after that, we joined a food and wine group. We had about twenty friends that would eat and drink once a month, and we had some very good meals, but we were essentially just a bunch of friends.

Q: What were food and wine groups like then?
Zagat: You know, I don’t know. I was only a member of that one, and we had a wonderful group of friends.

Q: You’d go out or someone would cook?
Zagat: One time we’d go out and we’d plan and we’d bring all of our wines, and we’d have, for example, Aubrillon, ten vintages, you’d have Lafite, Latour, Aubrillon of one year, so that you could do interesting tastings. Also the people would cook at home, and Nina would do a dinner and it would be really a blowout meal. Each of us sort of shared the costs and passed it around, the work.

We called this thing the Downtown Wine Tasting Association, which was really dignifying a group of friends who ate and drank a lot. We were at one of our dinners and the person who was most active at the time was Ivan Karp, who is the owner of OK Harris Gallery, and he was the number two guy to Leo Castelli, so he was a big deal art dealer. Ivan is outspoken when he is sober, and he was not particularly sober that day. He was probably on his tenth or twelfth glass of wine, and he sailed into the then critic of a particular newspaper that is too powerful to mention even now. Anyway, he really said basically that half the time he didn’t agree at all.

I’d done political surveying before, and Nina actually had worked too. I said, “Why don’t we do a survey of our friends who we think would enjoy it, people who eat out a lot, and who like to talk about food?” We all had pads of paper in front of us, yellow pads, legal, and I said, “Everybody write down ten names of people you think would enjoy being surveyed on the top restaurants in New York,” and they did. After a couple months, we did a survey of two hundred people on a hundred restaurants. And that’s what it looked like, that’s the questionnaire and that’s the results. Everybody liked the results so much, they all asked for ten more copies. The deal was if you participate, you get one copy for free. So even though nobody had ever heard of user-generated content, that is user-generated content.
Q: I see those columns. They must represent—

Zagat: Ratings.

Q: Was it divided into, I don’t know like—
Zagat: Food, décor, service, cost, and cleanliness. We eliminated cleanliness after a while. The results were two sides of a fourteen-inch page of paper, and everybody seemed to like it and we got more and more requests for it. People would say, “Would you send over enough copies for my law firm?” The second year was five hundred people, and the third year was a thousand, and we raised the number of restaurants. In the second year it was two hundred, and the third year it was three hundred and fifty.
Q: Who put all that together?
Zagat: Me and Nina, and I had secretaries who would help me, being paid to stay late. But the third year got to be so complicated and expensive that we decided to sell copies and try to make our hobby tax-deductible, and that was Nina’s input because she’s a tax lawyer, and she hates using after-tax money for anything. So she said, “At least let’s make our hobby less expensive by being deductible, and also if people like it so much, let’s ask them to pay for what they say they like.” And that was the first year we did it as a book, and we broke even that year, which was never in our wildest imagination. That article up there was the first review by a newspaper of what we did, and we were very pleased that the newspapers didn’t kill us, that they kind of accepted the idea that we were doing this.
Q: Like a book review?

Zagat: Yes, it was sort of a book review. This writer was Arthur Schwartz, who was very well known, the critic for the Daily News. He was saying that for a lot of reasons our survey avoided some of the pitfalls of the individual critic, bad days either on the part of the critic or on the part of the restaurant, taste preferences that didn’t necessarily represent everybody, limited number of visits that were possible for the critic because the critic hits the restaurant in the middle of the summer and it may be very different from in the middle of the winter.

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