a conversation with culinary icon zack bruell

My husband is the reason I started this blog. He encouraged me to put my passion for food and pipe dream of being a food critic to good use. I did it for fun and never dreamed that people would actually check out my recommendations or seek out what I have to say or think. I mean, who am I? I grew up surrounded by great food and talented cooks that fostered my healthy obsession for amazing food, and I try to mimic what I see and read, but I’m certainly no professional. But Wednesday night, I felt like one – and was treated no differently than if I were a renowned critic at a well-respected foodie publication. I’ve grown to love this blog and greatly respect even more so the dedication that goes towards making Cleveland a culinary haven and last week really brought it all together.

In continuing my 10 questions with our local chefs, I called upon Zack Bruell of Parallax and Table 45. Instead of e-mailing me back, he called and suggested we do this in person. Although surprised, I was very excited (and nervous) to have the opportunity to chat with him – and of course grab dinner.

First, the meal. Wow. Seriously, it doesn’t get much better than this. Parallax continues to be consistently delicious and a wonderful balance of flavors and presentation. I have yet to leave unhappy – and can’t imagine that’s even a possibility.

I started off with the scallop salad with a corn salsa over tomatoes. Honestly, if the server kept bringing out that same dish, I’d be ecstatic. It was the best salad I’ve ever had, truly. My husband had the cream soup, which was roasted corn with andouille sausage topped with a pepper sauce. A spicy soup but he couldn’t stop raving about it. For dinner, I had the braised short ribs with green beans and mashed potatoes in a soy sauce of some sort (seemed like a perfect dish on a rainy day) and James had the Alaskan black cod with miso glaze, bock choy and rice; we switched half way through, something we typically do. Each dish was simply delicious. Along with our wine, and peanut butter crème brulee, we were more than satisfied and talking about what we’d try next time. I think it’s fair to note that at this point, the server, nor Zack, knew who I was. Not until we paid our bill, did I ask for him.

Our conversation wasn’t just limited to the 10 questions I have been asking, but rather encompassed everything from the current food scene in Cleveland, the problems with chains, Zack’s past and how to make it in this town. Here are some highlights from that conversation (Zack’s thoughts in blue):

Which restaurant do you miss:
Battuto (which I couldn’t agree with more.) This answer prompted me to ask if he feels pressure from the many chains in our area and if he believes this is why so many great places, like Battuto, are forced to close.

I weathered the chain issue 15 years ago, but that problem does exist here. This is a homogenized section of America, and your generation (pointing to me (31) and my husband (34); both Gen X), doesn’t know the difference. Your generation goes to chains and thinks this is the real thing – they don’t know it’s the watered down version of the real thing. The chains do their homework on mainstream America. Battuto was good and should have had lines out the door. This is Cleveland. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.

On his background:
I trained in a major market – LA. (Zack actually attended the Wharton School of Business before he went to culinary school in Philadelphia and opened his first restaurant). I worked in a restaurant that changed the whole dining scene (Michael’s in LA/Santa Monica in the early 80s). The group that I was working with was a who’s who of the culinary scene. He shared that Roy Yamaguchi of the famed Roy’s restaurants (now sold to Outback, which made my jaw drop) used to work for him, as well as Nancy Silverton of La Brea Bakery

Zack went on to say that when he decided to come back to Cleveland, which at one point he was not going to and looked into Charleston instead, he promised himself he wouldn’t compromise and whatever he would do here could make it anywhere in the world. At first he ran The Garland at Landerhaven before he opened Z in Shaker Heights. Prior to opening Z, he surveyed the scene and the only place really was Blue Point, which he thought was so so (and I tend to agree. It’s ok, but people love this place). After 10 years of this and wanting to spend more time with his family, he sold the place and became the head chef at Ken Stuart’s in Akron. On his time at Ken Stuart’s, he said he learned to give customers something they felt they got value for their dollar and their choice. Meanwhile, his fusion influence was catching on and Zack felt the itch to open his own space again: welcome Parallax. At Parallax, he thought he was going to attract the young hipsters, which he did, but his faithful Eastsiders started coming back in droves.

His favorite place(s) in Cleveland:
Fire and Baricelli’s

The one place yet to be discovered by Clevelanders:
Sun Luck Garden on South Taylor in Cleveland Heights. He said it’s different Chinese that hasn’t gone mainstream yet.

On his style of cooking:
I’ve been doing this style of cooking for the past 22 years. It’s a culmination of 22 years of people, experiences, etc. People weren’t ready for this. I was doing fusion before it was called fusion.

On Parallax:
We have the best sushi; bar none (they do have amazing sushi and rolls). People have options when you come here. You can spend a lot or a little. We have a very diverse crowd, it’s a good mix. When you come here, you are coming into our home and we treat you like you are in our home. This place – the quality of what we serve and how we do it – can stand on its own and compete with any restaurant in the world and do exceptionally well.

On doing business in Cleveland:
You can’t go too far out or you will lose people. If you overprice, you’re done. This market isn’t strong enough for that. If you give people good food, and you’re nice to them, they will come back. It’s really simple and a lot of people just don’t get that. Some chefs want to create a temple and feel that the customers have to be trained to understand and appreciate their food. The customer doesn’t want to be trained. You have to find the balance, and it can take awhile. You have to find the right people (to work for you) and let them go do their thing, but most people don’t want to give up that control and feel the need to control everything – but you won’t be successful that way. It took 20 years for me to figure that out.

Eating is a luxury in this town. You have to treat people like they are welcomed here. They are doing you a favor and paying your bills. It’s more than being a great cook. It’s easy to cook; it’s not easy to understand how to run a business. There is a 90 percent failure rate in this town in the first 6 months. It’s basic really. It’s all on how you treat people. If you treat them nice and give them good product, they’ll come back.

On working today:
I oversee the cooking. The people that are successful are conductors, not players. When I set the menu, we all work together. You can have a say, but it must fit with my style and standards of products. Train people on your style. It’s about the experience, not just the food. Step back and oversee, that’s key. I used to be very serious, but it’s not about that. People want to have a good time. It’s about the energy – to create the energy you have to have the volume and still put a first class product in front of them. You are creating a memory and drawing upon people’s memories. Today I work the restaurant, people want to see you. They don’t want me on the line anymore. I used to do that and people would come back to the line and chat. But to really make it work, you have to mix with the customers, talk to them. People want that. I’m still back there, but it’s more of a mix.

On Table 45:
Table 45 is doing very well since we opened. It’s really everything I’m talking about. My goal, which I’ve started working on, is taking it to the world. He did share that he is currently working on branching Table 45 out all over the world. (I haven’t been yet, but am eager to go. The menu looks amazing and I’ve heard nothing but high praises.) Zack has no other current plans for Cleveland.

On Cleveland chefs (is there any camaraderie):
There really isn’t. I’m the old guy. I set the table for everyone else. It used to be difficult here and a lot of people don’t understand that – they don’t get the history or appreciate it. I used to have to fly in everything, literally everything in, and most chefs don’t understand that. Everyone here is chasing after the same dollar. You won’t maintain your share if you are insecure to begin with.

On cooking for famous people:
I don’t think he cared too much for this question, but I loved his answer. He said he doesn’t pay attention to celebrities because we are just as important as they are. In fact, he said regulars are more important than celebrities – any day. He said his dad taught him that everyone puts their pants on the same way. But, he did share that he cooked Muhammad Ali and a slew of other celebs in LA.

Final thoughts/learnings:
The same architect that did Blackbird in Chicago designed Parallax. And Zack is also a fan of Avec, but sadly noted that Avec would never work in Cleveland.

If he wasn’t a chef, he’d be playing golf.

9 Comments

  1. Gina Ventre
    Posted July 31, 2007 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    90% failure in the first 6 mos. Staggering if you are trying to get something started.

    I very much enjoy Sun Luck Garden. All of the ingredients are fresh. Annie, the older Chinese lady, makes a mean, summery lemonade.

  2. michelle v
    Posted July 31, 2007 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    I know – pretty scary. Makes you wonder about all the new places popping up on E 4.

  3. Gina Ventre
    Posted July 31, 2007 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    The Flats too. Cyrus Waterfront comes to mind.

  4. Allison M.
    Posted August 1, 2007 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Let’s go! Table 45′s menu looks fantastic!

  5. hot coffee girl
    Posted August 3, 2007 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    Okay. When are we going?

    (I love this series with the Chefs. Great work!)

  6. Alexa
    Posted October 2, 2007 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    I have been to parallax probably ten times since it opened. I havent been in about 4 months because I was trying out new restaurants etc… I decided to go this past friday. It has gotten BETTER. Honestly the best meal I had this year. And the service was spot on, almost too efficient as our waiter said. Zach himself stopped by to chat and present our food, I love when chef’s do that.

    Last night I read the review of Table 45 in cleveland magazine and it wasn’t glowing…. but I know that Zach will pull it together.

    By all means he can take a break from Parallax, because it is perfect!

  7. michelle v
    Posted October 2, 2007 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    I’m glad you had such a good meal at Parallaz and overall positive experience. I agree, one of the nest restaurants around. I also saw the review on Table 45. I was dissapointed, but am not worried – Zach can turns things around. I do wonder about the location, though.

  8. Alexa
    Posted October 2, 2007 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    their location is totally hindering the process. I had been to classics before it closed and it was quite a stodgy stuffy experience to say the least but you expected it from the intercontinental hotel.

    i was pleasantly surprised by table 45 price points listed.

    if table 45 was in tremont i bet it would be doing SO much better. People are nervous to go to the hotel.

  9. michelle v
    Posted October 2, 2007 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Me too! I was very surprised by the prices. I was expecting to see the items listed much higher. But, as Zach said in the interview, you can’t overprice for this market and you have to know the people – so he practices what he preaches. However, he does also talk about location, so maybe he knows something we don’t and we’ll just have to wait and see. I know he has big plans for this place, so I’m sure it will be exciting to watch. I’m still eager to check out for myself.

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