He’s always loved cooking for people, but Chef Bill Zucosky hasn’t always been a chef. Lucky for us, he came to his senses. Here’s our spotlight on Chef Zucosky of The Strip House in Livingston, located at the Westminster Hotel.
JERSEY BITES: What is your earliest food memory?
CHEF BILL ZUCOSKY: I come from a big Sicilian family. Every Sunday it was family dinner, and I remember as a child, making pizzas with my aunts. We made a lot of things, but one thing that visibly sticks out is just making pizzas with them. I was maybe five or six years old.
When did you realize you wanted to make cooking a career? Was there an “a-ha” moment?
As a child, I was a boy scout and a cub scout. My first camping trip I went on, our troop cook made scrambled eggs and they were crunchy. So I was like, “Oh, these are horrible. I can make eggs better than this.” I was already cooking at home at that age, so I took it upon myself to start to cook for my [troop], and I really enjoyed it. That was really the first time I cooked for anybody other than my family, and people liked it. I’m talking about heating a tin can over a fire, setting up a grill, cooking meat that we marinated, making eggs in the morning. And then in middle school in my home economics class, I won a cooking contest. We made chicken nuggets and I made a special sauce. At the end of that school year, we had a graduation ceremony—my parents were there—and my name was called to come up to the stage. My dad looked at me and said, “What did you do now?” They thought I got in trouble or something, but I actually won a partial scholarship to go to culinary school through my home economics class. And then in high school, anytime there was a house party or someone’s parents went away, I’d be in the kitchen cooking stuff for everybody. Then I went to college for environmental engineering and didn’t really even think about culinary school, even though I knew I always liked cooking and cooking for people. I got into the flooring business—tile and carpeting installer—and one day we were picking up this big heavy carpet and my boss’ back made this loud crunch sound and he was laying on the ground in tears. He looked up at me and said, “Billy, don’t do this, do what you want to do.” So then I decided I was going to go to culinary school. So you could say that the guy lying on his back was an “a-ha” moment.
Any interesting stories about where and with whom you started cooking professionally?
I did a lot of work while I was in culinary school at the James Beard House, and I worked with a chef named Gary Danko from San Francisco—a pretty reputable chef out there and still is today—I worked with him for about two or three days at the house. He was working a special dinner, and he said to me, “Go out to the liquor store and get me a six-pack of Budweiser.” So I said, “But chef, we have all this nice wine here,” and he said, “You gotta do what you gotta do.” Here’s this guy, he’s serving foie gras, caviar, boneless quail, and we’re drinking Budweisers that we put in a tub of ice water. It made me think, “I was a carpet installer and I drank plenty of Budweiser, so I think I can be a good chef.”
What is your cooking style?
My cooking style is very eclectic now. I love all of the Asian sauces, I love all of the Indian condiments, I love all of the Mexican and Latin spices, so I pull things from everywhere that I like or that sticks out in my head. I have a bottle of ponzu sauce in my cupboard because I like it and it tastes good on a lot of things.
What is your greatest opportunity that has come from cooking?
I just like to make people happy. Serving a great product, getting recognized. We purchase a great product here at Strip House. We get the best produce, the best meats, fresh fish, and it’s great to have the opportunity to work with those things—to be lucky enough to work with a product like that.
What is the most memorable meal you’ve had, what did you eat and where was it?
I was in Costa Rica at Rincón de la Vieja, about four or five years ago. It was at a volcano in Costa Rica at a horse ranch there, and these women made us these homemade, fresh empanadas and some barbecue chicken. And it was memorable because it was delicious and I was a plane on top of a volcano on top of the world, basically. I’ve had dinner at Gramercy Tavern and other places in the city that were phenomenal and great, but for some reason where I was—I was at a great location—I had this great meal that I can’t make myself, these empanadas that make my mouth water just thinking about them.
It’s your last day on earth: what will your final meal be?
Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream. That would totally be it, and not just the little one. I’m getting the quart container.
What is the best advice you have to share with young people interested in becoming chefs?
Cooking for the public and cooking for yourself are two different things. You’ve really got to love it. Even if someone doesn’t like your food, you still have to love what you do. That’s what I tell any interns that come in here. You’re not going to be home on holidays, you’re going to be gone because you are working. Working in fine dining, you can count on working every night and every weekend, so you better absolutely make sure you love it and have passion in food and customer service. To be a chef you need to be a “yes” person. Chefs who say no to customers just don’t make it. Culinary school jazzes things up for some people. I’ve seen chefs be very disappointed and quit on it. So you need to try and get a job in a restaurant before you decide to go to school, so you can see what it’s all about and the demand it takes.
If you could choose to be any food item, what would it be?
I think it would amaebi, which is a sweet shrimp. You could eat me raw, cooked, you could fry my head, and I’m good. I think they’re really succulent and delicious.
What is the one staple food you always have in your cupboard at home?
What is your beverage of choice?
Margarita. On the rocks, Patrón Silver. Agave syrup is my new thing, so that and a little salt.
What is your favorite comfort food?
Spaghetti and meatballs. My mom makes it for me. She got the recipe from her mom, and when I have a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, it’s just so good. I make it, too, but it’s not as good as my mom’s.
What New Jersey restaurant do you enjoy dining at, besides your own?
Avenue in Long Branch. It has a nice classical French chef. It’s the type of food I used to read about, and I really like it. The floor-to-ceiling windows, the view of the ocean. They have a lot of really cool specialty drinks too so I really like that place.
If you could have dinner with any three people, living, deceased or fictional, who would they be and why?
Steve McQueen, Burt Lancaster, and John Wayne. I don’t know why. Cool tough guys out on the range. A Dutch oven, with a can of baked beans and a side of beef. All of us at once, and I can figure out who is the toughest and the coolest of us all.
Are you working on any upcoming projects our readers would be interested in learning?
We just re-did all of our banquet and corporate social menus. We’re experimenting with some new cool stuff. Like for our hors d’oeuvres we’re serving pigs in a blanket with a shot of beer next to it, and mini grilled-cheese sandwiches with a shot of tomato soup. Something that people can take away with them when they leave.
Strip House Restaurant
550 West Mount Pleasant Ave.
Earlier this year, The Strip House and The Westminster Hotel were named the 2014 Businesses of the Year by the Livingston Area Chamber of Commerce. Click here for our coverage of the awards reception.
Rachel Bozek is a writer and editor based in suburban Essex County. She loves interviewing chefs and restaurateurs—especially the ones who love New Jersey. She grew up in Bergen County, and has lost track of how much time she’s spent on LBI and in the Wildwoods. After graduating from James Madison University, Rachel spent 10 years at Nickelodeon, where she was an editor at Nickelodeon Magazine. Now she does a range of editorial work, including trivia writing for all ages, kid-friendly content, marketing research, and of course, Jersey Bites! Through it all, her search for the perfect pancake continues. You can find her on Twitter (@rachelbozek) or view some of her work here.