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Chef Zod Arifai on Creating New Dishes, Writing Music, & Wicked Jane

Cover Image for Chef Zod Arifai on Creating New Dishes, Writing Music, & Wicked Jane
By Sophie Brochu

You can find Wicked Jane in New York City’s Greenwich Village, across the street from Electric Lady Studios. For owner Zod Arifai, it’s fitting. The chef has a background in rock & roll. These days, he begins his mornings by drinking espresso and playing guitar. At his tasting menu restaurant, which opened last July, Arifai leans into his creative subconscious to unearth ideas for new dishes.

Where does the name Wicked Jane come from?

When I was a musician, I would go on these long drives, hum things into a tape recorder, then come home and put them into guitar. That’s how I always wrote songs. So, I decided to take a ride. It was November, it had just snowed. I went up to north Jersey where it’s mountainous, and I’m driving around, and the world just looked black and white because of the snow. There was no sun. The trees were hanging down, falling from all the ice and snow and everything was black and white. It just looked wicked and unusual, like there was no life on earth. The name wicked stuck with me. So, then I’m thinking, you know, what’s next? It can’t just be called wicked. The next part of the name had to sound comforting to others to hear. I actually went through the alphabet with names, Wicked Ashley, Wicked Brenda, wicked whatever. And as soon as I hit wicked Jane, I knew that was it. It sounded very rock and roll, which is what the restaurant was set to be. Because we’re across the street from Electric Lady Studios, an iconic studio. Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Kiss. Everyone has recorded there. With my rock and roll background, being in a band, it just sounded perfect.

Do you still write music?

Unfortunately, I can’t stop it. Every day. Every morning I wake up, I make a coffee, and I usually drink four espressos in the morning—that’s what I’m doing right now—and I play guitar. It’s the only chance I really have to play throughout the day. It’s like creating dishes. Ideas just come. I just don’t have the time and energy to put all those dishes into place. And same thing with music, with writing songs in music. I can’t stop it. I can be on a train, I can be working or whatever, and ideas just come. And sometimes, if it’s really good, I’ll hum it into the iPhone, and then go home and put it into music. But again, what am I going to do with it? I probably have thousands of those songs and some of them are great. Great music that the world will never hear, which is sad.

So, you don’t record or perform any longer?

No, no. I’m over that. It’s been 20 years now. Once I started cooking, I didn’t play guitar at all anymore. And then one day I was over at a friend’s, who was a chef too, and he had guitars in his basement, and he was like, “Come on, let’s go jam.” And I’m like, “No, I haven’t played in 18 years.” And he was like, “No, no, come on. Let’s go.” And I got hooked again. Cooking and food became my life, but I still had a guitar at my mom’s house, so I went by and grabbed the guitar, and took it to my place. I really just play in the morning, but I would love to have a chance to record these songs, but who knows?

Yeah I get that, I play as well.

You play guitar, you sing? What do you do?

Both. Yep.

What kind of music?

Dream-pop, indie rock.

Unfortunately, I don’t really keep up with what’s happening today. I have no clue. I grew up with hard rock. Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath were obviously my favorite bands. Aerosmith and Kiss and then Motley Crew and things like that. So, that’s the music that I listen to. I tend to listen to hard rock and some metal, but I also love Prince and James Brown.

What kind of music do you have playing at the restaurant?

It’s rock. Actually, if you have some suggestions for some bands that I can put into my playlist, music that’s a little upbeat that has some mood to it, has some kind of groove to it. I try searching for some stuff online, or whatever, but I’m not getting anywhere.

Yeah, it’s pretty oversaturated, it can be hard to sort through.

I’ll listen to thousands of hours of something before I find something I like. I need something that’s moody, but a little upbeat. So, with possibly some sort of a groove or something. So the music doesn’t feel sad and people don’t start crying in the restaurant, or whatever.

Not to change the subject, but do you have a core philosophy on cooking?

We concentrate mostly on flavor and then making the dishes look nice. You see them first before you eat them. So, the philosophy is that it has to be really flavorful before we can do anything with it. We can’t find a way to plate something that doesn’t really taste good. It might look good, but my thing has always been about flavor.

“We can’t find a way to plate something that doesn’t really taste good. It might look good, but my thing has always been about flavor.”

I read that you’re offering a taste of “pre-pandemic New York City” and I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about what this means.

Wicked Jane, before the pandemic, was going to be only a tasting venue restaurant with 16 courses. When we opened last year, right in the middle of this craziness with only outdoor dining, we really could not offer that experience. So, I decided to do a toned-down version of some of the original dishes. Again, the dishes would be flavorful, but not as complex as a tasting menu before the pandemic. So, that’s what we decided to do.

Also, there were just two of us in the kitchen, and now, it’s just me in the kitchen, believe it or not. Just one person doing everything. Me and a dishwasher. I can’t find help. So, because it was just the two of us, we also had to think about plating, because to do intricate plating, you need a lot of hands to place things on dishes. And then this year, we decided to go back to that goal. Taking Wicked Jane back to what she was supposed to be before. We’re slowly moving in that direction.

How big is your team right now?

I have six in the dining room and two in the kitchen.

Is there a dish on the menu that you’re most excited about right now?

No, but our duck has been with me pretty much the same way for quite some time. I came across it maybe 20 years ago and I’m still cooking it the same way. Everyone says it’s the best duck they’ve ever had. It’s exciting to hear people continuously telling you it’s the best duck they’ve ever had. Even after 20 years, it’s still exciting. But I don’t necessarily have a favorite dish. I don’t even have a favorite ingredient to work with. I change things, I don’t use recipes. I never used to write things down, but I write things down now so we have some reference to a dish, but once it goes off the menu, that’s it. The dish is gone. I don’t really bring it back. If I do bring it back, it would be the same ingredients, but probably prepared completely different because I don’t keep track of what I did with that one dish a year ago. So, it might be similar to that dish, but not necessarily. I’m not going back and looking at the recipe to try to redo something I did a year ago. It would just be that version of that dish, for the moment. I call it cooking for the moment in terms of your feelings.

“I’m not going back and looking at the recipe to try to redo something I did a year ago. I call it cooking for the moment.”

Would you say it’s similar with songwriting?

Yeah, before I learned how to hum things into a recorder, a melody would come in, and I’d be like, damn, I’ve got to remember this. And by the time I got to wherever I was going, I would have forgotten it. Now I can hum something into my phone and transfer it into actual music. But I still don’t do it with food. I don’t know why. I think it’s because I don’t want to repeat myself. I think, obviously once I get a big crew in the kitchen, I do have to write things down for them to be able to make these dishes without me. I don’t plan on working 80 hours a week like I am now. That’s why you have a team in place. Right now, I’m really just improvising. It’s like when, I don’t know if bands today still jam on stage or not, but for instance, Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd, they were known to just jam for half an hour in the middle of a song. And I feel like that’s what I’m doing now. I’m just jamming.

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