Otto Zizak Jr.
Otto Zizak Jr. (born Otto Žižák), 1976
Otto Zizak Jr. was born in Poprad, Slovakia, in 1976. Before immigrating, his father, Otto, worked as an engineer and on an agricultural cooperative while his mother, Božena, was an economist. Otto was a member of the Young Pioneer group and enjoyed sports and music. Shortly after the Velvet Revolution in 1989, Otto’s father left for the United States, and Otto and his mother joined him at the end of the school year. He says that although his first impressions of JFK Airport were ‘daunting,’ his impressions of life in the city improved significantly. The Žižáks settled in Brooklyn where Otto started high school. Otto attended the City University of New York (CUNY) and majored in psychology. He then began graduate classes in the same subject and worked for his parents while they were starting their own business. Otto was also interested in interior design and renovations and worked on several construction projects.
On one of his return trips to Slovakia, Otto reconnected with an old schoolmate, Maria. She moved to the United States in 2002 and the pair married shortly thereafter. Drawing on Maria’s background in the hospitality industry and Otto’s experience in construction, in 2007 they opened Korzo, a restaurant in Brooklyn which incorporates the flavors of Slovakia and other European countries with local, seasonal ingredients. They have since opened a second location. Otto occasionally writes and records music, both in English and Slovak, and has had the opportunity to perform with well-known Slovak artists. Otto and Maria have three children who speak fluent Slovak and enjoy visiting Slovakia. Today, Otto’s family lives in New York City.
Finding certain albums in communist Czechoslovakia, says Otto, was difficult
“As a young child, I was into the domestic things that were available so it was fine. I didn’t feel deprived. But in the later years, in seventh, eighth grade, I was getting into bands from abroad and different styles of rock music and whatnot, and that was not available at all. We had to go Poland and buy bootlegged tapes and that sort of thing. I remember in seventh or eighth grade, when we would go on trips to Poland, I would buy certain tapes and then trade them with classmates in school, so we did do a lot of that.”
In 1990, Otto and his mother joined his father in New York City
“[My] first impression when I flew in was a little daunting and scary. At JFK Airport, the path through immigration at that time – I don’t know what it’s like these days – it was in the basement, underground, with literally thousands of people standing in line, and, after having traveled for basically two days straight, I was tired. Everything was dark and people were tense and tired around me. So those were the very first impressions.”
And when you saw New York City?
“When I got out of the airport, things very quickly got much better. We saw the sun, and we had pizza the first day in Brooklyn, which was quite delicious; right off the bat I was a fan. It was great. The first days, weeks, were sparkly and magical.”
Otto describes how he and his wife Maria came to own and manage two restaurants in Brooklyn
“My love of food, having been brought up in a setting where a meal was always a cultural experience, both in my grandmother’s house and my parents’ apartment; my mom and dad were great cooks and there was a passion for cooking. Throughout graduate studies and thereafter, my other hobby or passion was design, interior design. I did some major apartment designs and renovations and actually built a house from scratch that I initially lived in, and then it became a bit of a business, so that was the other side of me doing things with my hands and loving to cook. So when the time was right, I did have, I guess, an epiphany that joined those two things, in my head at the time at least, and I decided that I will open a restaurant one day, when the time is right.
“She [Maria] had, aside from being an amazing cook and baker, run a hotel and restaurant in Slovakia after having graduated from college, so she was always in the hospitality business. After I finished my graduate school stuff and we were debating which direction to take our careers in, we very much wanted to start our own business. She had a degree in economics in Slovakia and when debating whether to get a job or do our own thing, we definitely wanted to do our own thing, so she pursued her hospitality studies further. She went to the Institute of Culinary Education where she got a diploma both as a chef and a restaurant manager. I designed my restaurants hands on and we collaborate on the menus, we run it, we don’t have managers; this is what we do. I think it was a very organic transition from doing what we love and having had experience in difference facets of it and doing it.”
Otto reflects on finding a meaningful balance between his Slovak and American backgrounds
“I’d like to say that, as not the youngest person at the moment, but I consider myself an active adult, I’m always pleased when I see barriers being broken down between being Slovak and being American as well. I’m continuously proud when I encounter people who are from Slovakia and the region who get it. Who don’t base their entire existence on the fact that they are Slovak. Who live their lives as good people and are respectful of their background, their heritage, but get with the program of what it means to be an American. I think that’s the fine balance of investing your energy into things that are useful for people, for you, and that’s what I’m trying to do. Do good, concrete things, such as food, such as music, that may or may not be remembered, but I’m trying to contribute. Any time I can make a reference to the old world, I am very proud of doing it. And I’m very proud of living in a country that allows me to do it, and gives me the freedom and is not judgmental of any of it.”
Category: New York City, Oral History