we sat in a beautifully designed lounge
at his restaurant,
Vong in New York City, Jean Georges Vongerichten
& I talked about his history and his philosophy.
He is a true artist. He approaches his work
the way a painter does. The plate is his
palate........food and spice his paint.
I hope you enjoy this interview as much
as we did conducting it. PG & FB
did you know you wanted to be a chef?
JGV: When I was 15, 16. I spent all my youth
in the fridge. My parents were always in
the kitchen. Very involved. My parents had
a company with 50 employees. My mother cooked
lunch for them everyday.
JGV: Yes, all
the employees were truck drivers for our
coal company. They used to move coal into
the city. So my grandmother and mother were
cooking for 50 people every day. It was
like a little restaurant......at home in
the early 50's & 60's. I grew up with big
pots. A lot of food for 50 people every
lunch. And then dinner time -- a dozen.
There was always a lot of food around. I
guess I grew up with a lot happening and
a lot of smells around me.
Then when I was 15 my father wanted me to
go to school to learn about his business.
I said no, I don't want to do that, I'm
interested in cooking.
Where was that? Outside Paris?
JGV: Strasbourg. I think that influenced
me a lot and my cooking.
So from there what was your first job?
JGV: Then I
was 16, ready to go to school. I wanted
to continue school but also wanted to work
in a restaurant. So it was 1973, I did a
program which was half in school and half
work. You know, three days in school, three
days working in a restaurant.
It was Lice Hotelier of Strasbourg. I had
my family in the restaurant and school.
It was a great restaurant. I was lucky to
start in an established restaurant.
Because I was so much into food for my 16th
birthday, my parents brought me to a brassiere,
a 3-star restaurant, this was called Auberge
de L'ill. My parents asked to see the chef,
he came to the table. They are talking to
me. I'm interested in the food. He said
to stop by to trial, maybe I would meet
For two months nothing. I thought..... he
forgot about me. Two months after, he called
me, he needed some help for a week. So I
went there for a week. I was tramping around,
peeling, chopping, whatever. It was great.
I was there for a week for trial and a couple
months after they hired me -- for that program,
half school half cooking. It was like entering
into the Mafia, at the time there were only
ten 3-star restaurants in France.
I spent three years there as an apprentice.
And I never wrote a letter for a job because
I want to work at some other 3-star, just
picked up the phone and he send me over
there. I never wrote a letter for a job
For nine years I went to four 3-stars. I
went to L'Auberge de L'ill, I went to the
south of France to L'Oasis , then I went
to Paul Bocuse in Lyon and I went to Germany
to L'Aubergine in Munich.
drew you to bring French and Asian cuisine
all that training, I had an opportunity
... the chef from L'Oasis called me back
to say I am going to be consulting for the
Oriental Hotel in Bangkok. I was 23 and
he said if you want to go there, there are
chef jobs over there. I said I don't speak
any English but was very interested. I want
to learn about Asian. I learned about Alsace
and I learned south of France cooking and
Lyon cooking. I was eager to learn more,
especially about Asian ingredients. I was
23, so it was my first job as chef, but
I didn't speak any English or Thai.....
nothing. One day I said, what the hell?
So I went over there and I spoke with my
hands and fingers for six months.
It was great. It's like when you come from
Europe to America, so much changes. And
then, when you go to Asia! I mean the smell,
the region, the people, the food, the customs.
Everything was so different, so it was like
a culture shock for me. But I was taking
classes with the Thai people because when
they hire Thai people, first they give them
jobs at the back of the house until they
speak English, then they transfer them to
the front of the house. So I was taking
class every day with Thai guys to speak
English. And actually after four years in
Asia, I went to work in England and somebody
said to me, you speak English with a Chinese
accent. I said, no wonder my teacher was
Anyway, so I was over there in Bangkok for
two years and it was very frustrating to
cook over there because the hotel has five
restaurants and I was cooking in the French
restaurant and I couldn't use any of the
the local product: the lemongrass, the chili,
and the lime leaves were around me, but
I couldn't use anything because people would
come to the restaurant they wanted typical
French food: foie gras, truffle, steak au
poive all those heavy cream sauces. Thai
people come to a French restaurant -- they
didn't want to know about lemongrass --
they eat it every day. So it was kind of
frustrating. Meanwhile, I was eating Thai
food for breakfast lunch and dinner.
I had 14 cooks with me. They were all Thai.
They taught me all the ingredients. I wanted
to bring something over there about French
cooking, but I wanted to leave with a lot
of knowledge of Thai food.
Then after two years there I went to Singapore
for a year. I learned about Malaysian food.
Same thing, same frustration. I had to do
French food, but I was learning about Malaysian
food. Then after that I spent a year in
Hong Kong. Same thing there. I learned some
of the Chinese food. I worked there for
a year or two with the same company, the
Mandarin Hotel and the Oriental. Then I
went back and I worked at Beaurivage in
Geneva, then I went to open a private club
in Portugal. And after that I spent six
months in England. And then I came to America.
Boston first. I was in Boston for a year
at the Swisshotel. I liked it there. Then.......I
spent a weekend in New York and I said Wow.
was the first place in New York?
JGV: The first
place in New York was at the restaurant
in the Drake Hotel, Lafayette. I was there
five years and then I met Bob Giraldi and
Phil Suarez. We opened JoJo, then Vong and
Lipstick Cafe. Then Vong in Mexico City,
London and Hong Kong. Now Jean George at
1 Central Park West in NYC. And by the time
you read this who knows....perhaps more!
recently opened Vong in London. What has
the response been?
JGV: Very very good. Mixing Asian
and western food was nothing new in New
York. The mix was already exciting here,
but it was fairly new over there. There
are very good Indian and Asian restaurants
in London, but they are very typical. I
think Vong is half way there. I think the
mix is different than Asian food. We cook
the French way, the European way. We cook
meat medium rare, we don't use any corn
starch like we would use over there or MSG.
People want to come to Vong here -- they
recognize their food easier than they recognize
it at a Thai restaurant. We're half way
there. Thai in the flavors, but the techniques
are still European. London has been a success
I think because we brought something new
there, some new flavors.
Is it the same menu as here?
JGV: No, it's
the menu that we started with when we started
Vong three years ago. We want to introduce
the things on first the menu that started
here three years ago then probably in a
couple months we're going to bring the second
menu. We still lead in New York. That is
where we experiment everything and we test
menu items and then we transfer them to
Tom DiMarzo our chef over there. I talk
to him every day. We send him the specials
by fax. With communication today, it's easy.
It's almost as if he was a couple blocks
away. Just send by fax: this is the special,
this is the menu.
often do you go there?
JGV: I go there a week every two
months. I was there already four times.
London is a very important market for us.
Especially for New York. We increased our
business 30% this year by opening Vong in
London. We opened an international market.
We've got people from Italy, from Spain,
from France, from Germany, from London.
Those people travel. They heard about us
in Europe now, so they want to stop by in
Back to the kitchen
for a moment. What is your most used piece
I love my juicer. It extracts the best flavor,
the natural flavor for vegetables. I'm a
big fan of vegetables. And fruit as well.
The juicer I use is mostly for vegetables.
Carrot juice, zucchini juice, asparagus
you one of the first to use vegetable juices
rather than creams?
juices existed for a long time. Probably
one of the first of my recipes to use them
really to cook with to put shrimp with carrot
juice. People are doing a lot of purees
of vegetable, there you're losing a little
bit of vitamins and fragrance of the vegetable.
Juicing them raw and then cook with them
is a much healthier way. Nutrition-wise
it's much healthier.
Part II of