The founding partners of StarChefs.com, Fern Berman
and Patti Greaney, interviewed you over two years
ago, so I recommend that our readers go
back to that interview to familiarize themselves
with your successes and story up to that time. Now
I hope that you will catch everyone up to the present
and let our readers know about some of the future
plans for the Jean-Georges Empire.
Would you please tell about what's been going on
with your restaurants, books, and product line since
you opened Vong in London at the end of 1995.
First, I'll talk about Vong.
Vong is easy for us to clone because it has a
restaurant menu which is all about recipes that
use particular spices. Every recipe which is prepared
at Vong in New York, Hong Kong, London and Mexico
City is a precise, computerized recipe. I like
to say that it's like alchemy. In April, 1999,
we will be opening another Vong in Chicago. My
plans are to open probably two or three more Vong
Restaurants, maybe in Los Angeles, Paris and San
Francisco. Of course, I'm not trying to be McDonald's
in any stretch of the imagination.
about our new concept restaurant, Mercer
Kitchen in the Mercer Hotel in SoHo, New York.
It has 30 seats with everyone sitting in the kitchen.
The food is simple. The menu is casual including
pizza which is prepared in the wood-burning oven.
There's a raw bar which features appetizers and
a salad bar and a pantry area. Some of the offerings
are: Terrine of Foie Gras, Sautéed Mushrooms
and Grilled Portabello Mushrooms.
newest venture is Prime at Bellagio in Las Vegas.
We thought that Las Vegas was not ready for Vong,
so we opened a different kind of steakhouse and
it's doing extremely well. There are different
appetizers, ten cuts of meats, ten choices of
potatoes such as pommes souffles and a choice
of sauces. It has more of a European feel than
that of a traditional American steakhouse. We're
serving 500 people a night!
restaurant philosophy is all about creating cravings.
I try to create places that fulfill peoples' cravings.
People become comfortable with a couple of items
on the menu in a particular restaurant and I keep
those favorites on the menu all the time. People
come back for the foods that they are comfortable
with and then again maybe about 30% of the people,
especially in New York City, want new items on
the menu when they revisit my restaurants.
my cookbooks. I'm working on a new book with Mark
Bittman which is going to be published around
September, 2000. Mark and I devote a whole day
once a week to this interesting project. The working
title at this moment is "Simple To Complex." We
choose one ingredient item/dish such as scrambled
eggs and create five variations for the dish.
For example, we give recipes for plain scrambled
eggs to scrambled eggs with tomato and basil to
eggs with caviar and vodka cream or with truffle
oil. There will be about 300 recipes in all.
Note: Since my
interview with Jean-Georges he has been nominated
for two prominent cookbook awards for Jean-Georges
Cooking at Home with a Four-Star Chef (Broadway
Books, 1998) which he co-authored with Mark Bittman.
It has received a nomination for the 1999 James
Beard Foundation/Kitchenaid Book Award in the
Chefs and Restaurants Category and also a nomination
for the 1999 IACP Julia Child Book Awards for
the Food & Wine Award in the Chefs and Restaurants
Category. Congratulations Jean-Georges!
The Vong product line is sold at Williams-Sonoma.
They pushed us to develop the line and we started
with Vong Peanut Sauce, Vong Tamarind Sauce and
Sweet and Sour Sauce which is made with red chilies.
Not too long ago, I was invited to do a cooking
demonstration at the Culinary Institute of America
at Greystone in the Napa Valley. It was grape-harvesting
season in the mountains as we drove through and
the vintners to whom I spoke were throwing away
all the grape seeds that remain during the wine-making
process. We were the first to convince wineries
to use the grape seeds to produce California grapeseed
oil and we launched a Grapeseed Oil Company. So
now we have oils as well. We have added three
flavored vinegars to the Vong products - Passionfruit,
Truffle Juice and Tropical Balsamic. There are
also three ready-made spice mixes available -
Homemade Curry which incorporates seven different
spices, Fisherman's Spice and Nuts and Seeds which
contains coriander, cumin, sesame seeds, fenugreek
- a wonderful taste! There are twelve products
in all created to suit people's specific needs.
When I think about what you have accomplished
and your vast influence in the world of food since
you came to America just a little over 12 years
ago, I can only say, Jean-Georges, HOW DO YOU
DO IT? How do you oversee 9 restaurants located
all over the world? How do you create cookbooks
that are cutting-edge, receive rave reviews and
become best-sellers over night? How do you manage
to have contact with all the people who are part
of your food and restaurant projects? How do you
have a personal life? How do you have time and
some energy left just for you? How do you juggle
all the publicity, charity and promotional demands
that are an everyday occurrence in your life?
It's all about people. I can't be everywhere.
When I opened JoJo,
I decided there and then that I didn't want to
spend my life in just one place. We've had the
same managers and crews in our restaurants for
years. They run their "own restaurants." It's
all about having the right chefs, the right sous
chefs and all the other people that it takes to
run successful restaurants. The difficult part
is training people to perform to the best of their
abilities and to share my food and hospitality
philosophies. Learning to shop for the best ingredients
is vital. The chef at JoJo has been with me for
eight years and the chef at the New York Vong
and I have worked together for fourteen years.
We can cook together without even speaking. It's
like a marriage - you need to know the other person's
needs. I want the people who work in my restaurants
to treat them like they are their own. That's
why we give equities in the restaurants to staff
all about the human factor. I think that everybody
works to about 40% of their capacity. I push myself
to work to what I consider to be about 60% of
my working capacity. I love to create, not to
repeat. For fifteen years in France, I prepared
other chef's dishes. Now I cherish the opportunity
to invent new flavors and tastes since I hate
to repeat the same old thing. And I thrive on
the diversity. Everyday is different for me. Most
nights I go to three of the five New York restaurants
in a four hour time period, 6:00 to 10:00 PM,
checking on the kitchen, visiting with staff and
diners and often making special trips to say "hi"
to movie stars and other celebrities. I work from
8:00 in the morning to midnight. I need eight
hours of sleep. About once every five weeks, I
travel abroad. I go about four times a year to
visit each of these locations: Vong in London
and Vong in Hong Kong and I visit my family in
Alsace. Every time I travel I bring back something
new from the people I talk to everywhere, from
other plane passengers to the people who work
in the kitchens and all the places I go to in
between. It's very important for me to travel.
As soon as I cross a bridge or go through a tunnel
to leave Manhattan I start feeling different and
take on a different mind set. Life here is intense
and I need to escape from it every so often and
In the last interview that StarChefs.com conducted,
you made the lovely statement that, "You eat with
your eyes before you eat on your plate". Do you
also "visualize" the unusual new flavor combinations
that you are constantly creating? Or do all your
flavor creations come from hands-on trials in
My food is simple, 70% of what I create is dependent
on the ingredients. My cooking philosophy is not
to destroy quality ingredients. I rely on spices
and techniques. There are not new foods anymore,
but there are new flavors. I do a lot of thinking
about flavors and I definitely taste in my mind.
When we think about the flavors, we taste them.
We taste with all five senses. I work on proper
balances. For example, if a food is fatty, it
needs acidity to balance the flavor. It's most
important to become really good at thinking about
food. Chefs need to know what's good. Too many
chefs don't taste their own food. They don't know
if it's complete, if it's too heavy, if it's missing
the restaurants, I believe very strongly in working
as a team. We all sit down to lunch at 3:30 and
at 11:30 for dinner. We talk about the food and
comment about what it needs to be better. I learn
from other chefs. There are 140 people working
in my restaurants. I want to have an open mind
and keep communication open among everyone.
What new spices, cuisines, suppliers, and inspirations
are you working with these days?
I'm very interested in new spices. Recently, I
took a class on herbs. Did you know that there
are 3,000 species of edible herbs in North America?
In springtime, the growth is really amazing!
Vong is all about spices and herbs. They're magical.
When people eat the food and say, "I never tasted
this before!", then I know that they get it and
this is what pushes me. That's my drive!
That's what's particularly great about New York
City. There are more possibilities - the people
are more open which is not the way it is in Europe.
In the past, you lamented that regional cuisines,
for example those of France and Italy, were not
being taught to future chefs in the most-respected
cooking schools in Europe. Is this still the case?
What do you see happening in the cooking schools
here in the U.S.?
In Europe, things have changed now in the last
two to three years. As I said in the last interview,
the French traditional cooking schools were known
for using recipes that used heavy cream, lots
of butter and other very rich ingredients. My
mother who is an excellent regional French cook
wouldn't cook like that. Now the French cooking
schools are teaching about regional food in France.
The schools in the U.S. are great. Their programs
teach all about different cuisines. They are globally
oriented. There's no restaurant in this city that
doesn't have a piece of ginger as an ingredient
in at least one recipe. There's no more boring
food and everyone is using fresh ingredients.
tell our readers what new Jean-Georges experiences
and culinary treats they can expect in the near
future? What would you most like to be doing ten
years from now?
I've told you about what's in the works. My dream
is to have a little hotel in Southeast Asia with
about ten rooms. Only friends will stay there
and nobody will pay!
by Laura Lehrman
out the previous StarChefs interview with Jean-Georges