Interview with Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten (Part 1 of 3)

October 2011

As 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 and spice his paint. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as we did conducting it.

Laura Lehrman: When did you know you wanted to be a chef?
Jean-Georges Vongerichten: 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.

LL: Really?
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 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.

LL: Where was that? Outside Paris?
JGV: Strasbourg. I think that influenced me a lot and my cooking.

LL: 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.

LL: What school?
JGV: 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 somebody. 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 any place. 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.

LL: What drew you to bring French and Asian cuisine together?
JGV: After 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.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 Thai.

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. That's it.

LL: Where 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!

LL: You 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.

LL: 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.

LL: How 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 New York.

LL: Back to the kitchen for a moment. What is your most used piece kitchen equipment?
JGV: 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 juice.

LL: Weren't you one of the first to use vegetable juices rather than creams?
JGV: Vegetable 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.

To be continued in Part 2.