Interview with Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten (Part 2 of 3)

October 2011

LL: I remember that was one of the first things that we noticed when I first started eating any of your food -- instead of all the creams it was all the nice flavors of the vegetables. I had never seen anybody that did that before.
JGV: No I probably was one of the first ones. When you boil or cook something in water you lose the life half of it is gone. The nutrition part and the flavor. We go to the market four times a week. The green market. We go Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturdays. All the local stuff is starting now. That's when we started our 27 vegetable dish because we went to the market one day and we found 27 vegetables and that's where the dish started.

LL: You wouldn't think there'd be that much variety because it's all local and you can only grow so many things. But when you walk around there you can see the variety.
JGV: It's amazing. Take beets. There's white beets, golden beets, striped beets, red beets and watermelon beets. So there's five different kind of beets right there. So many things, so many vegetables, so many combinations. Then the root vegetable, parsley roots, parsnip, carrots, same family of root. And all the radishes, we use white radishes, red radishes, pink radishes, icicles, purple radishes There are so many different things, so many different flavors. Black radishes. So you quickly get 27 vegetables.

LL: Do you order ahead of time? Or just go and get a lot of it?
JGV: You get the produce first and then you decide what to cook. Because if you think, OK I need this and this, and you don't find it look so hard for it and when you do find it it's not really in season. The best thing is to get your produce first, walk around. You eat with your eyes before you eat on your plate. Get the stuff that you think is beautiful and fresh and nice. That's what we do to get the inspiration. For my special next week, I will go to the market on Saturday. Beautiful corn, see corn and tomato, that's great together. You see something else, you mix it in. You see fresh soy beans, there's so many things.

LL: It is inspiring. How would you describe your food?
JGV: At JoJo I would say it's ... I don't know how to explain it. It's difficult to put a name on it. The way I describe in the past, I say it's French food, but for New York. In Europe when people go to a restaurant, they go for a location. Remember, everyone cooks at home often and very well. So when they go to a restaurant they want something very elaborate, something they can't do at home. In New York it's different. I take New York as an example, because maybe more in New York than any place else, people go to a restaurant 4 or 5 times a week. So you can just eat like you would eat in France. I think that's why people say oh in France it's very heavy. But that's what people want. My mother cooks very well at home, but when she goes to a restaurant, she doesn't want to see a simple soup or a simple salad. She can do that at home. She wants something with a sauce that she never can do at home. She wants something really elaborate. In New York when you go to a restaurant five times a week, you must eat simple and light. So I think JoJo is French food for New York. It's food for every day.

LL: And then Vong?
JGV: The base is French, and then Thai. It's French-Thai. It's not Thai-French. Because all the techniques of cooking are French and all the way we grill, the way we saute, the way we braise, and poach and steam are not Thai. But all the spices and herbs and vegetables are Asian. Some people say east meets west, etc. etc. sometimes it's west meets west and sometimes it's east meets east.

I think it's my memories of my four years in Asia. I remember all the smells and soups and fusion. I think Asia really woke up a new way of cooking for me. In French everything starts with a stock, beef stock, chicken stock, fish stock, everything starts with a heavy duty stock. In Thailand everything starts with water. When you do a soup in Thailand it starts with water, then you put lemongrass infuse it, you put Thai pepper, lime leaf, etc. Then you put in your mushroom and then shrimp. Everything starts with water. It's much lighter, it's much more fragrant with the spices.

It really wakes up something in me, something different. You don't have to do stocks to cook. And we don't do any stocks here. You cook a stock for six hours, chicken with water, or beef with water, what tastes after six hours? Who wants to taste that? That's cooking from 100 years ago.

I'm against the traditional things they're teaching in France in school. They are teaching the cooking of one guy, Escoffier, which is stocks and heavy sauces. That's not really French cooking. They should teach in school the regional French cooking. When you go to the south of France, there's no cream and butter in the bouillabaisse. I come from Alsace and charcuterie there's no cream and butter in charcuterie. There's cabbage, there's pork, there's oil fattening, but there's no cream and butter in the regional food. It's like in Italy. People don't understand that. They think they are cooking from the same text. From Escoffier. They shouldn't. He was one guy. Escoffier was ... People are cooking like that for 150 years now. They're still teaching the cooking in schools. In regional cooking there was no stock. My mother never did stocks at home -- she does French as Asian cooking. There's no stocks. When she roasts a chicken, she throws a glass of water, she doesn't do a chicken stock on the whole combination. I think they should start teaching in school regional food like Italy.

LL: You have escargot on the menu. Do you think that we'll be seeing more escargot around?
JGV: Perhaps, I grew up with this kind of stuff frog legs, escargot, really a delicacy. Are they going to come back strong? I don't think so. But they're going to be around. The reason I introduced them again was to try something new. There's no new fish coming out of the ocean every morning. You always have the salmon, the bass, the tuna. There's nothing new growing every day. Sometimes you discover a new seed, a new spice from somewhere in South America or from India. But I think the basic fish, vegetable and meat are the same all the time. As a professional I think for me, my niche is to create new flavors because things are the same. Veal is veal. Beef is beef. Salmon is salmon. But I try to create a new way of cooking it.

When I cooked for you that salmon cooked at 200 degrees? It keeps all its moisture. Because we have all the time the same ingredients. I think a chef should be cooking seasonally. You should really be innovative by using new techniques and new flavors. And to do that you have to bring new spices, that's what I do. I try to make that salmon taste different. In texture and in flavor. Try to bring some kind of spice to make it a new salmon. Revised.

LL: It's amazing how you think of so many things.
JGV: I've been doing it for 25 years so ...

LL: Even more so, if you've been doing it for 25 years, after a while ... what inspires you? How do you think of these things?
JGV: People think salmon, how boring. And I say no, it's not boring, it's a good fish. But let's try to bring something to make it a different texture, a different flavor. And I work with it. I work with my salmon. And we come up with what's new. Cooking salmon is mostly dry. If you grill it ... If you put salmon on a direct pan or on a direct flame, it gets dry. No matter what you do with it. So I had to find a new technique to cook it to keep all it's moisture. So at 200 degrees it came out perfect.

LL: Your fish is truly spectacular.
JGV: There's fish and there's fish. We buy fish from small boats. There are two kinds of fish any place you can buy. You have fish from day boats, they leave at 5 o'clock in the morning. They come back at 12 because they are small boats, they don't have enough gas ... And they bring the fish back right away, the fish never touch the ice. They wrap it in newspaper and they put it in the fridge. And you have the big boats and they leave on Monday and come back on Friday and the fish is in the market on the next Monday. If you are unlucky, you buy the fish that is already a week old. It's already sitting on ice for a week. You have to buy day boat fish which never touch the ice. As soon as it touches the ice it cooks differently, the meat changes.

LL: Where do you like to eat when you're not in the restaurant?
JGV: I like to eat in Chinatown. I have a craving for ethnic food. I'm always up for research of new flavors, new texture. And by eating at those restaurants I always learn something. Like texture ... we eat with our five senses and that's important I think. I eat with my five senses. Smell, touch, eating with your fingers. It's very important to eat with your five senses. When I go to a restaurant, I always catch something. It's a fascinating business, because you always learn, every day you learn about something different. By cooking something a different way, discover a new flavor. It's all about flavor. It's all about senses.

I don't want to copy anybody, that's the thing. I hesitate to go to colleagues. Sometimes I have to go because of this and that. But I try never to go to colleagues. Because then you pick up an idea from them and I hate to do that.

To be continued in Part 3