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

October 2011

(continued)

LL: 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.

JGV: 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 Vongs, maybe in Los Angeles, Paris and San Francisco. Of course, I'm not trying to be McDonald's in any stretch of the imagination.

Now 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.

Our 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!

My 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.

About 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.

LL: 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?

JGV: 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 members.

It's 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 return refreshed.

LL: 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 the kitchen?

JGV: 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 something.

In 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.

LL: What new spices, cuisines, suppliers, and inspirations are you working with these days?

JGV: 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.

LL: 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.?

JGV: 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.

LL: Please 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?

JGV: 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!