Interview with Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten
By Margie Goldsmith
Jean-Georges Vongerichten is one of the world’s most famous chefs, as well as a savvy businessman. Born and raised in Alsace, France, he is responsible for the operation and success of 60 restaurants worldwide. His flagship, Jean-Georges, has two Michelin stars, and he has published four cookbooks and a memoir, JGV: A Life in 12 Recipes. Chef Jean-Georges has appeared on the Today Show, Good Morning America, Top Chef, NBC’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Late Night with Seth Meyers, and many more.
Involved in every aspect of his restaurants from concept and menu to architectural design, staff selection, training and finishing touches, the 66-year-old master has created timely and enduring restaurants, constantly innovating fresh ideas and impacting the global culinary landscape. Still, after 50 years of success, his favorite retreat remains the kitchen, and his favorite meal from a street cart in Thailand.
With three children and four grandchildren, Jean-Georges’ son, Cedric, followed his father into the culinary world with five restaurants of his own. His daughter, Louise, runs a foundation called Food Dreams, which aims to bridge the gap between underprivileged students and the culinary community. His youngest daughter, Chloe, is a student at NYC’s Fashion Institute of Technology. I caught up with Jean-Georges in his “cooking studio” in one of his latest ventures, the Tin Building at the historic South Street Seaport in New York City.
You were born and brought up in Alsace, in Eastern France, with two brothers, a sister, parents, and grandparents, making you a household of 12 people, all of whom ate lunch and dinner together. As a young kid, what did you want to be?
I wanted to be a DJ or a clothing designer or an architect. I ended up being a cook.
At the age of eight, you became an altar boy.
I became an altar boy because my mother went to church every Sunday. I poured the wine and sometimes drank it.
At 14, you stole a motorbike. Your parents sent you to parochial school, but you cut classes. They sent you to a trade school, but you didn’t attend classes and got kicked out. How did your parents feel about your future?
Very bad, like I was never going to be anybody.
Your father and grandfather were both in the coal business and hoped you’d take it over. Did you hope to?
When you’re 14 years old, you question yourself, wondering, what I’m going to do? I don’t want to be them. I want to be myself.
Your mother cooked elaborate lunches and dinners every single day. Did anything about her cooking push you in the direction of food?
No, I feel like I developed a palate on my own. My mother learned from her mother. Everything came from the garden or from the market. It was all home-made, nothing was re-heated. When you feed 12 people, there’s never anything left. I wasn’t paying attention to the cooking, but I was eating.
For your 16th birthday, your family took you to Auberge de l’ill, a three-Michelin star restaurant in Alsace. What did your father say to the famous chef, Paul Haeberlin, when he came to your table?
He said, “My son’s good for nothing, so please let him wash dishes.” And they said, “We may find something for him like peeling food or washing dishes.”
Turning 16 is a big deal. I’d never gone to a restaurant. We were always eating at home. So, being at this restaurant with waiters and the presentation was a culture shock for me. I was like, wow, this is something I would enjoy doing. I didn’t know if I would be a waiter. I just enjoyed the way of feeding and serving people, and here was the best in class. So, my first experience in fine dining was an eye-opener.
What was it like being an apprentice?
It was an opportunity to escape. I started in pastry. They taught me how to make ice cream, crème anglaise, sorbet… it’s an exact science because you have to weigh everything, and it’s a smart way of teaching young cooks to cook – not to just put them at a stove with pots and pans. Pastry was good because I never had the discipline of weighing anything or learning about ingredients. I did that for six months and they had me learning about seasoning.
The hunter brought in the pheasants. You really learn how to pluck a pheasant. When I was there, the chicken had feathers, but today chicken comes in a bag. We were also getting fresh milk – never pasteurized – so I really got to know about fresh ingredients. I don’t think people know that chicken comes with feathers.
While you were apprenticing and learning all these new skills, were you getting passionate about food or was it just a way to make money?
I was away from my house six days a week, so it was a great escape. But I was working in kitchens, and little by little I was really enjoying doing it; I made sure I was weighing everything correctly and pleasing the chefs.
You met Paul Bocuse, who said one day you would work for him, and you did, but you only stayed there nine months. Why?
It was a good nine months, but it was more classic cuisine and I wanted to do something else. I was on a mission to learn fast. I ended up, not for very long, in Hong Kong and Singapore, Geneva, Portugal, Japan, London, New York, Boston, and then back to New York.
In over 10 years you opened 10 restaurants for Chef Louis Outhier. How could you do that without having a nervous breakdown?
It’s now been 50 years of cooking and experiments. I haven’t had a nervous breakdown yet – maybe one day.
More than 40 years ago, you were the chef at Lafayette at the Drake Hotel. An entrepreneur, Phil Suarez, came often for lunch, bringing with him such celebs as Michael Jackson. Each time he handed you his business card. What did he want, and what did you tell him?
He’d been a talent scout, and he told people he wanted to have a restaurant on his own. Every time I saw him, he gave me a business card and said, “When you want to do your own business, call me.” By the time he told me to give him a business plan, he’d given me 25 business cards. This was before the computer. I took a piece of paper and quickly combined some numbers. He asked me what I needed. I said, maybe $20,000. He lent me the money and told me he never thought I’d pay him back. That was in 1991. I never had a title with him because I was never in debt with him. I call him the “legend from Manhattan.”
Forty years after you served it at Lafayette, you still serve egg caviar. Can you explain what that is?
A classic! We empty the egg and wash it with hot water. We then scramble eggs with butter, salt and black pepper. We top it with a vodka-infused whipped cream we make and then add caviar. The contrast of the textures, flavors and temperatures creates a magical experience. It’s a great way to start a meal.
And what is the pea guacamole about which President Obama tweeted?
When we were looking to open abc cocina, we knew we wanted to offer guacamole but wanted to do it differently. We tested a bunch of different recipes with Greg, now our Executive Vice President of Culinary Development. We decided on including peas, adding the classic guacamole ingredients to peas – you know, cilantro, scallions, lime juice.It caused a little bit of a divide online – some people liked the idea and others didn’t. The Pea Guacamole has now become a signature dish at abc cocina! We like to say, give peas a chance!
You have said that you went into this business because you love to pamper people. Where did that desire come from?
When I was younger, my mother taught me hospitality – you know, being convivial to the table, taking care of people. I made a profession of pampering.
Today, you have 5,000 employees and 60 restaurants around the world, including your newest, the 50,000 square-foot food hall, the Tin Building, and the Paris Café in TWA at JFK. What drives you?
I don’t know. I wake up in the morning and go to work. What I love doing the most is creating concepts, creating food.
Unlike many chefs who tend to taste from their lips to their hips, you are super fit and work out daily. Why?
Balancing isn’t about cooking. It’s not about injuries, but you do have to do a little self-care. I’m also looking for silence: skiing by myself on a mountain, paddleboarding on a lake – I’m looking for a sense to recharge. Silence is my best friend.
What’s the favorite of all your dishes?
This month, probably a simple tomato salad because tomatoes are in season. I never grew up with corn, but I love the local corn, which is so sweet – with olive oil on the cobb – I’m in love with what’s in season.
What’s the worst meal you ever ate?
I’m not too much into zoo food. I don’t need alligator or kangaroo.
What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?
Probably my first chef who said, just keep it simple and fresh.
What advice would you give any new chefs just starting out?
You better be passionate because it’s a long road. And endurance, because life is a marathon. But if you enjoy what you do, it’s a pleasure.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I don’t know, ask me in 20 years. •
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.