Ever since chefs ascended to rock star status the rest of us mere mortals have reveled in their creativity and clamored for just one more taste of their heavenly creations. In case you’re wondering who and where these chefs turn for their inspiration — look no further. Meet Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
Despite all appearances, and unlike most chefs, Vongerichten goes well beyond merely tasting the food he serves at his restaurants. Instead, the svelte, attractive Frenchman really devours entire dishes from his 27 restaurants in eight countries including the flagship, Jean-Georges in New York City.
Apparently his healthy appetite is paying off, because the world-class Jean-Georges, which overlooks iconic Central Park, recently earned its fourth star for the third time from The New York Times — which is, if you’re a chef, akin to winning The Triple Crown.
“A lot of chefs don’t really eat their food,” Vongerichten says, explaining one of the reasons for his extraordinary culinary success that runs the gamut from the highest level of high-end fine dining to addictive quick-serve restaurants. “We sit down and eat from A-Z. I never miss a meal.”
While diving into his culinary masterpieces with a fervent gusto, he duplicates his guests’ experiences to ensure a diner’s last bite is as sensational as the first. In case you’re wondering how this maestro of the kitchen keeps his shape, and his cool during stressful situations — no he wasn’t gifted with an unusually high metabolism — he exercises daily. He also sleeps a full eight hours a night, and when he leaves work he says he leaves his troubles behind.
Today, Vongerichten lives the kind of glamorous, globetrotting existence few could imagine, but it wasn’t always the case. Far from it. The chef grew up in Alsace, France, near Strasbourg, in a family of coal merchants. As the eldest son, he was expected to continue the family tradition and eventually take over the lucrative business. But he was anything but a good student, and the coal industry was burning out when he was coming of age.
So after an attempt at engineering school, he apprenticed in several top three-star Michelin restaurants and Ceneri Fromagerie, an internationally recognized cheese shop and cheesemaker in Cannes, France. Regardless of the establishments’ ranking, back in the day, cooking professionally was not considered an admirable field.
Undeterred by naysayers, Vongerichten continued training in food and moved to Asia to cook in high-end restaurants in Bangkok, Hong Kong and Singapore, where he gained a taste for light fare with fresh, tropical flavors. Before it became common and widely imitated, Vongerichten started cooking fusion cuisine, which incorporated ingredients and flavors of Asia prepared with French techniques.
He came to America in 1986 and opened his first restaurant five years later. However, Vongerichten considers himself a “late bloomer,” despite being only 34 years old at the time.
Now at 57, his restaurant empire continues to expand and his more than 3,000 employees are living proof. Vongerichten, who is exalted in restaurant circles, is considered a chef’s chef. In fact, it would be rare to find an aspiring cook anywhere in the United States who hasn’t made a trip to the Big Apple to taste his brilliantly crafted dishes — widely recognized as some of the best on the planet.
Ironically, and regardless of Vongerichten’s extraordinary success, he feels obligated to reveal his mother still worries about him, and actually thinks “he’s off his rocker” for continuing to open more restaurants. Vongerichten says he is unfazed by his mother’s concerns but shares her comments just the same. Nevertheless, the top chef confidently says that 2014, “is my year.”
Cheese Connoisseur: Why do you say this is your year? It seems like many years have been good to you.
JV: Thank you. I was born March 16, 1957 and I am 57 this year. It is my year. I also became an American last month [in May.] The same week I got my fourth star for the third time from The New York Times at Jean-Georges.
We already opened three restaurants the first four months of the year. So it looks like it is going to be my year.
CC: What made you become an American now?
JV: It’s time. I have been here for 29 years.
CC: Would you describe your cooking style?
JV: Food is very personal — it often has a little chili, it is high in acid — with vinegar, lime and lemon, which helps you digest. I want the last bite to be as good as the first.
That is why I eat a whole plate. I never miss a meal. I get angry when I don’t eat.
CC: What do you make for yourself when you get home and the refrigerator is empty?
JV: Pasta with salt, pepper, butter and Parmesan.
CC: Where do your most creative ideas come from?
JV: Traveling is my inspiration. Every time I travel, I come back with 20 more ideas. It keeps me going, I learn something and it’s fun.
CC: What was the last exciting thing you learned?
JV: Everything excites me. In Asia, I had a soup dumpling made with greens and mushrooms instead of pork. They made a mushroom-like tea with pine needles and then jellified it with agar agar. It was amazing.
CC: Have you ever tried a dish that you could not replicate?
JV: Yes, many times. I went to elBulli, and had his [chef Ferran Adrià’s] encapsulated olive oil. I wondered, how does he do that? I’m not a technician, like he is. I try to compete with flavors and to bring new sensations like transforming a vegetable using umami flavors. I’m looking for new food tastes and things you remember in the morning after you eat at my restaurants. I think that cheese does that.
CC: What cheeses do you crave?
JV: I love the blues and goat cheeses. Just like there is no bad fruit, just unripe fruit, there is no bad cheese, just unripe cheese, or the cheese is at the wrong temperature. At Jean-Georges, we have had a cheese cart since we opened with 16-18 cheeses.
CC: What is the best cheese combination you ever tasted?
JV: The best combination I ever had was Roquefort with a ripe pear and a glass of Sauternes — Chateau d’Yquem. The combination of the sweet and acid in the wine, the sharp cheese and texture of the pear is spectacular. Any sweet Sauternes will work. It doesn’t have to be Yquem.
CC: You seem to know a lot about cheese. Where and when did you learn about it?
JV: In 1978 on my days off I did an apprenticeship with a cheese master. I used to know more about cheese than I know now. When you are 21 you absorb like a sponge and you want to know everything. When I first started in restaurants in 1973, I also worked in pastry, and I was once a waiter. You have to know everything.
CC: Would you attribute your success mostly to your diverse training?
JV: It is all about the people. Charlie the bartender has been with me for 18 years. My president started with me in 1986. My brother works with me. I give them a little partnership. And I learned that when I pass the door at night, that tomorrow is a new day. I drive home with no worries. As you get older, you make less mistakes.
CC: How do you stay looking young, slim and calm?
JV: I eat well. My dad just died last year and my mom is in her 80’s. She thinks I am crazy and insane. I also go to the gym every day from eight to nine in the morning. I box, and then I am calm for the rest of the day. I sleep 8 hours every day. I am a professional sleeper.
CC: Could you go back? Why does your mother think you are crazy?
JV: My mom still worries about me opening restaurants. I was the oldest boy, like my father, who took over his coal merchant father’s business. They sent me to engineering school so I could take over the business. I hated engineering school. When you were good at nothing, you became a cook. I was lucky. As an apprentice, I was at a three-star Michelin restaurant and my eyes lit up to see the ballet of waiters. There were not that many restaurants back then and I didn’t know that you could make a living out of food.
CC: What is your favorite movie?
JV: I’m a lover. Casablanca. I like a love story like the Titanic. I like to cry at movies. I like action too, but I have enough action in my life. I need some loving.
CC: What was the last book you read?
JV: I don’t read books.
CC: Do you have a favorite cookbook author?
JV: Ali-Bab. The guy invented everything. He was a doctor and wrote Gastronomie Pratique. That book was incredible and he looked at food as medicine. I learned a lot from that book. He was a big inspiration for me.
CC: If you were a fruit or vegetable, what would you be?
JV: I’d like to be a nice plum tomato. I think it looks pretty. So many colors. It’s juicy. It’s good cooked. It’s good raw. I haven’t met many people who don’t like a tomato. I like to be light. Eggplant would be more difficult.
6 oz Parmigiano Reggiano
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup flour, divided
2 large egg whites
Oil for coating
8 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, each 4 oz and ½-inch thick
Arrange oven rack on the lowest position and preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.
Finely grate 70 percent of the cheese, coarsely grate the remaining cheese. In a shallow container, mix all the cheese with 1 tablespoon salt, and half the flour until well combined. Spread out the remaining flour on a second shallow dish. Whisk the egg whites in a shallow bowl until foamy.
Generously coat a large rimmed baking sheet pan with oil. Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Dredge the smooth side of the chicken in the flour and shake off excess flour. Dredge the same side in the egg white, then finally press into the cheese mixture. Put the chicken, cheese side down, in the pan with at least a half inch between each. Bake until the crust is golden brown and the meat is just cooked through, about 10-15 minutes.
Remove from the oven and carefully flip the breasts. Let stand for 2 minutes. Serve at once with a seasonal vegetable and lemon-butter sauce.
Endive and Sugar Snaps with Parmesan Dressing
½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
2 Tbsp Champagne vinegar
1 Tbsp fresh lime juice
¾ tsp Dijon mustard
1 ½ tsp Kosher salt
½ tsp coarsely ground black pepper
3 Tbsp grapeseed or other neutral oil
1 ½ Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
½ lb sugar snap peas, trimmings and strings removed
4 yellow and/or red Belgian endive, leaves separated
½ cup finely chopped fresh herb leaves, preferably a mix of flat-leaf parsley, tarragon, dill and chervil
Combine the cheese, vinegar, lime juice, mustard, salt and pepper in a blender. Purée until smooth. With the machine running, add the oils through the feed tube in a slow stream to emulsify the mixture.
Bring a pot of water to a boil. Fill a large bowl with ice water. Generously salt the boiling water, add the snap peas, and cook until bright green, about 30 seconds. Drain and transfer to the ice water. When cool, drain again and very thinly slice on an angle.
Toss the endive and peas with the dressing and top with herbs. CC