The clock strikes 5:30 pm in New York. The dinner service has just begun at the Jean-Georges, the flagship restaurant in the Jean-Georges Management group, with two Michelin stars to its name. Sat in the corner of the room, impeccably dressed in his chef’s whites, Jean-Georges Vongerichten scans the servers as they glide across the room. He adjusts a napkin and whispers something to his head of staff. His smartphone buzzes, reminding him that New York Times food writer Florence Fabricant has a reservation for 7:30 pm, followed by French pastry chef Pierre Hermé at 8:30.
“If you want something done, do it yourself,” could be Vongerichten’s motto. Heading up 39 restaurants and 5,000 employees, he personally recruits his chefs and managers, chooses the lighting, interior design, and tablecloths in each establishment, and communicates with his teams daily. News from his various eateries is delivered via WhatsApp: The service is behind at the Mercer Kitchen in SoHo, Kanye West is dining at the Jean-Georges on Saturday, and there is good progress on the reconstruction of the restaurant in St. Barts after the destruction of Hurricane Irma, which saw the establishment close for two years.
“It’s hard to be everywhere at once,” says the chef, although without losing his jovial manner. “When I can’t be somewhere, I direct my restaurants by phone. I know what is happening at every moment, I receive the list of VIPs who come to eat, and I know what they order. As soon as the chaos slips out of control, I send a little message to everyone, telling them to put more servers on a certain post, or to send a truffle pizza to Kanye West, for example.”
Fourteen New York Restaurants
Vongerichten spends his days between his SoHo office, the Jean-Georges on the Upper West Side where he supervises the lunch and dinner services, and his 13 other New York restaurants, which he visits at least once a week. He personally directs his American establishments and Le Market in Paris, but he delegates the management of his other restaurants in exchange for a financial contribution. These are no franchises, however. “We aren’t McDonald’s,” says the chef in an offended tone. “We don’t repeat the same thing 50 times over. Everything we do is bespoke; we adapt to the city and to local products.”
From Los Angeles to Djakarta to Philadelphia, where he opened two restaurants at the Four Seasons Hotel last August, all Jean-Georges Vongerichten eateries have something in common – Asian spices, soy sauce, ginger, kaffir limes, and yuzu, served in a myriad of forms. “I started my career in Bangkok, Singapore, and Hong Kong,” says the chef. “I have kept these Asian inspirations ever since. At the Jean-Georges, there is chili in every dish, whether the vinaigrette, the sauce, or the stock, and people don’t even realize!”
Carrot Juice and Fish Sauce
When the Alsace-born chef arrived in the United States in 1985 to open a restaurant in Boston, traditional cuisine was all the rage, championing sauce-centered dishes with butter and crème fraiche. Vongerichten was among those who introduced a lighter fusion of French and Asian cooking. He infused Thai spices in a base of carrot juice he enjoyed as a child and served it with steamed prawns. This “kind of Thai bouillabaisse” forged the reputation of his first New York restaurant, Lafayette, opened in July 1986.
“I went crazy with juices,” writes the chef in his autobiography, A Life in 12 Recipes, published in the U.S. last October. “I paired scallops with zucchini juice; I paired celery juice with Roquefort cheese for a saddle of veal.” This innovative spirit has become his signature. Today, he is experimenting with plant-based dishes to meet demand from vegetarian and vegan clients and which offer more possibilities than meat and fish, according to the chef. The menu of his flagship restaurant features a beetroot carpaccio, caramelized carrot with coconut and ginger, and a Japanese dashi in which the dried skipjack tuna has been replaced with a slice of roasted celery.
An Asian Odyssey
Every three weeks, the restaurateur inspects his establishments abroad and whips up new inspirations. He refers to his travels as “research trips.” When writing the menu for Spice Market, his 500-cover fusion restaurant in the Meatpacking District of Manhattan, Vongerichten took his colleagues on an odyssey across Southeast Asia. “We visited 10 cities in 18 days,” says his second-in-command Daniel Del Vecchio, vice-president of the Jean-Georges Management group. “We only ate street food, took notes, and took pictures.”
The dishes developed at the end of this trip were archived, just like all of Vongerichten’s creations over the last 27 years. On his tablet, Daniel Del Vecchio keeps a library of 70,000 recipes, each with a gram-for-gram ingredient list, a detailed method, and a photo of the final result. Whether cooked by the boss himself or by one of his chefs, the crab toast with lemon aioli has to be perfect. Each dish is checked three times before being served, ensuring consistent quality across the group’s restaurants.
Winning Back His Third Star
This year, Vongerichten opened four restaurants in the United States. He is currently developing a three-floor food court in Manhattan on the banks of the East River, set to open in 2021, and is striving to win back his third Michelin star. The Jean-Georges, a pinnacle of French gastronomy in New York for ten years, was relegated to two-star status in 2017. “We opened seven restaurants that year,” he says. “Maybe we weren’t as sharp as we should have been.”
With new inspirations, new recipes, and new restaurants, the Jean-Georges empire is continuing to expand. Every day at 3 pm, the chef prepares lunch for his right-hand man, Daniel Del Vecchio, and for his brother, Philippe Vongerichten, director of the Jean-Georges, and sits down to discuss business. He also heads up the kitchen when a critic or a friend comes for dinner. “Everybody thinks I’m an accountant,” says the chef. “But I only take care of the kitchen. Each to their own!”
=> A Life in 12 Recipes by Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Michael Ruhlman, W.W. Norton, 2019. 304 pages, 26.95 dollars.
Article published in the December 2019 issue of France-Amérique.