JEAN-GEORGES VONGERICHTEN

Nov 1, 2023

photos: Andrea Ceraso

 

 

Jean-Georges is ebullient! He’s the ‘Toujours Pret Lapine’, but full of heart! He developed, owns, and is fully involved in running the largest haute cuisine enterprise in the history of the world! And at 66 – and recently single – he exclaims, “I’m just warming up!”.

 

He’s personable and engaging, and says everything with an almost impish smile; but he’s a serious guy, who conveys the feeling that, if he’s focused on it, it’s important. “My father and his father owned a business unloading coal from canal barges in Alsace,” he begins ‘the reduction’. “I learned French in school, but we spoke Alsacian at home, and it was France when I was growing up, but had been part of Germany before the War. I guess you could say I learned how to cook by helping my mother put lunch on the table, everyday at Noon, for the several dozen men who worked for the company. A lot of potatoes and root vegetables and bread to fill the stomachs, but much more than that, I learned about being responsible for regularly sourcing, preparing, cooking, and serving large quantities of food, on time! Lunch had to be served for the workers at 12:00! And we lived in a house with my grandparents, my parents, and us four kids, so it was really like we were running a small restaurant for every meal!”

 

“My parents took me to Chef Paul Haeberlin’s 3-star Michelen restaurant, Auberge de L’ill, for my 16th Birthday…and I was transformed,” Jean-George recalls. “I was struck by the craft and the precision, and moved by the sheer joy of the dining experience. I knew right away this was what I wanted to do, and believed it could be my ticket to leave my parents house, as all young men want to do, and to see the world. I went to culinary school, and then spent seven years in France, and then another seven years in Asia, cooking for some of the top chefs in the world, including my mentor Louis Outhier, and working in some top destinations.”

 

“I came to New York in 1986 to be the Executive Chef in the large and elegant restaurant at The Drake, a Swissotel, at 440 Park Avenue. Right away I realized that our heavy, butter and cream, meat-based menu, and our stiff service, were outdated, and that we had to adjust to the time. Business people need to eat in an hour and get back to work – just like the men back in my family’s coal business. New Yorkers want a restaurant with a menu for everyday, not just big occasions. And I wanted to cook lighter and more flavorful meals, and make the whole dining experience more fun. …You know, the basic meats are all, well, pretty basic. There’s beef, pork, game, and fowl, and there’s just so much you can do. But I’d found the world of thousands of different plants and vegetables and spices, adapted techniques using more broth and less butter, and learned how to develop a tastier, more interesting cuisine. Some Rotisserie Chicken with some Middle-Eastern spices done in a chicken broth – instead of Beef Wellington. Basically, French comfort food. …We reopened as Lafayette in the Drake in 1987, and it was an immediate success! I was a 29-year-old chef just getting started, and The New York Times Food Critic, Bryan Miller, gave Lafayette its highest Four Star rating, and the next day I was on CNN! It was off to the races, and for 35 years I’ve never looked back!”

 

Indeed! He opened his first restaurant, JoJo, in 1991, and The New York Times named it the Best New Restaurant of the Year. Then Vong, in the Lipstick Building. Then three more Vongs, in London, Hong Kong, and Chicago. And he’s developed one new restaurant concept or stand-alone restaurant after another, including Prime, J&G Steakhouse, Perry Street, Mercer Kitchen, and ABC Kitchen, among many others. He, and opened restaurants in top locations around the United States, and then Asia, Europe and Morocco. …Today, he owns or manages 65 restaurants, and runs a culinary enterprise that spans the globe – and serves something like 5,000,000 meals a year! He is certainly one of the most well-known chefs in the world and, as New York Magazine wrote, “…no single chef has had more influence on the way [we] dine out—or on the way other chefs cook and other restaurants look.”

 

“I love to cook, and I’m passionate about travel. One informs the other,” Jean-Georges explains. “I try to inhale everything about a new place I explore. The smells, the tastes, the feeling, the style…and then breathe that whole sensation into a new restaurant concept. I like to cook with ideas! Like the Latin essence of Happy Monkey in Greenwich, or the Asian atmosphere we’ve created in the Red Pearl in the Tin Building at the South Street Seaport in Manhattan. …And then, after years of doing this, we know how to get all the details right! It’s a huge combination of the food, service, atmosphere…and entertainment. I guess, beyond cooking, I’m really a master entertainer!” 

 

 

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…And quite a businessman, as well!… He has a core team of less than twenty people working out of his Manhattan headquarters, who somehow manage the Herculean task of managing everything ‘Jean-George’ – the person, the brand, the ongoing conglomerate, and the ever-growing enterprise. Wherever Jean-George goes, while he’s going-at one or a couple of tasks directly, he’s also in the middle of a half-dozen team members who are constantly both feeding him information and initiating immediate action upon his direction. His personal assistant, Nikki Minervino, has him signing tax returns at the same time as she takes action items from whatever he’s doing and goes off with the authority to put them into action. Chris Aleksandrov is managing Jean-Georges’ content production…and keeping him on point and on schedule. One of a few executive chefs who are working on culinary experiments or projects, has a quiet conversation with Jean-George…and minutes later everyone is ‘tasting’ a tray of exotic freshly-baked cookies, including a chocolate and peanut-butter, a banana, a strawberry, something with a cinnamon topping, and other original selections.

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Another of these executive chefs talks with Jean-Georges about something specific he’s doing with one of their restaurant menus, and then takes a meeting on the far side of the room to talk with a purveyor. Lois Freedman, who’s been working with Jean-Georges since he opened JoJo and, 37 years later, is now CEO of Jean-Georges Management, works integrally with Jean-Georges on a daily basis. Fellow Jean-Georges long-timer, EVP Daniel Del Vecchio, is also nearby, as they’re preparing for the lunch they’re having in an hour at one of their restaurants where Jean-Georges, who’s celebrating his 50th Anniversary of Cooking, will be hosting another legendary chef, Paul Ducasse. There are a few others waiting in the wings, and a driver and security who are almost invisible. …And this is all going on…while Jean-Georges remains entirely focused on what he’s doing!

“The business is all about trust, loyalty and delegation,” Jean-Georges reflects. “I would still like to cook every meal and enjoy the experience of serving it! …But I would only be able to serve one meal a day, and probably to only one table of guests! I like to develop young talent, and I hope to have a very long and meaningful relationship with each person who works with me, and this is my strategy for doing so much, as we are doing. At this point, I also have the big advantage that all the best people in the world are coming to me to do the next thing. Like our partnership with the Howard Hughes Corporation developing The Tin Building. I get to collaborate with some of the top professionals in the world, like the American architect Richard Meier and the British architect Norman Foster, and I get offers to put new restaurants in all the best locations, like at the Topping Rose House in Bridgehampton and at The Mark in Manhattan.” 

 

“You know, this year, in addition to celebrating my 50th Anniversary of Cooking,” Jean-Georges declares – without a hint of braggadocio and more as if he wants the everyone who’s listening to put the events on their calendar and share them with him, “…we’re also celebrating 25 Years for Prime at the Bellagio in Las Vegas…can you believe it?! And the 100th Anniversary of the La Mamounia hotel in Marrakesh – where we have L’Italien, L’Asiatique, Le Pavillon de la Piscine, and Le Marocain, and the 70th Anniversary of the Eden Roc, in St. Barth’s – where we have the Sand Bar. I think of every day as a work day, and I still have the chef’s mentality of waking before dawn every morning to start sourcing provisions for the day, getting everything prepped and ready to serve lunch at 12:00, cooking, serving, and cleaning-up lunch, cooking, serving, and cleaning-up dinner, and trying to get to bed before 1 A.M.! I still go to the fish market in Manhattan once or twice a week myself. ‘On the go’ is my constant state of motion. I was in Morocco last week; I’m in New York for three days to do an industry dinner for 1,200 we hosted last night in The Tin Building, and some other business; I leave, I’m here for a few days, then I fly to Tokyo for two days and then Bangkok for two days, and then to Las Vegas…but I’m taking a red-eye Saturday night so I can be home in Waccabuc on Sunday morning – I’m having my grandkids over for brunch!”

 

Now downright boasting, he continues, “I have a spectacular family! My son, Cedric, owns his own CV Restaurant Group and has launched Wayan. My daughter, Louise, has had her own culinary success, running the Chefs Club, first in Aspen and then in Manhattan, and who’s now building a brand of sustainable children’s clothing called Mon Coeur. And she’s married to Hamdi Ulukaya, who’s the well-known business and humanitarian leader who owns Chobani. He hooked me up with the people at Food Bank, and we do a lot of work with them, and with City Harvest. My daughter Chloé is a student at F.I.T. and is ready to take the fashion world by fire! And I have four grandchildren, ages 12, 10, 5, and 2!”

 

“I have a fun life!” Jean-Georges exclaims. “I still love traveling, and I’m always getting to see new places and do great things. It’s all still a great experiment and exploration. Yesterday I tasted a sensational fruit from Columbia called a Lula, that I’d never tasted before! I’m still learning – a lot – every day! I still feel the joy of cooking, and I take great pride in having made great food and great dining accessible to so many.”

 

“If I have to describe myself in one word, it’s ‘energetic’, but I do need my quiet time…and that’s what brought me to Waccabuc. This is a unique oasis – so close to New York City! My time in Waccabuc, alone and with my family, is my favorite. And then, when the Tropins invited me to open The Inn At Pound Ridge, only five miles from my house, this place really became my ‘home’,” Jean-Georges submits. “I’m probably not allowed to say The Inn at Pound Ridge is my favorite restaurant, but let’s just say it’s my ‘neighborhood regular’. …And, by the way, I promise the Bedford & New Canaan Magazine readers that I’m going to put the homemade Chocolate Chip Mint Ice Cream back on the menu!”

 

Prodded to name the favorite dish he’s ever cooked or tasted, Jean-Georges laughs and says, “C’est impossible! I wouldn’t even know where to get started! But, what I will tell you, is that last night, when I got in late after hosting the party for 1,200, I made a terrific Cacio e Pepe! It’s a great lazy dish – what I call a one pot meal. And I’ll tell you my secret! …While I’m going to boil the pasta for about 8 minutes, I put a whole egg into the boiling water with the pasta about 3 minutes into the process. When I drain the pasta, I let the egg run into the dish, giving the pasta a special richness, before mixing the pasta with the cheese.”

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