Jean-Georges dishes on breakfast, ginger, and his new venture, ABC Cocina
The restaurant scene in New York City, or the world for that matter, would be very different without Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Forty years ago, a young Jean-Georges ate at his first 3-Star Michelin-rated restaurant and was immediately smitten. He started there as an apprentice and the rest is culinary history. With nine restaurants in New York alone, and 2,500 employees here, the 56-year-old only recently began taking weekends off to spend with his family. When he truly wants to get away, the chef travels to his restaurant in Bora Bora, which takes three planes and two boats. That’s how far people will travel to taste his creations.
You never took weekends off until recently?
I worked six, sometimes seven days all the way up to when I was 50. So from age 16 to 50. When I turned 50, I said, “The problems are the same when I’m here or not here.” So I bought a house in the country, Westchester, an hour from here. I fish, hunt, canoe. I learned how to relax. It’s not easy. So I work five days full blast.
You don’t stay here at Jean-Georges until the kitchen closes, right?
I travel a week a month, but when I’m in town, I’m here every day for lunch. At 8:30 or 9 p.m., I go to another restaurant. Last night I was at Cocina. Tonight I’m going to be at JoJo. I hit one other restaurant every night. Then I go home around 11:30 or 12. I sleep very well. It’s a long day.
At 16, you got your first restaurant job rather unexpectedly.
For my 16th birthday, my parents took me to a 3-Star Michelin, Auberge de l’ill. At the time we never went to restaurants. It was a time when three generations were still living under one roof. We were too many people to go to restaurants. It was just the three of us. They took me because they felt bad about me being thrown out of school. I was sitting there and saw the ballet of the waiters, the whole choreography, the food. I didn’t know in ’73 you could make a living out of food. Food was at home – your mother, grandmother cooking. In ’73 it wasn’t glamorous to be a chef. It was like you were good for nothing. The chef came to the table and my father said, “Listen my son is good for nothing. If you need some apprentice to peel…”
How did that job help your career?
Starting at a 3-Star Michelin really helped me. I never wrote for a job, because from a phone call, I went to another 3-Star. I did four 3-Stars in France. It was like entering the Mafia.
Was your open kitchen at Lafayette in ’86 the first one in New York?
One of the first ones. It was completely open like this. [Jean-Georges] Everybody requested a table on the kitchen because people wanted to see the action. It was new in New York.
How have you seen the restaurant business in New York change?
Completely. I arrived in ’86. At that time, all the old-time restaurants – La Grenouille, Le Cirque – were around. The food alone has changed. You couldn’t find anything. All the vegetables were imported from a company called Flying Food. I remember going to Union Square when I arrived – there was nothing. Apples, potatoes, but no vegetables. I had to go Chinatown, because when I arrived here, I just came back from five years in Asia. So the only place I was comfortable in was Chinatown with all the vegetables. I came in when Daniel was starting, Thomas Keller, David Bouley, Tom Colicchio. We really pushed the farmer to grow things for us. I felt like people wanted to eat in a different way.
Your time in Asia really influenced the way you cook. What did people think?
I used ginger and lemongrass. People were saying, “Who’s this guy and what is he doing?” Chilis everywhere, trying to make it hot and spicy. I got used to this flavor after five years over there. I made a name for myself using ginger basically.
If you had to take your wife out to dinner in the city, where would you go?
Any place she’d like to go. But she likes to go to Koreatown for barbeque, that’s her background. I take her to Sushi Seki sometimes, Le Bernardin, Per Se. Once a year, I try to do one or two high-end restaurants. Otherwise I eat late and very casual. I don’t bother my colleagues late night, so I go to Marea and have a bowl of pasta at the bar and go home. Simple.
Your son followed in your footsteps and went into cooking.
He is the chef at Perry St. I tried to push him away, but he really wants to do the business. I wanted him to be a doctor or a lawyer. It’s not a gift. You have to work every holiday, when other people are watching TV and having a good time. There’s not really much of a life. Your life is your customer.
What do you cook for your family?
On the weekends, I may invite my brother over who has three kids the same age as my daughter. I have two grandkids now. I invite friends and family and just cook. At home, I never plate anything. I put a pot in the middle and they serve themselves. I plate every day, so I don’t want to plate on the weekend. I never cook at home in the city, only in the country. My wife cooks in the city for my daughter. I only cook Saturday and Sunday. On the weekend, I do everything. I peel, chop.
Explain the concept of your new restaurant, ABC Cocina.
We created ABC Kitchen. Farm-to-table. It’s all simple food, but has an edge of some flavors. Next door there was a restaurant called Pipa, a Spanish restaurant with tapas. It was part of my lease to take it over. We shut it down New Year’s Eve of this year and opened four months after. It’s farm-to-table as well, but with some Spanish flavors, not only from Spain, but from South America. When I did research for that food, it very similar to South East Asia. You have coriander, chili, coconut, and mango. The same kind of ingredients done in a different way, but it was very easy for me to absorb.
What is the relationship between ABC Home and ABC Kitchen?
When they approached me for ABC Kitchen – there was a restaurant called Lucy there – they decided to change it, because it wasn’t working very well. I came there and we talked about being farm-to-table since we were half a block away from Union Square. Only they wanted to call it Love. I said, “We are in the ABC building, let’s call it ABC Kitchen. You do the décor and I’ll do the food.” And it took off. We’re going to do ABC To Go or Home Grown. We’re not sure of the name yet.
You even have a chicken concession in Madison Square Garden.
We have a concept called Simply Chicken. We offer chicken salad, a chicken sandwich, a chicken hot dog. This year we are adding chicken soup and a chicken taco. Why not?
Why is breakfast your favorite meal?
I love breakfast because I grew up in France and a slice of bread with butter and jam and a bowl of coffee is breakfast. French toast in France we eat for dessert. Three restaurants serve breakfast – The Mark Hotel, Jean Georges, and the Mercer in Soho.
You have three restaurants in hotels. What are the positives to that?
I like it because you serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We do room service as well. For business, it’s great. People say you don’t make money with room service, which is totally wrong. That means they don’t know how to make it. It keeps the operation really going 24 hours. All three restaurants are open 24 hours because of room service.
Where’s one location you’ve opened a restaurant in that you would have never thought you would?
Shanghai. We also have a place in Bora Bora. You have to take three planes and two boats to get there. It’s 60 seats. It’s on stilts. I try to go twice a year. [Laughs] I love diving and it’s a paradise for that. We have fishermen bringing fish right on the dock – it’s spectacular?
What’s one food you don’t like?
Zoo food. Alligator, zebra, kangaroo. Any animal in the zoo, I don’t cook.
Is it true you fall asleep with chocolate in your mouth every night?
Since I am 4 years old. I brush my teeth first. A piece of Lindt milk chocolate. And I have sweet dreams.
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