Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten is building an empire of culinary art.
In the culinary industry, few names carry as much prestige — or as many restaurants — as Jean-Georges Vongerichten. The chef, born in Alsace, France, first fell in love with food at home, where he lived with his mother and grandmother. He decided to pursue a career in the kitchen after visiting the three-Michelin-star-rated Auberge de l’Ill for a birthday dinner at the age of 16. He soon was working in that exact kitchen, as an apprentice to Chef Paul Haeberlin, before moving on to train with top French chefs including Paul Bocuse and Louis Outhier.
After traveling through Asia, Vongerichten landed in the U.S. in 1985 — first in Boston, where he would open the Le Marquis de Lafayette restaurant, and then in New York, where he went on to open restaurants ranging from fine dining to casual. Vongerichten became known as a pioneer of French-Asian fusion and built an empire that today includes 37 restaurants in 12 countries and three Michelin stars.
Culinary great Jean-Georges Vongerichten spoke with me about his newest restaurant — his first in LA, at the Waldorf-Astoria Beverly Hills — as well as his global inspiration, secrets to maintaining consistency, and big hopes for the future.
With restaurants not just around the country but around the world, how do you manage your time? How do you maintain consistency across so many different concepts?
I’m based in New York, where we have the majority of restaurants. I’ve been there since 1986. So when we do a project like [Jean-Georges Beverly Hills] LA, it’s about finding the team. Steve Benjamin, our executive chef, worked at Bouchon for 14 or 15 years, and the Chef de Cuisine was with us in Vegas for six years. The people are what can make a place great. We then train the core team in New York, where they learn about our flavor profiles and help us fine-tune the dishes to create something unique for the market. From there, it’s all about casting the rest of the characters — the waiters, the people answering the telephone. It all matters, so I need the right people. We attract a lot of young talent especially.
That’s how you got your start in France, right? You learned to cook from some of the best chefs in the world. Is that why it’s important to train other up-and-coming chefs?
Yes, and it’s also important not to block them. Once they understand the flavor profiles, I have to truly let them cook as well. We don’t want to lock them in a box and say, “You can only make this food.” We want them to keep our DNA but also to express themselves and reflect the local market. It’s an open discussion, and it keeps it fresh and keeps it going.
Your signature style of cuisine is defined by a purity of ingredient and flavor—there’s nothing frivolous or overwrought, and there’s nowhere for the food to hide. How has your approach evolved over time, especially considering things like Instagram?
Well, today it’s more difficult to cook because everything has to be Instagrammable. It has to look good, it has to taste good, and it’s a lot of pressure for chefs! But you can learn a lot from this about how you put the food on the plate. Sometimes I’ll see someone post a picture of a dish from my New York restaurant and think, “That doesn’t look right.” Sometimes I can tell that there’s not enough sauce, or tomato, or what the problem is. So it lets me really get in touch with what’s happening. And because everyone’s a critic, you don’t have to wait for the newspaper review to come out. You learn from the customer, or from your chefs taking pictures. I learn from other chefs on Instagram as well. It helps us to move the bar up every day. It’s a good challenge.
At least in the U.S., you really helped to define French-Asian fusion. How did you find yourself working in this style of cuisine?
When I was 23 in 1980, I had the opportunity to travel to Bangkok and learned a lot — in France I never saw fresh ginger, lemongrass, or chilies; it was just salt, pepper, parsley, basil, a little rosemary in the South of France. It was limited in terms of exotic flavors, so going to Thailand was like a little slap in the face. Then I went to Singapore, which has all the best cuisines of Southeast Asia — Chinese, Malaysian, Indonesian, Filipino, the street food is so multicultural there — and traveled through Hong Kong and Japan. After five years in Asia, my palate had changed completely. I was beyond salt and pepper, adding chilies and herbs I’d never heard of before. I then arrived in New York in 1986 — way before farmers’ markets, and the only place I was comfortable enough after these years in Asia was Chinatown. But New York was so open to trying new things, so I began blending what I learned in France and what I learned in Asia, and that’s how the fusion happened. Today so much of my inspiration is traveling — I’m always hoping to discover new flavors, herbs, spices and combinations. So when I open a new restaurant somewhere, I bring new dishes, but I come back with more ideas.
You’re best known for your Michelin-starred, high-end fine dining — but many might not know you also do casual spots like Simply Chicken in Madison Square Garden. What is the process for opening a new concept?
In New York, all the places we opened were us finding the space and having an idea of a concept. But when we started to expand, people started coming to us. It was a lot of fun when they approached me about the concept in MSG [Madison Square Garden] — I got to decide what to do there. They already had burgers, tacos, nachos, this and that, so I came up with the idea [of Simply Chicken] — a chicken salad, chicken sandwich, chicken soup, chicken meatball, chicken hot dog. We started with one location on the second floor, and now we have one on any floor.
The location at the Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills is your first on the West Coast. What unique challenges has Los Angeles presented, and what excites you about being here?
LA was already part of [our restaurants] in New York, because six months of the year we buy most of our produce from the West Coast. And since living there, I came to LA two or three times a year for culinary events, things like that — and I’ve always been kind of like, “What’s going on here?” So when the opportunity [to open Jean Georges at the Waldorf-Astoria Beverly Hills] came up, I had to say yes. I love it here — I love the sun, I love the people, I love that it’s more relaxed, the food is brighter. And most importantly, the multiculturalism is similar to New York, only more spread out, with maybe even more variety.
Probably great ingredients and produce, right?
Oh, yes. Every day we have an organic vegetable truck that comes to visit us, and we buy from them.
You’ve been awarded Michelin stars, opened restaurants around the world, and written cookbooks. Is there anything left on your bucket list? Something you still want to do or somewhere you want to go?
I would like to go into the hotel business. I feel like when people come to the restaurant, they’re here for a couple of hours — but the hotel is the ultimate pampering, because people are with you for a day or two or more. For me, I went into this business to pamper people. So I would like to have my own hotel and pick the towels, the soap, the linens, the bed — that’s a dream of mine.