By: Amy Rosner By: Amy Rosner | May 23, 2022 | Food & Drink
Though Jean-Georges Vongerichten is one of the world’s most acclaimed chefs, his skills extend far beyond the kitchen.
A savvy businessman and restaurateur, Jean-Georges is responsible for the operation and success of 40 restaurants worldwide.
Born and raised on the outskirts of Strasbourg in Alsace, France, Jean-Georges' earliest family memories are of food. He began his training in a work-study program at Auberge de l'Ill as an apprentice to Chef Paul Haeberlin, then went on to work under Paul Bocuse and Master Chef Louis Outhier at L'Oasis in southern France.
With this impressive three-star Michelin background, Jean-Georges traveled to Asia to further expand upon his culinary training.
During this time spent working and traveling throughout Asia, Jean-Georges developed his love for the exotic and aromatic flavors of the East.
His signature cuisine abandons the traditional use of meat stocks and creams and instead features the intense flavors and textures from vegetable juices, fruit essences, light broths, and herbal vinaigrettes.
Jean-Georges is involved in every aspect of his restaurants – concept, menu, architectural design, staff selection, and training – in an ongoing effort to create restaurants that are both timely and enduring.
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Jean-Georges’ culinary vision has redefined industry standards and revolutionized how we eat from east to west.
Inspired by his travels, Jean-Georges is constantly developing fresh concepts and evolving as a chef and restaurateur, both adapting to and impacting the global culinary landscape.
Jean-Georges has developed a reputation as remarkable as his food by tapping his deep understanding of the restaurant world and pairing it with his forward-thinking vision.
Yet, after years of success, Jean-Georges’ favorite retreat is still the kitchen, and his favorite meals dished from a street cart in Thailand.
We sat down with the industry titan himself to discuss his journey to culinary fame.
What would you consider are some contributions you’ve made to the culinary world outside of your restaurants?
I would have to say two major contributions come to mind: working with local, sustainable, and organic farmers and my philanthropic efforts, specifically with Food Dreams.
From the first visit to a local market in Bangkok, I wanted to create relationships with farmers, and understand their farming practices and how they are giving back to the planet and ecosystem.
From then on, I made sure that I was working with these types of producers wherever I landed next in the world. I have carried this ethos with me from when I opened my first restaurant in New York, JoJo to my restaurants around the world.
I started Food Dreams in 2016 – a non-profit organization dedicated to granting aspiring chefs around the world gain access to culinary education and career opportunities in the restaurant industry. From scholarship opportunities to post-graduate externships at my restaurants around the world, it’s always been important to support upcoming culinary generations.
Not only are you one of the most acclaimed chefs in the world, but a savvy businessman and restaurateur. How do you balance wearing so many hats?
It’s all about having a strong team to surround yourself with, to support you, and who will open your eyes to different ideas and trains of thought. I have been so fortunate to have a team with me from the beginning - from Lois Freedman, the president of Jean-Georges Management who started with me 30 years ago to my Executive Vice President of Culinary Development, Greg Brainin who has worked with me for 22 years, to Chef Pierre at The Mark who was with me in Boston before I came to NY.
How have the Jean-Georges restaurants revolutionized the New York City dining scene?
I like to think we have played and continue to play a big part in New York’s evolving restaurant industry. As a group, our contribution and commitment to working with local, organic, and sustainable farms, fishermen, and breweries have helped these farms grow to supply more restaurants. Over the years, we have seen a transition - guests want to know where their ingredients are coming from.
Thinking about how New Yorkers’ eating habits have changed over time, it’s been interesting to see a shift away from traditional prix fixe/tasting menu experiences to more family style eating, guests ordering a selection of dishes for the table, and sharing. With my portfolio of restaurants in NYC, we have a combination of all – abcV which is a vegan restaurant, Jean-Georges restaurant which offers tasting menus, Mercer Kitchen which offers approachable, American yet Asian-infused dishes, abc Kitchen which offers dishes served family style and more.
New York’s restaurant scene is constantly evolving. What aspects of the industry have changed over the years, and what has stayed the same?
The biggest change I see right now is staffing – I think the pandemic changed what people’s priorities were, they had a change of heart about what they wanted to do. A lot of people who worked in the restaurant industry before have transitioned away from the industry and into an entirely new one. What I don’t think has changed is that people are creatures of habit.
How would you describe your culinary vision? What differentiates your work from other trailblazers in the space?
Every restaurant I open is a different concept – there’s no ‘one size fits all.’ I like to cater to different culinary preferences, and styles of eating, and I am heavily influenced by neighborhoods. I work with different designers to emulate the vision of the menu and cuisine which differs from restaurant to restaurant, from zip code to zip code.
It’s the three-year anniversary of the world-renowned restaurant, The Fulton. What does this milestone represent? Where do you see the future of the Fulton heading?
The Fulton will always have a special place in my heart - it was my first seafood restaurant in the world and one of the first restaurants on Pier 17 at The Seaport. The location and restaurant story are very nostalgic to me – The Fulton fish market was one of the first places I visited when I landed in New York in 1986.
I was able to experience a market just as I had done before in Asia but I learned about so many new seafood varieties I had never encountered before. I also met smaller boat purveyors who to this day are extremely important to my ethos and the industry. My love of seafood has always been prevalent but when I was approached to open a restaurant right by the old Fulton Fish Market, I thought it was the perfect time and place for it.
Between the incredible views, location, menu, design, and team, I think that The Fulton will continue to be recognized as one of New York’s best and most unique seafood restaurants. People are looking for unique experiences and I think The Fulton offers that.
You are not only a chef but a creative visionary. How does your success prove that food is an art form comparable to music, painting, singing, etc?
Food and restaurant operations are very similar to paintings - it’s about the combination of layers working together to create something beautiful. With paintings, there are various layers of colors and textures. In food, there are various layers of flavors incorporated into a dish, and in restaurants, there are various levels of training and experiences offered. What music is to the ear, painting to the eye, food is to the mouth.
What responsibility do you feel as one of the most famous chefs in the world? What would you attribute this success to?
As mentioned above, I have a passion for working with local, sustainable, and organic partners. My dedication to this mission has only grown and I feel like I have helped contribute to the recognition of this importance, as have many others. It is my way of giving back to smaller producers and giving back to my guests – the taste of all-natural ingredients. Additionally, I am passionate about the philanthropic efforts I’m involved in – from Food Dreams to working with World Central Kitchen, City Harvest, and more – it is so important to give back.
Many people believe that fine dining is outdated. In what ways do your restaurants revive these culinary traditions, while simultaneously modernizing them?
I always try to have my finger on the pulse – often visiting new restaurants in New York City and beyond, getting inspiration from other chefs, designers, and purveyors. I think it’s important. At all of the Jean Georges restaurants, we change our menus seasonally and interior design occasionally. For example, we renovated JoJo in 2017 to feel new and invented. At Jean-Georges, we started to offer a Vegetarian Tasting Menu to tap into guests’ dietary preferences and eating habits. We like to keep our current guests interested in our restaurants while attracting new ones as preferences, styles, and demographics evolve.
How have you defined the world of fine dining? With so many changes in the culinary world, where is the world of fine dining going?
People around the world are always looking for unique and exciting experiences – whether they’re dining experiences or not. Being in the restaurant and hospitality industry, I want to cater to every experience a guest is looking for – whether that be an à la carte meal at the bar, a selection of dishes served family style on a long table, or a tasting menu experience.
I think the appreciation for fine dining has only grown but the lens of what fine dining means, and what a fine dining restaurant looks like is changing. You don’t necessarily need to have a Michelin star to be considered fine dining – every dining experience is different and special – people will make it their own experience based on what they’re looking for.
What has been the most defining moment of your career? What is next for you?
Defining myself, my company culture, and being able to open restaurants around the world, catering to a spectrum of palettes and preferences have been some of the most defining moments of my career. I believe the future of luxury is sustainability and how we give back to the earth, which will define the future of restaurants.
This year, we have a lot of restaurants that are slated to open but the one that is opening in the near future is The Tin Building. We can’t wait for everyone to see what we have been working so hard on for many years!
Photography by: Courtesy Jean-Georges