Jean-Georges Vongerichten is a unique kind of CHEF. He is an unstoppable talent in the kitchen, with his finger on his customer’s pulse, knowing what they want even before they do, be it French-Asian fusion or chocolate lava cake. He also has a head for business and attention to detail that has helped propel him from success to success, starting with storied restaurants like Vong, continuing with Spice Market, multiple cookbooks, and evolving with the Matador Room and Market at Ian Schrager’s EDITION.
HL: I read that you were in Asia for some time in your career; do you think that contributed to your success?
JG: It did because it changed my palate. I was a 23-year old, classically-trained French when I went to Asia in 1980. I discovered new flavors, like umami, and ingredients like fresh ginger, chili, lemongrass, coriander, and it changed my life. It was really a turning point in my career. When I got to New York in 1986, the only place I was comfortable was Chinatown; there I could find everything.
HL: Even though you did not go to school for it, you are quite the businessman.
JG: I love cooking, but I love the business too. It’s important because a lot of chefs forget the business side and have to shut down after six months. Every morning, I spend three hours in the office to make sure we can pay our bills. We have over 3,000 people working for us in New York City and their families count on us.
HH: You have 27 restaurants now, but have created many more. Explain that.
JG: I sold Spice Market to Starwood, then signed a contract to open restaurants for them for five years. We created 25 restaurants for them.
HL: You’re always ahead of the trends. What is the next one?
JG: I think food is getting lighter and healthier because people eat out so often. It’s about quality ingredients because that is the root of good food. People also want traceability of the food on the table. They want to know the DNA of things and live longer…better.
HL: The Matador Room has some great unexpected combinations, like the Pea Guacamole. Do you seek to reinvent dishes?
JG: The role of a chef isn’t to reinvent dishes, but to tweak. In the Arroz Con Pollo, I infuse the chicken broth with a piece of kombu, which is Japanese seaweed. It’s a natural kind of MSG that enhances the flavor. It gives a salty, savory flavor that people crave.
HL: Do you miss anything about dining in France?
JG: The thing I miss is the time that people take to sit for a meal. I love Sunday lunches with the family that start at 1 p.m. and finish at 5 p.m.
HL: What do you think is the most important thing in the kitchen?
JG: Hygiene. I’m a freak about that. It’s very important and I’m very strict.