Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the superstar behind elite New York restaurants Jean Georges, Spice Market, Matsugen, Perry Street, Vong, Mercer Kitchen, JoJo, and Nougatine on passing up coal and engineering for cooking, getting wine for his birthday as a kid, and bringing food back to its origins.
Point of Origin: I’m from Strasbourg, a big city in Alsace. It was a pretty big house, and we were cooking for 20 for dinner, it was a big deal. We had all of our meals at home; my grandmother cooking, my mother cooking. It may have been a one-pot stew, so it gave me a taste for making food for a lot of people. Every morning, I remember the smells around me; when I was eight or ten, I could tell you exactly what day of the week it was by what was on the stove. And I always knew what I wanted to do: cook! In 1957 I got a bottle of wine for my birthday, but by the time I was 16, I had only been to six restaurants in my life and never really knew that somebody could actually make a living by cooking. I started cooking at 16 as an apprentice. I wasn’t going to school, but working with a chef. In 1973, I began as an apprentice at the Auberge de l’ιll, which has now been going for 50 years. In 1976, they gave us a test, and I was voted Best Apprentice. I went to Paris for the finals and received the highest score in regional France, but the apprentices competed against each other there, and I finished third.
How did you get your start? I was the oldest of my brothers, so I was supposed to take over my father’s part of the coal business, and at age 15 I was sent to engineering school. I hated every minute of it. My father was really, really upset and wanted to know what I wanted to do with my life. So I told him I wanted to be a chef and that I should be cooking. I knew exactly what I wanted to do, but I was totally unexposed to anything like the business of cooking. One day, my father took me to a restaurant, and the chef came by the table. My father asked if he was looking for somebody to train. I got lucky. I studied and cooked and am still the only chef in my family.
What changed your life? When that chef stopped at our table, it was like looking at my future, and my father just hoped I was just good enough to wash dishes! I went to his restaurant for two weeks on a trial basis, and they really taught me how to cook — the basic techniques of cooking — and it was great. At the time I began as an apprentice, nobody was really into restaurants, but it was the beginning of my career, a passion that turned into a business. I’m still passionate about it 35 years later.
Any non-industry projects in the works? There’s a lot of waste when we make food, so we have a lot of companies who come to pick up what we don’t use. Like Share our Strength, a great organization that does a lot of good for cancer, and the Central Park Conservancy. We’re helping left and right, we’re raising money for good causes. When you share what you have — your talent — it’s good for you, too.
What about your diversion into mondo condo land and hotels? I did it! I haven’t had any education since I left school at 15, and actually, I learned how to do this business in New York. I was 32 when I got my first restaurant, and went back to school in Manhattan at Hunter College to take a course on how to run a business in New York; how to get permits, a liquor license, all of it. You can’t take things for granted. I just wanted a hotel, built around a restaurant, but the architect found out that the property next door to it was available as well, so we went into construction there too, but for condominiums [Calvin Klein bought the first apartment as Vong had vowed to cook for the buyers.]
Favorite Hangouts: I’ve just got a house in Westchester, in Waccabuc, and I go to places around there, where I don’t have a restaurant. I get to relax every weekend. I turned 50 last year and decided not to work weekends. I have a garden, and I’m going back to my roots, cooking for a lot of people. It’s a one-pot meal with garlic and olive oil, and people serve themselves. I have friends over with my wife and daughter, whoever’s around.
Industry Icons: Everyone in this business has been so good to me, and it’s so hard to choose, but among my icons is my mentor, Paul Bocuse. I have a lot of other mentors and a lot of people I respect. You really have to set an example for all people. People are not easy, and the restaurant business is a big task.
Who are some people you’re likely to be seen with? I mean, I’m not the type of person who goes much beyond my family — my wife and my daughter — nothing flashy. I don’t go out just to hang out.
Future Projects: Relaxing, that’s for sure on the weekends, but I’m thinking of going back to the old days when people decided to invent the “real food world.” I really want to go back to something super organic — scallops with a little garlic, very world friendly, ABC food. You take all of the superfluous away, and you get back to the essentials. When you’re young you try to impress, and as you get older, you get down to what’s important. Its how I look at life … I look at the essentials. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an architect and a chef, and now, I am! Of course, we’ve opened a new Japanese restaurant in the W in Atlanta, and will be doing the same in the Venetian, like the one in Vegas. There are so many restaurants in a place like New York, the economy cleans out the overflow.
What are you doing tonight? I’m driving down to the new place on Church and Leonard, on my way to meet Japanese investors.