Photo Essay: On the road with Jean-Georges
9:27 p.m. New York City. The last of the foie-gras brûlée with rhubarb juice, Sichuan peppercorns and pineapple has been plated. In the dimly lit dining room at Jean-Georges, actor William Shatner sits replete, while a sheepish Bruce Willis sneaks through the kitchen to his apartment above in the Trump International at 1 Central Park West. Assured that his frenzied kitchen work has reduced diners to a soporific digestive state, Jean-Georges Vongerichten zips in his silver Mercedes-Benz suv to another of his seven New York eateries. The next destination is Spice Market in the meat-packing district, the Alsatian-born chef's luxe take on Asian street food, which does $15 million a year in turnover. Afterward, he's considering dashing by Perry Street, his streamlined ode to modern American cuisine, where the ventilation system needs a little attention.
Right now, though, Vongerichten's dash through Manhattan is halted by a red light. But even this interlude isn't wasted. From the passenger's seat next to him, aide-de-camp Gregory Brainin hands his boss a hollowed-out lemon filled with a citrus-and-lavender jelly. Vongerichten, 50, tastes a spoonful of what Brainin hopes may become a gastronomic gimmick for Starwood Hotels. Would people, the chef wonders, prefer a lemony jelly at the bedside rather than a boring chocolate? (Speaking for myself: no.) Last year Vongerichten signed a deal with the hotel group and a private equity firm to open a series of restaurant concepts worldwide. But before he can appraise the jelly Brainin is casting anxious sidelong glances as Vongerichten takes another bite another aide calls to confirm two appointments tomorrow: a 1 p.m. meeting dedicated to Prime, Vongerichten's steakhouse at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, and an afternoon session to rebrand 66, his failed chinoiserie eatery in New York that will reopen in July as a Japanese restaurant, with help from a trio of Tokyo-based brothers and a $100,000 soba noodle machine.
Vongerichten hangs up the phone, but not before working out a kink in his upcoming trip to Mexico City, where he will open a restaurant early next year in the new St. Regis, a Starwood hotel. Brainin inquires about the jelly. The phone buzzes again. A celebrity has just walked into one of Vongerichten's international outposts. Where should she be seated? Eleven minutes have passed since he left Trump International. Vongerichten has rattled off decisions affecting his gastronomic empire in Las Vegas, New York and Mexico City. He has seated a famous customer by remote. All that's left is to jettison the jelly from Starwood contention. "It has a nice taste," he says gently. "But maybe we need something that pops, that makes you think, aah, this is the taste of Jean-Georges."
I first tasted Vongerichten's cooking a decade ago at his groundbreaking Vong restaurant in New York, where a half-Japanese, half-American girl who grew up in Southeast Asia finally found food that, as Goldilocks would say, tasted just right. Today, Jean-Georges' East-meets-West vernacular sounds almost clichéd. Our over-stimulated palates may be delighted though not completely astonished by a jalapeño-and-yuzu-topped sea urchin or squab encrusted with Sichuan peppercorns (the spice often smuggled in through Vongerichten's luggage because of a U.S. Department of Agriculture ban that was only lifted in 2005). But back then, the classically trained chef who, like many aspiring French cooks, put in months preparing food not for discerning customers but their equally discerning dogs was cooking up nothing short of a revolution.
Vongerichten's own palate had been transformed by spending most of his twenties in Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong and Osaka. "At the restaurants I was cooking normal French nouvelle cuisine," he recalls. "But during my time off, I was in the street markets tasting all this new food. Ginger, wow! Lemongrass, wow! Chilies, my god!" In 1986, Vongerichten arrived in New York, where he helmed a restaurant at the Drake Hotel and discarded traditional cream-thickened sauces for vegetable essences brightened with exotic herbs and spices. Health-conscious diners who spent their free time working out to Jane Fonda videos approved, as did local food critics. Along the way, Vongerichten discovered his talents extended out of the kitchen and into the boardroom. His engaging demeanor and hyperkinetic banter helped him land financial partners who would eventually underwrite his own restaurants, starting with the Upper East Side bistro Jojo and later including Vong and Jean-Georges. But even with all his success, Vongerichten craved more. "If I could have my dream, I would open a new restaurant every month," he says. "Maintaining restaurants is hard, a little boring. The fun is the creativity, the new menus and new flavors."
Vongerichten's more-more-more mantra mirrors, in many ways, our own increasingly charged gastronomic cravings. Two decades ago, Americans were lucky to find fresh garlic in the supermarket. ("Or ginger," Vongerichten reminds me. He has a serious crush on the knobby root, along with its Southeast Asian cousin, galangal.) Middle-class East Asians strayed little from their rice-based diets. Back then, only the most urbane Europeans could claim familiarity with stir-fries or tagines. Today, food means adventure. In our search for unique taste sensations, we vacuum up any new ingredient du jour. This spring in New York, beets (preferably in non-beety colors like yellow or white) and ramps (a local wild leek) are all the rage. Last year, culinary trends included pork belly and gnudi (gnocchi on steroids). Before that, the It product was, naturally, veal cheeks. Keeping up requires a multilingual dictionary.
Vongerichten's restaurant empire has expanded with a similar scattered velocity. Since 2003, he has opened three modern American eateries in New York, Houston and Minneapolis; two Asian-inspired spaces in lower Manhattan; a steakhouse; a pair of restaurants in London; a Caribbean-themed café in the Bahamas; and two other outposts in Shanghai and Bora Bora. The Starwood deal will expand his empire to Miami, Istanbul, St. Petersburg, Dubai and Mexico City, among others. Just in New York alone, Vongerichten currently employs 936 people and feeds roughly 20,000 a week.
The worry, of course, is that this rapid expansion will dilute the purity of the Jean-Georges brand. At what point will this meticulous chef, who sketches diagrams of each dish so that chefs across the world can recreate his techniques and presentation, overstretch his culinary kingdom? The question applies not only to Vongerichten, probably the most globe-trotting of all chefs, but to other culinary icons who have carved out vast gastronomic realms. The temptation, certainly, is understandable: If Chanel and Prada can sell luxury around the world, why can't truffle- or foie-gras toting chefs? Once, restaurateurs considered themselves successful if they ran one crowded eatery. Today, Frenchman Joël Robuchon presides over a string of international restaurants. Austrian-born California cuisine purveyor Wolfgang Puck has opened six dining spaces just in Tokyo and hawks a line of cookware. France's Alain Ducasse and Japan's Nobuyuki Matsuhisa are also expanding overseas. So heavily marketed are celebrity chefs that the likes of Gordon Ramsay or Mario Batali are probably more recognizable globally than the new Prime Minister of Japan.
But when does high-end cuisine give way to pure commerce? In a world where celebrity cooks must focus so much time on polishing their fame think of all those TV shows now dedicated to foodies will the food suffer? If it does, part of the blame must be borne by all of us who, with our oh-so-discerning appetites, demand so much too much, really from our food. Tapas or moules et frites or Sichuan hotpot? Been there, done that. We want ever more exotic flavors to titillate our jaded palates and we pay chefs handsomely to provide the thrill. Then, there's the need for constant gratification: tomatoes must also be available 365 days a year for our insalata Caprese, even if the resulting product is mushy and tasteless. "I never even knew there was a season for broccoli until I started working at a restaurant in France," says Vongerichten's right-hand man Daniel Del Vecchio. "Or that the color of butter changed with the seasons."
In some ways, a backlash to the Thai today, Peruvian tomorrow, Uzbek the day after trend has already begun with the rise of regional cuisine. American and European menus now often boast of locally sourced fungi or pheasant. One May morning Vongerichten trawls the Union Square Greenmarket, where seasonal fiddleheads, chamomile and, yes, ramps delight New York foodies. At one of his favorite stands, the chef, who is greeted by other shoppers with the feigned nonchalance celebrity spotters employ while watching the Hollywood A list stroll down Wilshire Boulevard, pops an arugula flower into his mouth. "Spicy, no?" he says. "In a salad with an Asian vinaigrette or with ribbons of raw tuna, it would be beautiful." In another five seconds, four more uses of these white blossoms come to his mind. I'm still chewing my flower. He then sniffs a pile of popcorn sprouts, and I can almost see him scattering the sweet micro-greens they taste more like corn than corn across restaurants throughout the world. I realize that local is just what Vongerichten wants to take global.