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11:34 a.m. Mexico City. It's Day 2 of Vongerichten's fact-finding trip to Mexico, and we've already sampled ant-larvae salad, crispy pig-brain tacos and a Mezcal-fattened worm that turned the Frenchman white, then red, then an uncomfortable shade of blue. Over a snack of Yucatan-style pulled pork doused in habanero, Vongerichten mulls over just what kind of restaurant he should open here next year at the St. Regis. An Asian-inspired eatery? A temple to nouvelle cuisine? A New York-style steakhouse? Should he plan on indoor seating or a terrace to enjoy Mexico City's temperate weather? Vongerichten's financial partner Phil Suarez, who produced Michael Jackson's Beat It music video before turning his attentions to a certain Alsatian chef, is against alfresco dining. "No one eats outside here," he says with conviction. "It's polluted and noisy. If they're going out for a good meal, people want air-conditioning." Vongerichten isn't convinced. Suarez has never been to Mexico City before; Vongerichten himself hasn't been here in more than 15 years. They will have to decide the destiny of their new restaurant after a couple rushed trips in which they try to divine Mexico City's dining habits. In a few months, they'll do the same in Istanbul. And then St. Petersburg and Dubai.
Many of Mexico City's upper class the target clientele for a Vongerichten restaurant travel often to the U.S., so his reputation precedes him. Brand recognition means a lot overseas. In a city with global aspirations like Shanghai, Vongerichten's eatery on the Bund has succeeded, in large part, because it is an expensive restaurant run by a world-famous chef. Shortly after his Shanghai outpost opened, I sat in the opulent dining room watching a pair of Chinese businessmen peer down at a signature Jean-Georges dish: an eggshell filled with softly scrambled eggs topped with cream and caviar. "So small," whispered one. "So expensive," said the other. A few minutes later, they clinked glasses and drained their pricey wine in one gulp each. They left looking like satisfied customers.
There have, of course, been failures. Two Vong clones opened to much fanfare in London and Hong Kong. Both are now closed. A similar fate befell a New York steakhouse venture, along with the Chinese-inspired restaurant whose cred was hurt by being too close to the real thing in Manhattan's Chinatown. For a man whose culinary motivations also include a puppy-dog eagerness to please, these disappointments still suppurate like fresh wounds. But when a chef expands his empire so quickly, mistakes are inevitable. Vongerichten may speak admiringly of a roast-pork vendor he once met in Singapore, who has sold succulent meat for decades from his little stall. But Vongerichten has 18 eateries around the world serving hundreds of different dishes prepared by dozens of chefs. No amount of diagrams showing just how much yuzu rind to sprinkle on an entrée can substitute for the man himself. "Yes," Vongerichten admits, "I worry about being too corporate or people thinking that I'm a chain." Protégé Del Vecchio phrases it more viscerally: "The question comes down to: 'Is it yummy?' If we can serve yummy food all around the world, what's wrong with that?"
So far, on this Mexico City trip, it's not yet clear what locals consider yummiest. On the first night, Vongerichten and his culinary posse joined the opening night of a modern Mexican eatery. "I love the smell of a new place," says Vongerichten, inhaling the new-paint scent and pecking local restaurateur Martha Elena Ortiz Chapa on the cheek. Ortiz Chapa is convinced that an Asian-style eatery will work best for Vongerichten in Mexico. Sushi is muy caliente now, she says, easily accepted by locals who grew up with ceviche. The advice excites the French chef, who notes that 90% of his line cooks at Asian-themed Spice Market in New York are Mexican. (The only Spanish Vongerichten knows are swear words his staff taught him.) Both cuisines share key ingredients like chilies, lime, cilantro and mangoes. Vongerichten appears convinced by the Asian concept. Then, the property developer responsible for the St. Regis announces that Mexicans would prefer a steakhouse, not some exotic, fussy Asian stuff. A day later, another local restaurateur points out the popularity of Brazilian churrascarias and Argentine steak joints. Vongerichten eyes partner Suarez. "A good New York steak with a Mexican mole sauce," he says, his nostrils flaring as if he can smell the nutty, chocolaty concoction. "It could be good. Really good." Sushi and satays and shrimp cakes have been forgotten. A picture is forming in Vongerichten's mind: a cool, clubby space where cigar smoke mixes with meaty smells rising off the charcoal grill. Less than 24 hours in Mexico, and the fate of a multimillion-dollar restaurant appears to have been decided.
Then, a small hitch. Just before heading to the airport, the Vongerichten crew stops for lightning tours of two of the hottest restaurants in town. Both, to Suarez's dismay, feature copious outdoor seating. "What's wrong with air-conditioning?" he demands. The space Vongerichten has been assigned by the St. Regis features only indoor dining. Should they push for a terrace? And would people want to eat New York strip steaks outside, anyway? There's not much time, though, for second-guessing. Del Vecchio gives a local contact a quick call as the car pulls in to the airport. "We think the steakhouse concept could really work," he says, simultaneously checking his luggage to ensure that the mole paste he bought at the San Juan market hasn't leaked all over his clothes. "J.-G. is really excited."