A couple of things are immediately surprising about French-born chef and restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who currently has 37 dining establishments to his name across the globe. When we meet, he is in town to celebrate the one-year anniversary of Mercato Hong Kong, and he could not appear more relaxed. Back-to-back lunch and dinner bookings – during which he must oversee the highest levels of service while showing face at tables – have him completely unfazed. This is especially impressive considering that the multi-award-winning chef’s weekend flit into the city falls in the middle of a lightning seven-day trip away from his New York base; he’s just come from Shanghai, where he has three restaurants, and will be moving on to Tokyo, home to a cosy 14-seat counter-style restaurant in his stable.
What’s more, Vongerichten’s appearance belies his 60 years. In his chef’s whites and black high-top Prada trainers, with his brown hair slicked back, he looks immaculate and the picture of health (there are no bags under the eyes of this workaholic chef-cum-CEO, despite the many responsibilities of heading up his company, Jean-Georges Management).
Born into a cuisine-loving family in Alsace (the chef’s earliest memories are about food), Vongerichten has been in the restaurant biz since he was 16, when he apprenticed under the late Paul Haeberlin at the acclaimed Auberge de l’Ill in his home region. Benefiting from pedigree mentors holding three Michelin stars continued, with Vongerichten working with Lyon-based legend Paul Bocuse (credited as one of a movement of seven or eight chefs who invented nouvelle cuisine in the early 1970s) and Louis Outhier (whose Restaurant l’Oasis just outside Cannes was a mecca for gastronomes from the mid ’50s to late ’80s).
Jean-Georges Beverly Hills, at Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills, which opened last month, offers a prime example of a Vongerichten menu, with cuisine based on years of European training fused with influences gleaned during decades of cooking across the globe. So how did he make the transition from French fine dining to more casual menus, such as those of Mercato restaurants today? “People don’t want fine dining all the time,” Vongerichten insists. “In New York [City], we have Jean-Georges, which is ‘high dining’, and the other nine there are more casual – they’re all relaxed. There’s only room for so much high-end dining in a city.”
The chef’s most refined cuisine is also served up at the two Jean-Georges restaurants elsewhere in New York State, as well as in Shanghai, while the experience at JG Tokyo in Roppongi Hills, he explains, is “like tasting dishes you’d expect at Jean-Georges, but served at a counter in a way that targets the Japanese diner.” Elsewhere – from Las Vegas to Singapore – grillrooms, cafés and casual restaurants are the rule, as they are in NYC. And yes, Vongerichten does have a presence in Paris: his Market restaurant, located near the Champs Élysées, serves seasonal, produce-led and modern “Asian-French” cuisine in a smart yet casual environment created by interior and furniture designer Christian Liaigre.
Vongerichten has combined Asian and French culinary influences to positive acclaim before, of course, notably decades earlier with his Vong restaurants, which essentially served Thai-inspired French cuisine. His winning combinations immediately struck a chord at the original Vong, in New York from 1992, spawning further dining rooms in London, Chicago and at the Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong. Patrons here adored the restaurant (and the tropical martinis at adjacent, freestanding Vong Bar were a huge hit with the city’s cocktail set, before it closed in 2005). Would Vongerichten ever consider reviving the concept? “Well, I’d never say it couldn’t happen,” he says. “But it would have to be the right concept and location for the time.”
The Mercato concept came about following an enquiry by owners of the Three on the Bund building in Shanghai, who were pleased with the response to the Jean-Georges restaurant there. “They asked me if I’d like to suggest opening another restaurant in the building,” Vongerichten recalls. “I love to eat Japanese food and I love Italian food. I probably eat them twice a week. I like the unique, rustic New York Italian – you know, meatballs and pasta – and I felt that the Chinese connect with pasta and pizza. I thought easy-going Mediterranean Italian would work in Shanghai, and it did! For the last five years it’s been very popular there.”
The idea for the Hong Kong eatery came from restaurant and bar pioneer Allan Zeman, perhaps best known for his California Tower in Lan Kwai Fong. “He visited the Shanghai Mercato, really liked it and said, ‘I’d like to have this in my building in Hong Kong,’ and we took it from there,” Vongerichten says, adding that menus are 80 percent the same in both locations. “We can get some better ingredients in Hong Kong, especially for Japanese seafood, so the differences are just about seasonality and ingredients we can get.”
Though Mercato eateries have been well received in Shanghai and Hong Kong, Vongerichten is cautious about extending the concept to New York, which has a strong appreciation for Italian food. “I don’t think I would dare,” he laughs, “I’d probably get thrown in the river! But, you know what? Sometimes I walk around New York and I don’t find this kind of food – like our Neapolitan pizzas with unusual toppings, like our three cheeses with black truffle and slow-cooked egg, and our three cheeses with lobster.”
The chef’s most recent venture in the Big Apple is vegetarian restaurant ABCV, which opened in April. The breakfasts have been especially popular, including Vongerichten’s takes on Cantonese congee and Indian dosas, alongside super-food smoothies and avocado toast. Vongerichten won’t say whether the ABCV concept will be rolled out elsewhere – it’s still early days – but he is enthusiastic about healthy living. Perhaps it’s the secret to why he looks so well.
“I hardly eat any meat any more,” he says, “I’ll have beef once or twice a month, and I want to know where anything I eat or drink comes from. ABCV comes from my wanting to be healthier, and seeing how the world is more interested in healthy options. I lost 10 pounds [4.5kg] in two months since cutting back on meat.”
As healthy as workaholic Vongerichten appears, and as our conversation winds to a close, he admits occasionally to imagining a life without his expansive restaurant business, and a fantasy retirement plan is “to open a restaurant for seven or eight people” in a relaxed part of Asia, where he would do everything: prep, cook and wash up.
It’s a romantic idea, if not quite the “retirement” of tradition. It would undoubtedly, however, keep the chef trim, happy and healthy – and working on the creative, globally inspired dishes for which he is revered – at his own pace.