It was the kind of interview I hate. Thirty minutes with a famous chef. In and out, and the chef, surreptitiously checking his watch, is itching to be done before we even start. Two hours later, and we were still talking. Jean-Georges Vongerichten was in my town and in a talking mood. He arrived in Boston to check on his new venture, Market, at the W Hotel, one installation of the partnership of his company — Culinary Concepts — with Starwood Hotels. It was Bastille Day and Boston was lucky (and a little surprised) to capture him on the French-est of public holidays. On Tuesday night he had been host of a dinner at his restaurant and invited a score of local Boston chefs. On Wednesday, he was presiding over a Bastille Day do at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art with the French Consul. In between, for a couple of hours, he was talking to me.
The chef swatted open the kitchen door, smoothing the sleeves of his fresh white jacket. He was smiling, calm, a seal-cap of short, perfectly glazed dark hair and blue eyes that are hard not to describe as “bleu marine.” I was unprepared for his friendliness, and for his willingness to spend the better part of the afternoon chatting with me about the restaurant business, his early life, his first marriage, his success and how much he hates to travel — a surprising admission from a chef with 22 restaurants on multiple continents, from Shanghai to Vegas, and plans for 50 more.
It was a tad terrifying to begin a conversation with an icon. What could I possibly ask him that he hasn’t been asked 300 times before? But, what the hell, he’s the most famous chef in the world and I’d gotten a chance to talk to him. I decided to go with my heart, the question I always want to know: How did Jean-Georges become “JG”?
How do you transit from being a good, hard-working chef to a monogram?
I started my apprenticeship in Strasbourg in Alsace at 16 — one day at school, four days working in the restaurant kitchen, Auberge de L’Ill. I started cooking right away, plucking chickens and pheasants, cleaning fish. I learned to skin a fish, break it down and butcher it correctly. It was a fourth-generation restaurant, and had a family feeling. For me, a very soft breaking into the restaurant business. I spent two years at the restaurant as an apprentice, and then took another year to learn more. And then, I was a commis in Paris, and I got a chance to cook at the Elysee Palace for the French president! Pretty exciting for a boy not yet 20!
Did you plan to leave Paris, ever?
At that point, I had to go into the army for my compulsory service. I was the chef on a boat, cooking for one captain and three officers. We sailed to dozens of ports — to Italy, Hamburg, Norway, New England, Canada, Portugal, Casablanca in Morocco … My job started when we pulled into port. The captain always invited guests on board for dinner –– the mayor of the city, the French consul, whomever it was important to entertain. In each port, I went shopping at the local markets. I loved going to the souk in Morocco to buy food! But honestly, being in the army was sort of a waste of time for me, although I did learn how to smoke a cigarette!
I finished my service, and went back to the kitchen for another apprenticeship. I wanted to see another region of France. I had already cooked in Alsace, where I was from, but the South of France was all about different flavors — I went from cabbage and pork, the flavors of Alsace, to rosemary and lavender, basil. Summer flavors. Next, I wanted to work with Paul Bocuse in Lyon, another rich culinary region in France.
How did you end up cooking in Bangkok?
The chef I’d worked with in the South of France began consulting for The Oriental in Bangkok. He asked me to become the sous chef. I thought he was crazy. I was a young kid. I’d never directed a kitchen or done any kind of purchasing. He called me every day for two months.
I went to Bangkok. It was a very different time. Today, if you want to know about how to cook something, you go online. You can find recipes, descriptions. Then, in the early ’80s, there were hardly any cookbooks. I used to learn about new dishes by reading the Guide Michelin, where it described the specialty of the restaurant. As I read the description of the chef’s specialty, I could think it through. Today, whatever you want to know, you just go online.
I figured they would throw me out of the country after two nights. I stayed in Thailand for two years. I was 22, I didn’t know how to run a kitchen, I’d never placed an order, even in French — and I didn’t speak English or Thai, which meant I did not have a common language with any of the 22 Thai cooks working under me. Some of the chefs were 45 years old and I’m supposed to do 80 covers a night, and teach Thai-speaking chefs how to cook French food for the hotel’s fine-dining French restaurant? I’d cook in the mornings and evenings, and in the afternoons, I took English lessons with the hotel staff — the housekeepers, the bellboys.
So you lasted more than two weeks in Bangkok?
I ended up spending two years in Bangkok and five years in Asia before landing in London. I loved Asia. I learned about lemongrass, ginger and chilies. I was running a French restaurant, but for myself, I wasn’t about to cook with apples and butter in Bangkok! I converted myself to a Thai eater, and decided to eat only Thai food for my first years in Bangkok. I visited every hotel in the country. I went to Phuket in 1980, and slept on the beach. There weren’t any hotels there yet. I did eight hotel openings for the same chef/entrepreneur. By the time I got to London, people told me I spoke English with an Asian accent.
As a Boston writer, I’m curious about your time in Boston.
For two years I was the chef at the Marquis de Lafayette, the fine dining French restaurant at the Swissotel in Boston. We were one block from the Combat Zone, and two blocks from Chinatown. I learned a big and valuable lesson in Boston. The idea of a full French meal at lunch wasn’t attractive. No one wanted to spend that time on a meal.
I started changing the concept, adding in my own recipes with lemongrass and ginger that I bought at the street markets in Chinatown. I got great reviews, but the restaurant was considered wonderful for chefs and critics but not for customers. Then, I moved to New York, where time moves even faster. Much less time spent at the table. Even at home, people spend 20 minutes eating, unless it’s a special occasion.
How did you morph from a fine dining hotel chef in New York to “Jean-Georges”?
We lost the contract at the Swissotel and my mentor wanted me to go to Chicago. But I decided I belonged in New York. I was 31 or 32, and I was really starting to develop my own food. I didn’t want to move to Chicago and cook his food anymore. He had a hard time understanding. It was hard for him when I broke off.
I went to the head of the Swissotel, and I said, “I’m ready. Put a wall up between the two restaurants and I’ll pay you 10 percent of sales.” It turned out to be a bad deal for me, but on the other hand, I didn’t have any build-out costs. By this time, I had 200-300 of my own recipes in my portfolio.
An easy transition from chef to owner?
I learned right away that being a chef and a restaurateur are two very different things. I’d left school at 16, I knew nothing about business. And at the same time my first marriage began to break up. We’d married in Bangkok when she was 21 and I was 23, so that she didn’t have to keep going back and forth to get a visa renewed. Our son was born in Bangkok, our daughter in New York. Ten years later, we were two different people. One morning, she woke up and told me she wanted to move back to France with the kids. I didn’t want to go back to France! My life had really just begun. The day the Gulf War started, she went back to France, and took the kids. We had a legal separation. It was hard. But in so many ways, my real life started at that moment. For the next 10 years, I was free to devote myself to work. Everyone told me that my kids would hate me forever, but right now the two oldest are living in New York. I have a new project — my 10-year-old daughter.
How do you keep up with the travel? Are you ever home?
I only travel one week a month. I’m really disciplined about that. I don’t want to be a vagabond. I need to be at home every night. I can’t sleep well on airplanes and can’t be creative if I’m away from home all the time. On the other hand, I don’t do day-to-day management. I don’t do payroll or the bookkeeping. Even if I open 50 more restaurants, I can’t be away from home more than I am now. I hire well and train even better. I don’t micromanage. What I do is create recipes and style beautiful food.
Zester Daily contributor Louisa Kasdon is a Boston-based food writer, former restaurant owner and founder of letstalkaboutfood.com. She is a columnist for the Boston Phoenix, the food editor for Stuff Magazine and has contributed to Fortune, MORE, Cooking Light, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine and the Christian Science Monitor, among others.