Frank Bruni, the Times’ then-brand-new restaurant critic, made V his first hit job, giving it a single star. Not that Bruni was alone: New York’s Adam Platt was similarly tepid in his assessment. The final blow was a damning account of Vongerichten’s recent evolution by veteran food writer and former Jean-Georges cheerleader Alan Richman in the year-end issue of GQ—an apostasy that was the food-world equivalent of Nietzsche’s turning on Wagner. Richman accused Vongerichten of selling out, devolving from culinary artist to franchise manager. While calling him “the most inventive and certainly one of the most beloved French chefs working in America,” Richman went on to trash all of his New York restaurants in their current incarnations.
The piece was a shock. Vongerichten admits he was crushed. “I went to bed for three days,” says the hyperactive chef. On the fourth day, he went to the doctor, as if convinced that the emotional blow must manifest itself physically. “He told me I was ridiculously healthy,” the chef says, sounding almost disappointed.
The backlash might seem inevitable, from the outside. The guy, after all, has had nothing but hits, and until recently he’s made it look easy. He’s rich: Prime Steakhouse in Las Vegas, just one corner of his empire, did $16 million in business last year. He’s earned not just one but two four-star ratings from the Times and won seven James Beard awards. He just moved into a beautiful apartment overlooking the Hudson in the most talked-about residential complex in the city, a project in which he was a partner. He has a beautiful young wife, former Jean Georges hostess Marja Allen, the mother of his 4-year old daughter, Chloe. He doesn’t seem tortured like Thomas Keller, nor wacky like David Bouley. What’s not to hate about someone this successful and seemingly well adjusted?
If he was ever complacent or distracted, he’s definitely not feeling that way now. One of his most likable qualities—and he is a very likable guy—is his willingness to take criticism to heart. He thinks of himself as a host, and he hates to see his guests unhappy. “Maybe I was stretched a little thin last year,” he says in his melodic, mumbling English, flipping an omelet in the spotless kitchen at Jean Georges while he watches two sous chefs plating an order. “I open four restaurants. But I love creating new things. It’s difficult to be creative once a restaurant’s open. People want the same dishes. For me, the creativity is in opening a new place and starting a new menu.”
Indeed, after spending time with the whirling dervish of a chef, who seems in many ways like a smart 12-year-old in need of Ritalin, I can’t quite imagine him confined to a single kitchen. He has a very hard time sitting still, though he flatly rejects the suggestion that he’s abandoned the stove. Lately, even as he’s been trying to save V and open his new place, he’s been toiling at the Jean Georges mother ship, tweaking and freshening the menu. He knows that Frank Bruni, midway through a revisionist tour of the city’s four-star temples, will hit Jean Georges soon. Vongerichten’s cred in the food world still depends on those four stars.
Vongerichten’s fiercest competitor, at least in the minds of aging foodies, is his younger self and memories of meals at Lafayette (don’t ask me, I wasn’t eating much in the eighties), the ultimate of which was a dinner in honor of Salvador Dalí, based on his cookbook Les Diners de Gala. The first course was a dish called Eyeball, made of foie gras in aspic, with a black truffle. The Breast of Venus was made from tripe and a carrot. Erection featured a rabbit sausage with bean sprouts for pubic hair. “Lafayette was a fantasy,” he says now. “It was the eighties. One time, I bought half a ton of black truffles and froze them.”
In fact, the Drake Hotel subsidized the restaurant, which was losing $50,000 to $60,000 a month. “You just couldn’t do that today,” says chef Kerry Simon, who worked in the Lafayette kitchen. Like so many other enterprises in 1987—including the federal government and nightclubbing stockbrokers who postponed sleep until their old age—Vongerichten’s fantasy kitchen was operating on the deficit-spending principle. But unlike most of his customers, the four-star chef wasn’t getting rich. In 1986, when he got three stars, he was making $450 a week. By 1990, when he decided to leave the restaurant, New York’s most celebrated chef was making $95,000 a year.
Now he’s making more than many investment bankers, presiding over an empire of eighteen restaurants and 2,200 employees. The 60-seat room on Perry Street might seem almost like an afterthought, but it clearly represents something important to the chef, a restatement of principles and a return to basics. “This is actually incredibly important to him,” says Lois Freedman, his former girlfriend and longtime business manager.