The clean-pure-simple mantra is perfectly incarnated in the next dish, Japanese-snapper sashimi with lemon, olive oil, and crispy skin. It’s highlighted with tiny slivers of red finger pepper and texturized by the “crispy skin,” which is removed from the snapper, frozen, thinly shaved, rolled in corn flour and deep-fried for a few seconds, then sprinkled back on top of the cold sashimi. I could eat this every day. Possibly twice a day.
Lightness is the quality that Vongerichten seeks, an illusion of pure flavor without substance, which may be one reason he’s so popular among the Prada set. (“You cook the way you look,” being another motto of the lean, athletically toned chef.) The next appetizer up for consideration fails the lightness test. He’s been experimenting with a bacon-and-eggs concept, which has become a braised pork belly in a sweet-and-sour sauce with an egg poached for 40 minutes in the immersion circulator. When we sit down to try out the new dish upstairs, the egg’s pretty amazing—both yolk and white have almost the same custardy texture. The braised pork belly’s delicious but heavy—more Daniel Boulud than Jean-Georges.
“I can’t serve this as an appetizer,” says Vongerichten.
“I knew you’d say that,” Brainin says, then turns to me: “He’s afraid of pork as an appetizer.”
“Hey, I grew up with pigs,” says Vongerichten. “Maybe we’ll try this again in the winter.”
The egg, though, is so good they want to keep it and start over. “How about asparagus and shiitakes with the egg?” suggests Vongerichten. “The egg is like a hollandaise on top.”
“That’s good—earthy, grassy, and sulfury,” Brainin says.
Vongerichten nods thoughtfully, but he’s turned his attention to the new wait staff, who are being drilled by his front-of-the-house general, Denis Bouron, who has split the new staff into two groups, one group serving the other, running through the motions of an entire meal with empty plates and glasses. The chef watches the serving group move between kitchen and dining room. Something’s bothering him. The elegant, rail-thin Bouron drifts over, as if summoned telepathically. “They’re touching the corners,” Vongerichten says. “It drives me crazy.” He jumps up and demonstrates, walking around the room, touching the walls, touching the bar, touching the corners of the tables. “They’re touching the walls. We’ll have to repaint the fucking room every week.” His voice is relatively calm, and none of the wait staff can hear him. But he’s dead serious. “I’m a clean freak,” he says, almost apologetically. “At Lafayette,” says Freedman, “he used to clean the refrigerator for relaxation.”
Clean is practically Vongerichten’s favorite word (along with light). He could well have called the new restaurant A Clean, Well-Lighted Place. All of which may be a deep-seated reaction to coal dust, to its pervasiveness in his youth, and to the fact that he grew up with the understanding—or the fear, really—that he would take over the family coal business in Strasbourg.
While in London, Jean-Georges took me to the cultish St. John, where chef Fergus Henderson practices “nose-to-tail” cooking: slow-cooked pig parts, including the offal and bone marrow and chitterlings—the opposite of Vongerichten’s ethereal fusion fare. Henderson’s food carried Vongerichten back. “Look at this,” he says, as the waiter places a giant ham hock with cabbage in front of him. “This is what I grew up on in Alsace. It’s choucroute. I’d wake up every morning with the smell of cabbage and potatoes and pork.”
Vongerichten was raised in the riverside house his great-grandfather built in 1833. Working with his father as a young man, he grew to hate the family coal business. He was far more interested in his mother’s end of the operation, feeding some 40 employees every day. Recognizing her son’s precise palate, she came to rely on him to adjust the seasonings.
It didn’t occur to him that there was a career path there until after he was thrown out of technical school. On his 16th birthday, his parents took him to the three-star Auberge de l’Ill to celebrate. Jean-Georges was exhilarated by the meal and had an epiphany when chef Paul Haeberlin came over to the table. “I was amazed. I thought, This is it. This is what I want to do.” His mother promptly badgered Haeberlin into finding a place for the aspiring chef.
Vongerichten began an apprenticeship that lasted three years and included a stretch as chiens chef—cooking for the customers’ dogs. After a stint in the army, he managed to secure a spot in Louis Outhier’s three-star kitchen at l’Oasis, outside of Cannes. If Haeberlin’s kitchen was all about advanced preparation, Outhier’s was more about winging it. “Everything was done à la minute. He insisted on chopping everything fresh.” Outhier was also a fanatic for cleanliness and order, a trait he passed on to his young protégé, who already had an ingrained loathing of dirt and coal dust. It was in the sunny south that Vongerichten first learned about olive oil and fresh herbs, and he also modeled his personal style on the older chef, whom he remembers as “very elegant, beautifully dressed, very civilized—a bit of a playboy. He teach me about clothes and about women. He was kind of a father figure to me.” Vongerichten’s own father didn’t speak to him for more than a year when the son announced he would not be joining the family business.