After a nine-month stint with Paul Bocuse, the famous Lyonnaise three-star chef, he got a call from Outhier, who had a lucrative contract with the Mandarin Oriental hotel chain, offering him a job in Bangkok. In November 1980, the 23-year-old Vongerichten took over a kitchen with a staff of twenty Thai cooks, none of whom spoke French. He took English lessons and struggled to train the staff. While Vongerichten was cooking classical French food, he was falling in love with the flavors of Thailand. “I was eating Thai food three meals a day; it was incredible. The dish that changed my life was tom yum kum. You start with a pot of water, add lemongrass, lime leaves, lime juice, coriander, mushrooms, and shrimp; ten minutes later, you have the most incredible, intense soup. Instead of boiling old bones for twenty hours the way I’d been doing.”
He stayed in Bangkok for two years, after which he moved on to Singapore, Hong Kong, and Osaka, delving into the local cuisine at each stop. He had his first sushi in Japan in 1984, initiating yet another love affair: In New York, he eats sushi two or three nights a week, often at Sushi Seki on First Avenue.
Given that he left home at such an early age and disappeared immediately into a kitchen, Vongerichten never had the opportunities to develop a taste for socializing. To this day, for all his celebrity, Vongerichten doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with New York high life; he recognizes its utility for business but does not enjoy it. He loves skiing, hang gliding, paragliding—anything fast and dangerous, according to wife Marja—but he claims that the best part of any vacation is returning to work. Although he will come out of the kitchen at Jean Georges to greet an important diner, he’s happiest back among his chefs with a pan in hand. “He doesn’t know how to chill,” says partner Phil Suarez. When I ask Freedman, who lived with Vongerichten for three years, who his best friend is, she looks puzzled: “That’s a good question.”
“His best friend,” Suarez says, “is the kitchen.”
To say he’s a workaholic is an understatement. Unlike some celebrity chefs, it seems, he’s not abandoning the stove so much as multiplying the number of stoves behind which he can toil.
Vongerichten landed in New York in 1986. He was 28 years old, with a wife and two children in tow, and he had another assignment from Outhier—to start up a dining room for the Drake Hotel on Park Avenue and 56th Street. “I was doing his style of cooking,” he recalls. “It took two and a half hours to do the lunch. For the first six months, I didn’t leave the hotel. I was scared. I was a country boy. Then Gilbert le Coze”—who founded the fish palace Le Bernardin—“came in. He was the second chef I met. He took me to the Fulton Fish Market. I wasn’t happy with my fish. It was six days old.” Gilbert introduced him to the highly regarded wholesaler David Samuels of Blue Ribbon Fish Company, who refused to let him buy until Vongerichten invited him to the restaurant, and who remains his main supplier to this day.
Now, with a $2 million budget, Vongerichten is attempting to recapture JoJo’s simplicity at Perry St.
Not long after he discovered the fish market, early in 1987, Vongerichten visited Chinatown, where he was reunited with many of his beloved Asian ingredients. “I saw lemongrass, ginger, galangal. I started introducing these flavors.” Vongerichten had gotten three stars from the Times for his classical menu, but he noticed that his customers were asking for sauces on the side and, as often as not, leaving them unpoured. “I saw that in Europe people eat out on special occasions and eat at home every day. In New York, the opposite is true. After six months, I started to cook more everyday food. Lighter food. I put fruit juices in my sauces. I started an express lunch. At Italian restaurants, I saw oil everywhere. I’d worked in Provence, and I remembered the flavored oils. We started infusing different things in oils.” Within a year of arriving in New York, Jean-Georges was cooking food unlike anywhere else in Manhattan—or in the world.
In 1988, Times critic Bryan Miller bumped the restaurant up to four stars, and suddenly the shy, 31-year-old Alsatian with a heavy accent was being interviewed by CNN. The phone was ringing off the hook. “We went from $70,000 to $150,000 a week. All these chefs started coming in—Alice Waters, Alfred Portale, Jeremiah Tower, Daniel Boulud. I was working my ass off, putting in seventeen-hour days.”
It was a heady time. New York’s superstar chefs of the future were just gaining traction—David Bouley had left Montrachet and opened his own place, Boulud was at Le Cirque, Thomas Keller was at Rakel. “It was lot of pressure,” Vongerichten says. “I’m a guy who always questions myself. Every day was bringing the bar higher.” The pace was too much for his wife, who returned to France with their children in 1989. They subsequently divorced.