Jean-Georges Vongerichten, acclaimed chef of the capital’s J&G Steakhouse as well as restaurants around the globe, opens up about what inspires him in the kitchen.
Washington Life: You have a deal with Starwood Hotels to open 50 new hotels over the next five years. How do you remain creative and “fresh” in your approach to opening so many new restaurants?
Jean-Georges Vongerichten: Over the four years since we signed the contract with Starwood, we have opened 15 restaurants, and next year we have a couple of more openings. The restaurants that we have opened and will open across the globe are an extension of what we do here in New York City. We pick and choose from the locations that Starwood shows us, selecting locations that we think are ripe for a new restaurant. We adapt our New York concepts to each different location, and we always add local specialties to the menu. Every country, every city, has different local ingredients, and I like to incorporate that local element in the food that I create. For me, this infusion of local flavor is what really keeps things fresh and new.
WL: What has been your greatest creative challenge as a chef?
JGV: My greatest creative challenge is one that will never go away, and that is the challenge of keeping my restaurants feeling as fresh and exciting as the day that I opened them. I opened JoJo, my first restaurant, 20 years ago, and I just want to keep it going, keep it as exciting as it was when I first opened those doors.
WL: In terms of creativity, what do you love most about the culinary world? What do you love least?
JGV: The best part about being a chef is being able to create new dishes using the best possible ingredients you can get your hands on. Creating cravings, deliciousness on a plate, that’s what I love doing the most. Running the operations, the nuts and bolts of the restaurant, is the hardest part. I much prefer being in the kitchen.
WL: In 2009, Fast Company named you “Most Creative Chef.” What do you think makes you the most creative chef?
JGV: I don’t think that I’m the most creative chef. I think that my own creativity comes from all the traveling that I’ve done throughout the years, and that I still do. I’m constantly picking up new ingredients, new flavor combinations, new techniques, and adapting them to my own cuisine. I think my food is very worldly, and that’s what makes it creative.
WL: What is your most creative dish ever?
JGV: That’s a good question. I can tell you what my most copied dish was! My chocolate cake. But most creative… I’m sure it was a dish that never sold. Back in 1988, I made a carbonated cold summer vegetable broth. I made a transparent vegetable broth that I carbonated and served in a transparent bowl with little vegetables in it (peas, favas, carrots). The vegetables moved up and down in the broth, with the bubbles. I think I sold two a day. Since then, I have focused more on flavor, not on weird platings.
WL: Do you think the culinary arts can ever get “too” creative? Does creativity ever get in the way of good food?
JGV: There’s no limit to creativity, but what bothers me is when you serve something, for example, shrimp, but it doesn’t look or taste like shrimp at all. If I eat shrimp, I want to smell it, see it and taste it. People should stop trying to be creative when they make something that doesn’t taste like the original product. Peas can be a jelly, or a soup, or just plain. I don’t care, as long as they taste like the best peas I’ve ever had.
WL: What is the culinary equivalent of couture fashion?
JGV: Haute couture is your 3-star Michelin or 4-Star New York Times restaurant. Then, there’s prêt a porter – everyday food, something that you’d really want to dig into every day. Haute couture is food that you treat yourself to for a special occasion. When we came up with the concept for J&G Steakhouse in Washington, D.C., I wanted to create a menu that people would crave every day. You could say that I have different lines, a little for each taste – haute couture, like Jean Georges, or prêt a porter, like J&G Steakhouse, ABC Kitchen, Nougatine.
WL: So many great chefs are bringing their signature culinary skills to the nation’s capital. Why do you think that is so? What made you decide to open a restaurant in Washington, D.C.?
JGV: There were some really great restaurants in D.C. already, before I came down here. Starwood came to me with the opportunity to do something at a W Hotel in this amazing location, and it was a no-brainer worth doing. Washington, D.C. is a good place to do business.
WL: Your son Cedric is also a chef. What’s it like to cook with him? Is a father-son restaurant a possibility? What would such a restaurant be like?
JGV: I’m really happy that Cedric decided to take the same direction as I did, he’s an extremely talented chef and we have a great time cooking together and sharing ideas. We’re really already doing a father-son restaurant, since Cedric’s the Chef de Cuisine at Perry St, my restaurant in Greenwich Village in New York. He’s doing a great job there.
WL: You’ve accomplished so much in your culinary career. What personal challenge do you have yet to achieve?
JGV: There are so many things that I still want to do. I got into this business because I love pampering people; the hospitality thing is a part of me. I would love to do a hotel one day. In a restaurant, you take care of someone for a couple of hours, but what would it be like to be able to do that 24/7?