Jean-Georges Vongerichten: ‘I’ve never been a tyrant in the kitchen’

By Ellie Smith

2 months ago

The Alsatian chef tells us about his new restaurant at The Emory

He’s been in the restaurant world for over 50 years, but Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s zest for the industry shows no sign of slowing. When we met the world-famous French chef last week, he was in the midst of perfecting the menu for his latest project, abc kitchens at Belgravia’s new all-suite hotel The Emory, and his excitement was palpable. With over 60 eateries across the world, including a particularly strong empire in America, with 13 eateries in New York alone, plus two in London (both at The Connaught), Vongerichten is a dab hand at restaurant launches nowadays. But at the heart of them them all lies the same, simple philosophy, that’s based around provenance and respecting the seasons. Here, he tells us all the ‘abc DNA’, his calm kitchen demeanour, and how restaurants have changed since he started out.

Interview with Jean-Georges Vongerichten

How’s the restaurant launch going? 

So far it has been going well. There’s still about ten days before opening, so we’re still testing and finalising the menu. 

What can diners expect?

The original abc kitchen opened about 14 years ago as a farm-to-table type of restaurant. Ten years ago we opened abc cocina, the more Latino sister, then seven years ago we launched abcV, which is 95 percent vegan. The new restaurant, abc kitchens, is a combination of all three menus under one roof, so there’s something for everyone.

It’s a perfect time for us to open because it’s spring, so we have English peas, English asparagus, everything is sprouting. We have spring carrots, avocado salad, a sweet pea soup and a pea guacamole, which is two parts avocado, one part peas – it was a bit of a controversy ten years ago when we put it on the menu. Then there’s local fish, diver scallops, it’s really simple food, all farm-based from local producers. That’s the most important part of the abc DNA.

I always say to my chefs: when you look at the food groups, with meat for example you have beef, pork, lamb, game, it’s very limited. But when you look at vegetables and plants, there are thousands of species. 

The Emory

You’ve opened loads of restaurants over the years. Do you still get excited? Nervous?

It’s always exciting, but I’m very nervous inside. It’s a new place, you’re part of the creation of the restaurant, so I feel like I’m a first-hand architect, working to make sure comfort is there, the sound is not too loud, the lighting is nice and warm. London probably doesn’t need another restaurant, but we’re going to bring something different. 

When did you first become interested in cooking?

I grew up in a family where it was all about eating. My mother was a great cook, my grandmother as well, they were cooking for three generations of the family, who were eating under one roof. Then for my 16th birthday, my parents took me to a three star Michelin restaurant, Auberge de l’Ill in Alsace, and that’s where I had my revelation. When I saw the waiters, the whole choreographed meal with plated food, I said: this is fun. That was in 1973 and I never stopped since. I did an apprenticeship and I travelled the world; I went to Asia to learn about all those ingredients – ginger, lemongrass, coconut. Here we are 51 years later, still loving it. 

Pea guacamole at abc kitchens

How would you describe your food ethos?

My interest has always been working with the farmers. In London, I feel like there’s a market in every zip code, the local farmers are growing amazing things, amazing cheeses, all kinds of things. I see people want to eat better and healthier. Traceability is number one now. They look at a carrot and say – where does it grow? What kind of soil? What kind of water? We’re eating a little less, but more quality. More balance. 

Has the culture in kitchens changed since starting out?

Totally. You find more and more young talent. In my time, you had to go to a bookstore to look up a recipe, today if you want to know about turmeric you go online and find 50,000 recipes attached to it. The talent pool of young chefs today, with the information they’re getting, is incredible. I think the future of food is really bright. Every day, everybody is better because of the information, because of sharing. Today I feel like the young chefs are ready at 23. I was 34 when I opened my first restaurant – you had to travel, you had to gather information. 

Of course the culture changes. I’ve always been a calm person, I’ve never been a tyrant in the kitchen. It’s always stressful, but if something doesn’t work for lunch, you fix it for dinner. Now, I feel everybody is a critic, everybody has an opinion and they share it with you. You get better by getting the information, in the old days if a customer doesn’t like something you never see them again. We’re learning much more today, which is amazing.

Jean-Georges Vongerichten

Where do you find inspiration for your dishes?

By respecting the seasons. Every day our chef brings me new things, you can be inspired by what you see locally, but by travelling too – I go to Tokyo twice a year, I go to Singapore. As a chef, I bring 10 dishes and come back with 40 ideas, so it’s pretty cool.

Favourite places to eat in London?

I was inspired by The River Cafe, they’re doing honest, delicious, local food, and I feel it’s always refreshing to go there to try the dishes they put out. There are always some classics – langoustines at J Sheekey, Dover Sole at Scott’s, but then are the new places. I’m looking forward to trying The Devonshire in Soho, and Mountain.

Worst kitchen disaster?

It’s usually somebody dropping a big pot of sauce that took six hours to do… kitchen nightmare! You have to come up with a solution – if there’s 200 people for an event, you always find ways. 

Jean Georges Vongerichten and Ben Boeynaems

Have you got any pet hates or rules in the kitchen?

All the herbs are chopped for each dish in the last second.

Three ingredients you couldn’t live without?

Ginger, citrus, and I really love basil. 

What do you do on your days off?

I have a little house in the country in upstate New York, sometimes I do paddleboarding or fishing. When you’re in the kitchen all day long for six days a week, on the days off I really try to unwind and relax, mostly with outdoor things.

abc kitchens at The Emory opens this April,