Jim Poris - March 2002
Food Arts presents the March 2002 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the suave, Prada-cool Alsatian who continues to alter the culinary and business landscapes for modern chefs.
In the late 1980s, as a young, bemused alchemist at Restaurant Lafayette in New York City, Vongerichten became the most visible exponent of the tsunami of Third World (initially, and mostly, Asian) ingredients encroaching on French food. At the same time, he tacked his "four theses" extolling the use of vegetable or fruit juices, flavored oils, vinaigrettes, and broths as sauce components and/or substitutes on the traditionalists' cathedral door of butterrich Gallic cooking. By reveling in such high-frequency flavors, exotic aromas, and riotous colors, Vongerichten finally slashed the umbilical cord—however loose it was—that lashed even nouvelle cuisine to the sacred tenets of classical cooking.
With his notoriety for culinary iconoclasm and his rakish looks as collateral, Vongerichten (with partners Phil Suarez and Bob Giraldi) has spent 11 years accumulating a multifaceted international restaurant empire—JoJo (1991, cutting-edge bistro); Vong (1992, French/Thai); Lipstick Café (1992, breakfast/lunch/takeout); Jean Georges (1997, haute creative); Nougatine (1997, bar/café); Mercer Kitchen (1998, boutique hotel cool); Prime Steakhouse (1999, two-fisted meat); Dune (2000, calypso); Market (2001, multi-city American in Paris); and two more New York projects due this year. Other chefs have followed his cue, cashing in their press clippings for second, third,and 10th restaurants.
"For me, it's not a matter of number of restaurants but a matter of excitement," says the peripatetic Vongerichten, confessing to an outsized wanderlust left over from his days as a wingman in Louis Outhier's "flying squadron" that saw him open 10 restaurants—most in Asia—for the renowned French chef from 1980 to 1985. "My heart's in Asia, almost everything I do is in New York, and I dream about Alsace. I'm on three continents; that's my soul.
"In truth, though, I sometimes feel it's easier to open another restaurant than to change my menu. Diners are creatures of habit; a lot of times, if I take something off the menu they like, they don't come back. And really, I'm in this to please and pamper people. If it were just for the money, then I'd be in a different business."
As a teen, Vongerichten trained in his native Alsace at the Michelin three-star Auberge de l'Ill and later with Paul Bocuse before landing in Boston in 1985 to head up the Marquis de Lafayette for Outhier. The next year he moved to Restaurant Lafayette in the Drake Hotel (now Drake Swissôtel), where he squeezed the starch out of fine dining and then primed it for a world of possibilities. Lafayette garnered four-star praise from the New York Times, an unprecedented accomplishment for a hotel restaurant in the city. The buzz has never left him.
"My dream was to become a designer or a chef," he says. "This, then, is my dream, because right now I'm doing both."