Photography by Sasha Israel
“RESTAURANTS SHOULD BE QUIET,” SAYS JEAN-GEORGES VONGERICHTEN OVER HIS MORNING LATTE IN THE LIGHT-FLOODED DINING ROOM OF HIS EPONYMOUS RESTAURANT JEAN-GEORGES, WHICH BORDERS A LUSH CENTRAL PARK. “People are busy enough. They’re like bees, buzzing around. My restaurants are quiet for the eye. I like the surroundings to be very zen.” To wit, the three-star Michelin restaurant is humming yet subdued save a handful of young families lingering after a late breakfast and a fashionable crowd of ladies-who-lunch and alpha businessmen filtering in before noon.
If you want to know what’s going on in the mind of the famed toque, just take a look at his Instagram where he’ll post everything from videos of roasting wild bamboo in Japan, lunching with Ruth Reichl upstate to gleefully playing the violin with a Mariachi band in Mexico. “Inspiration is everywhere all the time,” says the Alsace-born chef who has opened nearly 30 restaurants all over the globe from New York to Shanghai. “I think what customers are looking for are new combinations of things.” In that spirit, this summer Vongerichten unveils his latest hotly-anticipated endeavor, ABCV, an exclusively vegetarian restaurant and a spinoff of his mega-popular farm-to-table eatery ABC Kitchen. This time, Vongerichten consulted with nutritionist Stephanie Sachs on the all-plant menu and plans to highlight seasonal produce found at the farmer’s markets. Below, we caught up with the globetrotting culinary great who discussed his lifelong love of vegetables, his most memorable meal and the healthy habit he keeps no matter which region of the world he finds himself in.
Your latest venture is going to focus on a vegan/vegetarian menu. Why vegetables?
In Alsace, where I grew up, my mom and grandmother were cooking more vegetables than meat. The meat was expensive so it was always 60% to 75% vegetables. Dinner was always a one pot meal like sauerkraut with potatoes and pork, roasted vegetables of potatoes, cabbage, chard, spinach and carrots and a very small roast of pork for ten people or even a simple roast chicken with potatoes around it in the oven. The potatoes always tasted better than the chicken because all the fat and juices from the meat went right into the vegetables.
Did the success of ABC Kitchen lead you to expand on an exclusively plant-based menu?
When we opened ABC Kitchen five years ago, the vegetables were a big success. We sell more vegetables than anything else between the spinach pizza, the salads and side dishes. I love vegetables. They’ve always been a part of my diet. To raise a cow it take so much water and energy, but to grow a radish, it takes two weeks. It’s a different life we are living now, between growing conscience, health and getting older.
You have a lot of cooked vegetables on your menus, is that a choice?
The Chinese don’t believe in raw food. You never see raw vegetables in a Chinese restaurant but they believe in ten seconds in the wok to give you that beautiful green color. I like the Asian method of using a wok. It cooks the vegetables quickly. We are going to be using woks at ABCV.
What’s the trick in making vegetables taste the best?
I am a big fan of “natural MSG,” and what I mean by that is kombu, seaweed or dashi. The guy who invented MSG was a Japanese man back in the 1920s and kombu was the original MSG. At ABC Cocina, we put kombu in the chicken broth of our arroz con pollo. I’m telling you, people come back for that chicken because once you taste natural MSG, you always come back for it. It’s in your brain and in your system.
Your frequent the farmer’s market a lot, what is best in season right now?
Asparagus, of course. A nice thing to do is boil water with salt, put the asparagus in there for a couple minutes and eat it warm. I peel them because they cook faster and they stay green and vibrant longer. If you cook them too long they’re not as vibrant. White asparagus I like tender all the way but green, I like a little crunchy. If they never touch the fridge or ice water, they retain so much flavor. If you put them in ice water, you lose half the flavor. We also do an green juice with the peelings of the asparagus.
How would you describe your personal philosophy on keeping healthy and balanced when it comes to eating?
I’m in sync with my body and my mind. I follow my cravings. I don’t know what I’m going to eat for lunch and whatever looks good to the eye or smells good, I just go for it. When I was growing up there was always a big fruit basket on the table everyday. So even if I travel, I always put a fruit basket on the table. The way you grow up is the way you stay. We are all creatures of habit.
We noticed you started having vegetable juices on your menus. Do you drink the juices?
Every day. I start with orange juice then I go for green juice or red juice. I just have one during the day in the morning. Our green juice has kale, cucumber, spinach, chili, lemon, mint and green apple. The red is a beet and carrot base. It gives you energy and you feel good about it. You feel your body going.
Take us through a day in the life of Jean-Georges.
I wake up at 7:30am, go to the gym at 8am. I need cardio to wake me up. I have a trainer. If you know somebody is waiting for you, you get up. Then I go to breakfast at the lobby in the Mercer Hotel. I get avocado toast or poached eggs and my latte. From there, I have meetings at the office in the morning to make sure that the business is there and that we can pay rent next month. Lunch is around 12:30pm at Jean-Georges. I cook lunch for myself. It’s usually something simple like a piece of fish and vegetables with some kind of new sauce and always with chilies. In the afternoon, I work on new dishes with my chefs until around 8:30 or 9pm. For dinner, I try to eat at one restaurant to taste the food or I go out. Tonight, I’ll go either to The Mark, JoJo or Perry Street. My last stop is always Perry Street because that’s where I live and I go to kiss my son goodnight. He hates that. I kiss him in the middle of the dining room in front of everybody.
Do you have a guilty pleasure?
Lindt milk chocolate. The problem is I brush my teeth and then I eat the chocolate. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I still taste it. It’s the only way I can go to sleep and it’s been like that since I was 4 years old.
Do you ever meditate?
I drive everywhere in my car. It takes me 20 minutes to drive downtown and there’s nobody around. It’s the moment when nobody bothers you. That’s my meditation time.
What products do you always have in your kitchen?
Ginger and chilies.
How do you incorporate living healthy with your work as a chef?
Exercising. It keeps me going for the day. We live in a dangerous business, you could be partying until three or four in the morning like I was twenty years ago. It’s a very social life. You’re constantly entertaining people and they want to entertain you as well. The gym pushes me to go to bed at midnight, except Friday. I don’t go to the gym on Friday.
Do have any self-care practices like massage or acupuncture?
My chiropractor Loretta Friedman. She does non-force chiropractic work. When you go the gym or lead an active life there’s always something out. She aligns your body and vertebrae but there’s no cracking, it’s just by pressure points. I leave the table and I’m in heaven. I go there at least once a week.
Asia has played a big role in your cooking over the years. What specifically draws you to that particular culinary culture?
I lived in Asia for five years and it completely changed my life. I grew up in Alsace and then I went to the south of France where I learned about tomatoes, rosemary and garlic. When I lived in Lyon, like Alsace, it was about heavy cooking but when I went to Bangkok in 1980, it was a total change. In Asia, everything starts with a pot of water. Then they put some lemongrass, chili, ginger and they’ll make a broth out of tap water. That’s where I learned how to balance sour, sweet, salty and spicy–the contrasts of food.
I’m sure you’ve witnessed plenty of food trends over the years. Is there one coming back?
In Asia, I learned how to do a beef stock and how to cook it for many hours, which is in again. All the bone broths, we’re going back to that now. It’s so good for you. We’re going back to Medieval cooking.
You’re constantly traveling. What was the latest discovery you’ve made?
I always see new things. Each time I go somewhere I bring ten new recipes and I try to learn ten new things. I was recently in Shanghai and went to a street where they had curries. I was wondering why there were curries in Shanghai since it has nothing to do with India, which is so far away. We did some research and found out that all the police and security in the 1920s and 1930s were Indian and they brought their spices with them. So now the Chinese are cooking super light curry broths with homemade pulled noodles.
What is the most inspiring culinary country for you?
Japan. You always taste something and are like, “Wow what is this?” I went to Jiro and I discovered why the sushi is so good there. It’s because he is 89 years old and his body temperature is cooler than a young person’s. We went to two different same level 3-star Michelin sushi places and he was the best because I felt the temperature of the fish was so perfect and it’s because of his cold hands. When he does it, his rice is a little more vinegary than other sushi but the difference is body temperature. Sushi chefs all warm up the pieces in their hands. It’s supposed to be body temperature so they take the cold fish, put the rice, wasabi and the fish and they flip it over just to warm it up a little bit but everywhere I go, it’s a little too warm. With Jiro, it was perfect. On the way out I shook his hand and I was like, “Aha, I got it!” That’s just my theory, who knows. It’s true though because you look at a lot of the really amazing sushi masters and none of them are under 65. They master not only the technique and rice, but the cold body.
Do you have a favorite sushi restaurant stateside?
Masa is the best. I go to BarMasa once a week. If you sit at the counter, it’s expensive but he’s as good as anything in Japan. Every day at four or five in the afternoon, he Skypes with a guy in the Tsukiji Market in Tokyo with a GoPro and he’s like, “Yes; no; that tuna.” He buys all his fish at six in the morning in Tokyo, everything goes into the Japan airline at eleven in the morning, it arrives here at eleven the same day and it’s delivered to Masa at two in the afternoon. It’s just the best.
What was your last memorable meal?
At Masa. He has a grill, so he gives your yakitori or sukiyaki. He makes a shabu shabu with foie gras and lobster. It’s super decadent. Or he does something with truffle in the winter. He has a piece of paper, shaves the truffle onto the paper, takes a bowl of rice and rolls the rice in the truffle so it becomes completely black, then puts a drop of eel barbecue sauce. That’s it. His food is very personal.
What is the most underrated ingredient that you use?
I use a lot of acid in my food. It has to be bright and good for the digestion. I use chilies in everything. Red chilies but you can use jalapeños. Every recipe that we have in every restaurant has a little hint of chili.It’s the number one anti-inflammatory. It just makes the food sing.
What do you cook for yourself at dinner?
I never cook dinner for myself. I pamper people all day and at night it’s my turn to be pampered.
FOR JEAN-GEORGES’ ASPARAGUS MUSHROOM VINAIGRETTE, CLICK HERE
FOR JEAN-GEORGES’ GREEN APPLE, CLICK HERE