Chef Talk with Jean-Georges Vongerichten

In late November, Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten visited his namesake restaurant at Three on the Bund. While he makes the journey to Shanghai a couple times a year, he was in town to do more than just update his menu with seasonal and local favourites; the celebrity chef was also promoting his latest cookbook: Home Cooking with Jean-Georges: My Favorite Simple Recipes. After a cooking class where the man himself whipped up a few of his own dishes from the book, he sat down to reminisce about his start in Asia and discuss what’s next.

With more than 10 restaurants of his own and 22 F&B partnerships, Jean-Georges’ plate is – forgive the pun – full. He travels for a week every month, which leaves guests to wonder how much time he really spends in the kitchen. While he’s the first to admit that hiring and managing well is exactly how he has built one of the most well-known dining empires in the world, he is also quick to silence any detractors about his own culinary talent, a feat he handily accomplished during the trip with a cooking demonstration.

Armed with just a burner, a tabletop convection oven and a meticulously set mise en place, Jean-Georges whipped up four dishes with the help of his sous and pastry chefs in an hour and a half. Afterwards, he joked about the makeshift kitchen set up one floor above his restaurant at Whampoa Club.

“It’s fun – it’s like camping. It shows people you can do it with nothing,” he says. “Sometimes you think you need a full-blown kitchen and it’s not true. Little burner, wood fire, whatever it is – you can cook.”

And that approach to cooking is exactly what inspired his new book. After 38 years of working six days a week, the chef had a revelation. “When I turned 50 four years ago, I said no more. The problems are the same when you are there or not. So I took two days off a week and bought a little house in the country,” he says, “but when you’re used to working all the time, feeding people and entertaining people… after two days in the country, I thought, ok, I’ve seen the birds, I’ve seen the deer, I’ve seen the raccoons.” So he started hosting dinner parties.

In his own home, he was able to forget about the stressful restaurant theatrics, thinking less about how to plate for effect and just throwing a pot of well-cooked food on the table for everyone to enjoy. And this casual cooking has crept into more than just his literary oeuvre.

While he notes he’s not planning on creating any more fine dining restaurants – “too stressful” – he admits to a weakness for casual concepts. A pizzeria he opened with his baker in Chelsea, the organic and locally focused ABC Kitchen that New York Magazine noted had a “handmade vibe” – these are the future of JG, and it appears that Nougatine might not be Shanghai’s only taste of the Alsacian chef’s current flair for fuss-free dining.

“I’m slowing down with the opening of restaurants a little bit. I’m thinking about doing a second project here, but not high-end. It would be really relaxed,” he says, before clamming up about the specifics. When pressed about plans for the new Shanghai development, he shakes his head and laughs, saying “next year, next year” and hinting that the location might be near Three on the Bund, a guess he called “warm, lukewarm”.

Read more of our interview with Chef Jean-Georges here.

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