A little more than a month ago, an email landed in my inbox that totally intrigued me.
It was an invitation...
Let me get this straight: an intimate sunset sail with one of the world’s most famous chefs… while sampling some of his most famous dishes?
That got me thinking.
Of course, I’d heard of Jean-Georges – he’s the brains behind such culinary institutions as ABC Kitchen, JoJo, The Mercer Kitchen, The Mark and – of course – Jean-Georges.
12 restaurants in New York City alone, more than 40 around the world.
But I knew nothing about the man himself.
When did he fall in love with cooking? How did he get so successful? How do you pronounce his last name? (Vong-REESH-ten)
So, yes, I set sail with the famed chef… enjoyed caviar, spiced chicken samosas and warm cherry pie… which he personally served to his guests.
But first, I chatted with him about how The Mark is every Upper East Siders’ living room, how the King of Morocco personally asked to partner with him, and how he fell for the culinary arts on his 16th birthday.
ALINA CHO: It wasn't until age 16 that you really...
JEAN-GEORGES: I was a bad boy before that.
ALINA CHO: I read that. On your 16th birthday, your parents took you to a Michelin Star restaurant in France, and at one point your father said to the chef, "My son is no good, you might want to have him wash the dishes."
JEAN-GEORGES: The chef said to my father, "Listen, we’re looking for an apprentice." They called me up, "You can start tomorrow, on Bastille Day." I say, "I'm not. Tonight, I'm going out with my friends." My father say, "No matter what, I drop you off tomorrow morning at the restaurant."
ALINA CHO: Wow.
JEAN-GEORGES: We went out until midnight, and then the next day I started working, and [that was] 1973, so it's my 48th year of cooking.
ALINA CHO: It was a pivotal moment for you…
JEAN-GEORGES: For me, food was [about being] at home. And the family was very big — at the time, we were living under one roof, the grandparents, the aunts, the uncle, the parents, the kids. We were like 45 people for lunch. It was like a mini restaurant, so we never go into a restaurant, so I didn’t know you could [make] a living on food. I discovered that, wow, the restaurant business is something. It's entertainment, it's delicious food, it's service, so it was very appealing to me.
ALINA CHO: You spent five years in Asia. You had an incredible opportunity to open a restaurant in Asia, so you went, and it was there that you learned about spices.
JEAN-GEORGES: In France, we use a lot of spices — I wanted to know where the spices came from. I know they were from Asia, from the Middle East and the spice route, so I was effectively going to [the source]. I wanted to see fresh ginger, fresh lemongrass…
ALINA CHO: And you'd never seen it?
JEAN-GEORGES: No, fresh, never. Now, it's everywhere around the world. At the time, it was nowhere to be found.
ALINA CHO: So, when you came to New York…
JEAN-GEORGES: When I arrived in New York, I was cooking at the Drake Hotel, a restaurant called Lafayette -- typical French food, lots of butter, cream, and the restaurant was not very busy…
ALINA CHO: Too heavy?
JEAN-GEORGES: Too heavy, so I [came to] understand that New Yorkers, they eat at home on occasion, and they [eat] in the restaurant every day.
ALINA CHO: Every day.
JEAN-GEORGES: So, I started cooking [with lemongrass, ginger, vegetable juices] – lighter [and healthier] food.
ALINA CHO: Would you say you were the first chef to bring those flavors to New York? You popularized it, right?
JEAN-GEORGES: I think so — coconut milk, I was fully in love with curries, but Thai curries, which are very different than Indian curries, so lots of lime juice and things that were never used before, you know?
JEAN-GEORGES: We partnered up with The Mark like 11 years ago…
ALINA CHO: That crispy sushi [a popular dish on the menu] is a regular part of my diet.
JEAN-GEORGES: The Mark is really like a living room for people. Especially during the pandemic, it become really their garden, their indoor, their outdoor…
ALINA CHO: When things started to re-open in New York, it felt like the first place that felt hopping again.
JEAN-GEORGES: And then we started a whole new business, we started a to-go business right away. I mean, on top of room service it was apartment service.
ALINA CHO: The pandemic gave you so much business?
JEAN-GEORGES: So much business. I mean, I was talking to La Mamounia in Marrakech.
ALINA CHO: Yes, and you opened two restaurants there.
JEAN-GEORGES: On Zoom. So, I talked to them in November . The king of Morocco came to ABC Kitchen the night I was there, I didn't know who he was. He was in a sweater with two people, and the manager called me over. He say, "Oh, this table wants to say hello." They say, "Oh, we'd love to have this restaurant in Marrakech." He say, "We have a hotel there, and we would love to have you do ABC there." I said, "What hotel is it?" He said, "Well, it's La Mamounia." I say, "Yeah, the king owns it." He say, "Yes, I own it."
ALINA CHO: You had no idea. And from what I understand, you get calls every week, "I'd like to do a collaboration.” And you have to turn people away.
JEAN-GEORGES: Yes. I mean, we opened Marrakech during the pandemic, we just signed a new deal in Monaco at the Vista Hotel, I'm doing Keswick, Nashville. I'm opening at the Tin Building [South Street Seaport] 12 restaurants [there], so we have like 20 things in the pipeline.
ALINA CHO: Wow.
JEAN-GEORGES: It took me 40 years to build [this empire].
ALINA CHO: And this business has...
JEAN-GEORGES: In one year.
ALINA CHO: Why, do you think?
JEAN-GEORGES: I think people want a sure brand to make sure they can deliver.
ALINA CHO: The New York Times has said that there is not a chef who is your equal in America…
JEAN-GEORGES: I don't believe what I read. No, it's very nice. I'm very touched.
ALINA CHO: It's very powerful, food.
JEAN-GEORGES: I think what we do, and what I do, I think it surprises people.
ALINA CHO: Is it about always trying to surprise?
JEAN-GEORGES: No, no. My favorite dish is just a simple roast chicken with potato around, but the potato tastes better than the chicken, because it absorbs all the fats, all the chicken fat, all the juices.
ALINA CHO: Wow, you really are French! You’ve said that the first bite must be as exciting as the last bite…
JEAN-GEORGES: A dish is like life, it's a balance… so the acidity, the spices, salt has to be really balanced. I eat it myself. A lot of chefs don’t eat their own food, even if you think they do. You have to sit down, eat the dish, and if [the first bite is] not as delicious as the last, I'm not putting it on the menu.