Oprah Talks to Jean-Georges Vongerichten
Of course, Jean-Georges can also craft the fanciest of dishes, which is why Jean-Georges, his palace of fine dining near Central Park, is one of the most highly respected restaurants in the world. And that's where I am today, enjoying an egg unlike any other—softly scrambled and topped with caviar, in a hollowed-out eggshell—as Jean-Georges tells me the story of how he went from being a bad student in a small Alsatian town to the mastermind behind 30 restaurants and a team of more than 5,000. He's been awarded three Michelin stars every year for ten years—and can come up with a masterpiece of a dish almost as easily as you and I breathe.
OPRAH: I want to get to the heart of your artistry. When did you fall in love with food?
JEAN-GEORGES VONGERICHTEN: My parents took me for my 16th birthday to a restaurant in Alsace, where I come from. We were a big family—three generations under one roof. I'd never been to a restaurant in my life.
JGV: I was amazed. The ballet of the waiters, the food. I couldn't believe you could do a living out of food.
OW: Do you remember what you ate?
JGV: Foie gras to start. A salmon soufflé—salmon with soufflé on top. And venison.
OW: So, it was a really nice restaurant.
JGV: Yes, a three-star Michelin, the only one in the whole region of Alsace. It was like my eyes opened up. The chef came to the table, and my father said to him, "Are you looking for a dishwasher? Because it looks like my son is interested in the business." I was very bad in school, the worst. My father sent me to an engineering school, and they threw me out. He wanted me to take over the family coal business, but I hated it. So my father says, "My son is good for nothing. But maybe he can peel potatoes." And the chef says, "Well, we are looking for a summer apprentice." My father says, "He can start next week." And that was the beginning.
OW: At 16!
JGV: Yes, it was 1973. I was 16. After that, I went on to cook under other top chefs in France. Then I got a job in Thailand, and I stayed in Asia for five years.
OW: Asia had a powerful influence on you. What were the spices there that impassioned you?
JGV: I landed in 1980 in Bangkok, and I stopped to eat ten times between the airport and the hotel. It was all lemongrass and ginger and chilies. At the time, I was cooking French food: cream, butter, pepper steak, onion soup. I had all this lemongrass, ginger, and chilies and I couldn't use them. But I say to my team in the kitchen, I say, "I want to eat Thai food breakfast, lunch and dinner. I want to know everything about it."
OW: And then you came to New York.
JGV: I arrived in New York in 1986, when I was 28. The market here was nothing. In the Union Square farmers' market, it was a couple of potatoes, everything from California. So the only place I was comfortable shopping was in Chinatown, because it all came from Hong Kong. So I start using—
OW: Lemongrass, ginger and chilies!
OW: You're a big reason we all use those ingredients now. You introduced them to us.
JGV: Even an Italian restaurant I saw the other day was using ginger. So I was the chef at Lafayette at the time, and it was there that The New York Times gave me four stars.
OW: And you were only 31! So tell me: What makes a dish work?
JGV: I think when I was younger I was cooking to impress. Sometimes the dish would have 15 things on the plate. That's cooking only for yourself. As you get more mature, you take all the superfluous things away and you get the essential flavor. Now I cook for people, not for myself.
OW: How long do you spend on one recipe?
JGV: Oh, it's very quick. Because you know what salmon tastes like and you know what asparagus tastes like. And then you pair them in your mind.
OW: I love eating in any Jean-Georges restaurant. How is it always 1,000 percent consistent? It doesn't matter what day, what time of year—you get that same perfect burger.
JGV: I write my recipes very precisely. That's the German side of me—Alsace was part of Germany twice, you know. I put everything on a scale. Everything.
OW: Even the salt?
JGV: Everything. If we put a vinaigrette together, every part of it is weighed. For the burger, we do a bit of arugula, olive oil—everything is weighed. To the gram.