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.
OW: You know, one of my other favorite people is Quincy Jones. I think of you as the Quincy Jones of food—as a food composer. Is that how you see yourself?
JGV: That's a compliment, thank you. I see myself as a creator.
OW: You're an artist first.
JGV: First is flavor.
OW: Of course.
JGV: The role of the chef is to create something personal, something that people understand and that they come back for.
OW: How do recipes come to you? Do you eat, sleep, breathe recipes?
JGV: I dream about food every night.
OW: If you dream up something in the morning, is it on the table by the evening?
JGV: A lot of the time, yes. I'll say to the chefs, "I found some sugar snap peas. Let's think up ten dishes." We try to think of what will turn this pea into something new. The ingredients are what they've always been. I tell my chefs, "There's no new fish coming out of the ocean." As far as meat goes, there's beef, pork, lamb. And for birds you have chicken, duck, quail, squab and game birds. But add licorice to that chicken and it becomes new. There are so many herbs and spices—the combinations are endless. It's about looking for new sensations, new flavors. Make it pop, make it sing.
OW: Who cooks at home?
JGV: I do, and my wife. She's half Korean; she loves Korean food. At the restaurant I do so much plating, but at home it's all family style.
OW: Do people ever invite you to dinner?
OW: I'd be scared for you to come to dinner.
JGV: I'm scared when you come to dinner!
OW: Do you judge the food when you go to someone's house?
JGV: Sometimes they'll ask me what I think, and I have to...well, I might say something like, "Maybe you could add lemon juice," because I don't want to say, "It sucks." [Laughs]
OW: [Laughs] What are some of your proudest creations?
JGV: A simple sautéed shrimp in carrot juice. You have the carrot, which is earthy, and the shrimp, which is the ocean. And you mix them together. It's magic. I use the same spices you use in carrot cake—nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, a little lemon juice, a tiny bit of butter so it's a sauce, a little cayenne and salt on the shrimp, and when you eat it you feel the earth and the ocean together. That's the planet. That's us.
OW: How do you decide when to do another restaurant? Like right now, you're doing a vegan restaurant—I may become vegan now that you're in the business.
JGV: It's a mix of raw food, vegan and vegetarian. The flavors are inspired by the world. It's called ABCV.
OW: The V because it's vegetarian?
JGV: Vegetarian, vegan, it's the first letter of my last name...
OW: That's nice! And are you dreaming up new stuff for this restaurant? Give me an idea. A hint.
JGV: We're going to have lettuce growing on the walls.
OW: On the walls? That's incredible! And speaking of lettuce, what happened with kale? For years you couldn't give away kale. So why are we all eating it now?
JGV: It was always very popular in Italian food. And I think now people know it's so healthy, it's so good for you.
OW: Food really is subject to trends. I'm trying to push truffles. You can find truffle popcorn, truffle salt.
JGV: Absolutely, truffles everywhere. I'm a fanatic about chilies. We have a dish of root vegetables—carrot, turnip, daikon, beets—roasted together and glazed with Thai chili.
OW: How are you able to manage it all? I come here, and I see you here. I go to ABC Kitchen and see you there....
JGV: I have three clones. [Laughs] It's all about having people you trust. And I love my job. I wake up and run to work.
OW: I can see it in your eyes. You have the same enthusiasm as that 16-year-old boy.
JGV: I'm still him.
OW: Of course it's wonderful to get all the accolades, but when you get a bad review...
JGV: We've had a couple flops: 66, a Chinese restaurant in TriBeCa, and V Steakhouse in the Time Warner Center. The steak house is a national treasure in America. Don't touch it. I tried to play with it. Funny appetizers, funky little things.
OW: Is that when [former New York Times food critic] Frank Bruni gave you that terrible review?
OW: I read that you took to bed for three days. Why did that hurt you so?
JGV: Who told you that? [Laughs] The team we put together had worked so hard, and I felt like I failed them, you know?
OW: I can't imagine you taking to bed. Did you cry?
JGV: Oh, I cried. I'd think, "What happened?"
OW: What's the biggest reward for you?
JGV: The biggest thing I'm proud of is filling up the restaurant every night.
OW: How do you feel when you see people enjoying your food?
JGV: It's the greatest pleasure in the world.
OW: Is food love?
JGV: Absolutely. It's all love. And you do it three times a day.
OW: What is your favorite part of the job?
JGV: Creating a new place. When I was a kid, before that birthday at the restaurant, I wanted to be an architect. And now today I'm doing both: making food and designing spaces to eat it in. I'd like to do a hotel one day. If you're at my restaurant, I get you for two, two and a half hours. At a hotel I would get you all night. I have you for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
OW: Starting with that egg with caviar. What do your parents think of your success, your father who thought you were—
JGV: Good for nothing. He was like, "I can't believe it. You have over 5,000 employees?"
OW: Let me ask you this: I've never met a chef who didn't have trouble in their personal lives. You're married to the work.
JGV: I got divorced once. I came to New York married, my son was born in '81 and my daughter in '87. And six months after I got my four stars, my wife said, "I don't want to live here. I'm going back to France." I said, "Are you kidding me? I can't leave."
OW: Did those stars cost you your marriage?
JGV: The work did. The 16-hour days, six or seven days a week. She took the kids to France, and they'd go back and forth.
OW: Have you learned to balance it a bit more now?
JGV: Oh, yes. I never work on weekends.
JGV: Well, I'm 58 now.
OW: Are you still doing 16-hour days?
JGV: Fourteen. I leave in the morning at 8, go to the gym, then the office for a while....
OW: And then on weekends, are you able to chill?
JGV: Completely. I'm a different person.
OW: And when are you happiest?
JGV: I like chaos. At 8, 8:30 at night, when it's bustling—I love that. I love the action.
OW: Final question: What do you know for sure about yourself as a food composer?
JGV: What do I know for sure? I know what tastes good.
OW: Yes, you do. I know that for sure, too.