No chef in New York restaurant history has been more successful, or more influential, than Jean-Georges Vongerichten. As he begins his third decade of cooking and running restaurants in New York, we sat down to ask him some questions about the scene: how it’s changed and where it’s going.
What’s the biggest difference between the New York of 1986 and the New York of 2007?
The biggest difference is the variety of food. In 1986, they were still flying fish over from France! Eighty percent of the fish was imported and had been on ice for four or five days — with the Fulton Market right here! As for produce, it was impossible. You couldn’t find beets; today you have five different colors. The other big change has been the money. When I opened JoJo in 1991, it cost $200,000. Today you have to start with millions. The real-estate costs are crazy. I actually think you could open a JoJo-like restaurant, a small, serious place, but no one wants to do it. David Chang, with Ssäm Bar, went in that direction. There’s always a lot of restaurants for sale; they’re always opening and closing. You can find a space if you try.
Do you have any more New York restaurants in the works?
No New York ones now. I just signed a contract with Starwood Resorts to do concepts worldwide, a five-year deal. For instance, we’re going to do a Spice Market in Istanbul. That’s where the spice road ended, you know?
It hasn’t been all gravy for you. V Steakhouse flopped, for example.
We were paying a million dollars rent a year …
You gotta sell a lot of steaks to make that.
I’m not finished! It was also $500,000 a year in maintenance. All the places on the fourth floor — Keller, Masa, Gray, and I – we all got the same deal. They build the restaurant for you, but it’s no gift. You’re not really the owner. You’re more like an operator. We did, in the first year, nine and a half million dollars at V. That is not chopped-liver business. But I needed to make ten to make a profit.
How do you control so many restaurants?
Well, the main thing is that our recipes are extremely precise. We weigh everything down to the gram, even the salt. The recipes don’t leave our hands until they’re totally bulletproof. But look, if you want 100 percent of me, my dream restaurant would be a counter with ten seats. I would cook for you, and then serve you, and then do the dishes. Once you delegate, it doesn’t matter how many restaurants you do. Even at Momofuku, David Chang has three cooks, so his recipe changes from guy to guy. When I delegate I will lose 20 percent of myself. My fight is to only lose 10 or 5 percent.
Who are some of your favorite young chefs in New York now?
Wylie Dufresne is on top of the list. He’s brilliant. Then I will say number two on the list is Andrew Carmellini from A Voce.
His cooking is so different from yours.
It’s delicious. Back to the great ingredients, the great techniques. Nothing molecular, but I go there every other week. Number three would be David Chang. He’s poetic. His food is like him. All these guys, my three favorites, when you eat their food you connect with the person. David Chang is provocative, aggressive; his food is great in the same way. Wylie is the mad scientist, always dreaming. And Carmellini you always see at the Greenmarket, looking for the best possible tomato. They are all true to themselves. I think Paul Liebrandt is a wonderful chef. Mark Lapico, my chef de cuisine, is amazing. Josh DeChellis is terrific. He has that Asian touch, that Japanese influence.
What about the other side? The established big shots from Europe who have come over here to open major restaurants? Who do you think has been most successful, and who has struggled the most?
Hands down the most successful is Robuchon. L’Atelier is amazing. They can do raw food as well as cooked food as well as Robuchon-style cooking; it’s informal and chic at the same time. Ducasse was great too, but he had a hard time in the beginning. He tried to aim a little too high Then there’s the guy in the London hotel
Right, Ramsay. Well, it’s not easy. It’s hard to come back here with that Michelin three-star mentality. New Yorkers are the toughest crowd in the world. Tougher than Paris, tougher than London. Balthazar puts the bistros in Paris to shame. What Keith McNally is doing here is as good as any brasserie or bistro that you can find there. New York is the best restaurant city in the world.