He’s one of the most prolific chefs and restaurateurs in the world, a man whose very name calls to mind class and elegance in cuisine.
Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten has been serving amazing dishes for more than four decades. In that time, he’s racked up awards, Michelin Stars and a fabled four-star review from The New York Times. And, like any good chef, he knows his place is in the kitchen.
Despite driving a culinary empire that spans the globe in 39 restaurants, Jean-Georges still spends several days a week in his classic chef whites, surrounded by flames and knives, always looking for that next signature dish.
Soon, the City of Brotherly Love will be able to enjoy the fruits of his labors, as he opens up another location of his namesake restaurant — Jean-Georges — at the Four Seasons Philadelphia, atop the Comcast Center. The project is five years in the making and promises to solidify the city’s place on the culinary map.
As his empire grows, you’ll no-doubt be seeing Jean-Georges in new places, but you won’t see him on TV any time soon. TV takes a lot of time and he’s got important work to do — in the kitchen.
Jean-Georges Vongerichten: Hello Kevin, good morning.
Kevin Tall: Good morning, chef! How are you?
J-GV: I’m well, I’m well. I’m sitting here on the top of the world in Philadelphia.
KT: That sounds great. Thank you for taking some time to talk to me with morning, it’s an honor to speak with you.
J-GV: Thank you for calling.
KT: I normally try to avoid too much flattery during an interview, but I’ve eaten at one of your restaurants, I think I can make an exception.
J-GV: OK (laughs), thank you.
KT: So, 2019 has been a busy year for you! The Fulton opened in New York City’s seaport district, The Paris Cafe and The Lisbon Lounge at the TWA Hotel, you even did Meghan Markle’s baby shower at The Mark.
J-GV: It’s a busy job that we’re doing here when you’re a chef and restaurateur. It’s non-stop. People make reservations last minute, so you have to take them. We have projects; I mean, The Fulton was in the works for five years, a couple of years for the TWA, this project here at the Comcast Center has been five years in the making as well. Some years everything comes at the same time, so we have to deal with it, make the best of it. All three are iconic spaces, I was very excited about all of them, you know? It’s lots of work, but I love it all.
KT: The Fulton is the first seafood restaurant in your culinary empire; if I’m correct, you actually had a vegan restaurant first, in abcV. Is a seafood restaurant something you’d avoided previously?
J-GV: No, no, always been using a lot of seafood in my restaurants. Half the menu has always been seafood and a half has been meat. But when I arrived in New York for the first time in 1986, I went to the Fulton Fish Market and it was the first market I went to buy my fish for the restaurants.
When Howard Hughes approached me to do The Fulton, that iconic space, I said, ‘Absolutely, I have to do a fish restaurant because that’s where everything started for me in New York.’
I was very excited to do it. We opened about two, two-and-a-half months ago and it’s been doing very well. It’s fantastic.
KT: Of course, your latest location will be Jean-Georges at the Four Seasons in Philadelphia, opening in August.
KT: This will be your first venture in Philadelphia; what made it the right location for your newest restaurant?
J-GV: I became friendly with Brian Roberts, who is the head of Comcast, and he is a neighbor; when he comes to New York, he lives close by Jean-Georges [the restaurant]. So we met for lunch or dinner and one day he said to me, ‘I’m building this new, amazing building done by the architect Lord Norman Foster,’ who is one of my favorite architects. I said, ‘I would love to be part of the project,’ and he showed me the plans and I was like ‘How could I say no?’ Philly is so close to New York — an hour and 10 minutes by train — and it’s such a beautiful building here, it’s very exciting to be here.
And, again, being with my friend Greg Vernick. He is one of our proteges. He came to Philly and opened Vernick [the restaurant] and now he’s cooking in the same building.
He was one of my chefs; we worked together for seven years in New York, so it’s great to be back with him here. He is doing a seafood restaurant, matter of fact, and then we’re on the 59th floor and the 60th floor, so it’s a wonderful opening here.
KT: How often do you find yourself crossing paths with someone you’ve previously mentored?
J-GV: Many times, I have been cooking for 44 years. I’ve been in New York for 33 years. So you train a lot of young talent who spread out across the country and across the world so you always see people you worked with in the past and people that you mentored in the same city you are [in]. It’s wonderful to see this young talent flourish and open their own place and become rock stars themselves. [laughs]
KT: What’s your overall vision for the Philadelphia restaurant?
J-GV: We have two floors at the Four Seasons, which is 10 floors in the Comcast Building. So the top floor is actually the reception of the hotel, we have a place called JG SkyHigh. It’s kind of [in] the lobby of the hotel, lobby lounge; we have a beautiful bar. We’re gonna serve great snacks, small plates, light fare. Then you go down a beautiful staircase — with a water feature on each wall — and then you arrive in Jean-Georges Restaurant, which has 110 seats. That’s where we’re going to serve breakfast, lunch, dinner — more sit-down, full meals. A tasting menu for someone who wants a beautiful experience with the best view of Philly. You can see, actually, both rivers on each side of the building. It’s a great sight.
KT: What are the current culinary trends that excite you, and did you incorporate any of them into this menu?
J-GV: Yeah, absolutely. Probably about 30 percent of the menu would be our signature dishes from the Jean-Georges New York, then, of course, incorporating, adding some local flavor. We’re using a lot of farms, Amish chicken; actually, our tomato farm is [in] Pennsylvania, so we’re using a lot of ingredients that are from here. Only an hour and a half away, so it’s pretty close.
It’s exciting to be here; the farmer’s market here is wonderful, you can find anything you want in this beautiful city. I like the diversity as well, of different restaurants you have here; it’s very exciting to be cooking here.
We have a wonderful chef in Nick [Ugliarolo], another young talent who’s been with us for six years. So what we will feature on the menu would be, of course, seafood and meat, but I’m excited about our plant-based program.
I feel that’s the future of food, so we have a whole section of plant-based dishes as well.
We opened abcV a couple of years ago in New York, and we will feature a lot of those plant-based dishes.
KT: You said this location was five years in the making; walk me through the process of opening a new restaurant.
J-GV: It’s a long process; all three were a long process this year. For example, the TWA exists since 1962; it was the first terminal for TWA and built by Howard Hughes and the amazing architects. So it took a little time to renovate; we couldn’t touch the frame, so that’s a historical space from 1962.
If you look at The Fulton at the pier, that was, as well, an iconic area; that’s where everything started in New York, all the people arrived through there, through the pier.
It was a fish market for many years, even the opium trade came through Pier 17, so a lot of activity there. The same thing, we had to redo the entire pier, it was sitting on 400 wooden pylons that we had to replace with concrete. And this project, to [build] a 60-floor building off the ground, so it takes a long time to put this project together — but it’s exciting. That’s why you work with the architects, you work with the interior decorator, you work with the builder, the owners. So it’s many meetings, many visions, and then you narrow it down to something really special.
KT: How many times a week do you find yourself in the kitchen?
J-GV: Believe it or not, I’m still in there probably five days a week, six, seven hours a day. That’s my passion and I’m never going to give it up. Even being a restaurateur since 1991, my passion is in the kitchen. So I wear my whites every day. I like to test food…
I have the best job in the world right now because I create spaces with architects, I create a menu and give opportunities to young talents to come up and also continue to create dishes with my team. Food is my passion and I’m never going to give it up.
KT: A lot of famous chefs have mostly left the kitchen in favor of television. I know you did ‘Kimchi Chronicles’ several years ago with your wife, Marja, is that space you’re interested in exploring further in the future?
J-GV: Television takes a lot of time. I’m a restaurateur, so I don’t have much time for TV. It was her show, it was Marja’s show, I was just a prop (laughs). I helped her to get it off the ground and it was very popular. A few people approached me to do a TV series, but it’s difficult, you know?
It takes a lot of time to do a TV series and running 39 restaurants around the world is a full-time job. It’s difficult to do a program on TV, leave your company for three months to do a show.
It took a lot to do ‘Kimchi Chronicles,’ a lot of travel, a lot of time. I choose to be in my kitchen and create new spaces, new restaurants and, like I said, to give opportunities to young talents to come up.
KT: Alright, well again, chef, I want to thank you so much for taking some time to talk to me.
J-GV: Thank you so much for talking to me! And if you want more information, you can go to fourseasons.com/philadelphia.