Jean-Georges Vongerichten is one of the world’s most famous chefs, a savvy businessman, and a restaurateur responsible for the success of over 60 restaurants worldwide. His signature cuisine has revolutionized the industry, abandoning the traditional use of meat stocks and creams in favor of intense flavors and textures from vegetable juices, fruit essences, light broths, and herbal vinaigrettes. Jean-Georges is involved in every aspect of his restaurants, creating enduring concepts, menus, architectural designs, and staff selections. He has published several cookbooks reflecting his influential cooking style and has appeared on numerous TV shows, including Top Chef, The Food Network, and NBC’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.
Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the world-renowned chef and restaurateur, was born and raised in Alsace, France. His formative years were steeped in the traditions of French cuisine, with the kitchen serving as the focal point of his family’s home. Vongerichten’s mother and grandmother would prepare lunch each day for the 50 employees of their family-owned business, instilling in him a love for food that would shape his future career.
“We were feeding 35 people for lunch,” Vongerichten said. “There was a lot of food on the table at 12:30. By 12:45; it was gone. And we never went to restaurants. The family was too big.”
Within Vongerichten’s childhood memories of food lies the spark that ignited his passion for culinary creativity. His mother’s cooking was a source of inspiration, particularly her use of a unique Alsatian vinegar known as Melfor, infused with honey, plant extracts, and fruit essences. This early exposure to complex and layered flavors has profoundly impacted Vongerichten’s culinary style. Today, his dishes are renowned for their bold and amplified flavors, which reflect his unbridled imagination and commitment to pushing the boundaries of modern cuisine.
However, to celebrate his 16th birthday, Vongerichten’s parents took him to the acclaimed Auberge de l’Ill, a 3-star Michelin-rated restaurant. Reminiscing that day, he says, “Forty-five years later, that meal in 1973 remains one of the most enduring memories of my life.” This experience solidified his decision to pursue a career in the culinary arts.
Recalling the incident that pushed him into the culinary world, Vongerichten says, “When Chef Haeberlin came to the table, my father said to him, ‘This guy’s good for nothing,’ tilting his head at me. He wasn’t kidding—he really meant it. ”Do you need anyone to wash dishes or peel potatoes?’ he asked with a laugh as a joke. But the chef said, ‘Actually, I’m looking for an apprentice.'”
From that moment on, Vongerichten knew he belonged in the culinary world. “I felt it then, even though I couldn’t articulate it. The food was intense and exquisite, the room beautiful, and the service was like a choreographed dance. It was pure luxury, like being in the greatest movie ever. At that moment, I knew my future: this was where I belonged.”
Vongerichten then began his culinary journey as an apprentice to Chef Paul Haeberlin in a work-study program at Auberge de l’Ill, following which he worked under the tutelage of culinary legends like Paul Bocuse and Master Chef Louis Outhier at L’Oasis in southern France. With his impressive three-star Michelin background, he embarked on a new adventure to Asia. He continued to hone his skills at renowned establishments like the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok, the Meridien Hotel in Singapore, and the Mandarin Hotel in Hong Kong.
During his time working with Outhier, Vongerichten was involved in opening ten restaurants worldwide between 1980 and 1985, including establishments at prestigious hotels such as the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok, the Meridien Hotel in Singapore, and the Mandarin Hotel in Hong Kong.
In 1985, Vongerichten arrived in the United States to work as a consulting chef under the mentorship of Louis Outhier. After opening Le Marquis de Lafayette restaurant in Boston, he relocated to New York City to become the executive chef at Lafayette in the Drake Swissôtel. It was there that Vongerichten’s unique interpretation of classical French cuisine earned him widespread recognition, including a four-star rating from The New York Times at the age of 29.
During his time at the Lafayette in the Drake Hotel, Vongerichten first crossed paths with his future business partner, Phil Suarez. Suarez was a frequent diner at the restaurant, often accompanied by celebrity guests like Michael Jackson, and would give Vongerichten his business card each time he visited. After accumulating 25 cards, Vongerichten decided to approach Suarez about it. “Finally,” Vongerichten recounted, “I said to him, ‘Phil, I have 25 of your cards.'”
Today, they operate an impressive 38 restaurants worldwide, each offering its unique style and cuisine. For example, JG Tokyo is a small restaurant with only 14 counter seats that serve Vongerichten’s take on sushi, while Jean-Georges Philadelphia is a fine-dining establishment that can accommodate 120 guests and features a bar and lounge situated over 1,000 feet above ground level. Vongerichten’s approach to innovation and culinary excellence has been a driving force behind the success of its restaurants. He explains, “We are always evolving… It’s not a job; it’s a lifestyle.”
For Vongerichten, the creative process doesn’t end with the food. He’s also deeply involved in the design of his restaurants, which allows him to combine his two passions. “Creating a new place,” he says, “is my favorite part of the job. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an architect before that birthday at the restaurant. And now today, I’m doing both: making food and designing spaces to eat it in.”
Looking ahead to the future of the food industry, Vongerichten sees clean eating as a lasting trend. He believes that people are increasingly seeking a more balanced diet and are interested in the origins of their food. He says, “People are open for vegan, they’re open for vegetarian, but what they really want is flavor. And vegetables are better now than 20 years ago. I would say 70 percent of the farms in Union Square Market are organic now, and they were not twenty years ago.”
Regarding his efforts to promote sustainable practices, Vongerichten says, “That’s my new combat, every day, is to try to have non-GMO, all-sustainable, 100 percent organic, which is a process. But we must train the new generation to be in that direction.”
Ultimately, Vongerichten believes that success in the food industry comes down to taking care of the business side of things. He stresses the importance of monitoring food costs and keeping a close eye on the financial aspects of the restaurant industry. He says, “You have to watch if your food costs are too high, or you could be out of business in no time.”