Jean-Georges Vongerichten is a natural storyteller. He’s genuinely warm and extraordinarily animated, so much so that 10 minutes later you’re convinced that you’re good friends. Perhaps the uncanny way in which he draws in his audience shouldn’t come as a surprise; it’s the same way he approaches food. From the classics that have cemented his name in culinary history (particularly the signature dishes that are still served at his Jean-Georges restaurants in New York) to the cross-cultural cooking style he continues to champion—crab toast with sriracha mayonnaise, anyone?—a meal conceptualised and executed by Vongerichten comforts as well as surprises.
Born in Alsace, Vongerichten trained under Paul Bocuse, but credits his real gastronomic awakening to his time in Asia. After discovering new flavours and ingredients, he built on his French cooking foundation to come up with a modern East-meets-West style that led to the whole “fusion” revolution. With more than 30 restaurants in his empire—from a beachside Christian Liaigre-designed establishment in the Bahamas to his new restaurant in Singapore The Dempsey Cookhouse & Bar at COMO Dempsey—Vongerichten shows no signs of slowing down. Singapore Tatler speaks to the soon-to-be-60-year-old chef on what he’s hungry for next.
People say that you changed the way New Yorkers eat. How has the city evolved from when you started?
Jean-Georges Vongerichten When I returned to New York after five years in Asia, the only place I felt comfortable was in Chinatown. I got there and thought I was home. Back then, the restaurant scene was largely traditional; markets only sold produce like apples and potatoes. When I started to cook foie gras sautéed in ginger and mango, it stood out for being different. I was lucky to be there at the beginning of the food revolution, which was spurred by a wave of chefs travelling the world and introducing new food, flavours and cultures to the city. It was a special time in New York, which has inspired the environment you see today, where everyone’s hungry for more—and everyone’s a critic.
What do you think about the social media revolution that’s shaping the food scene today?
JGV It’s great because you know what’s going on in your restaurant and how a menu is received, even without a review from the press. If there are four to five people saying a dish is salty, you have to do something about it. Before social media, when a plate got sent back, I always wanted to know why so I could rectify it. I still learn the most from looking at customers—watching how they eat, if they smile after the first bite. It’s very important for chefs to listen to their customers. Yes, you want to cook for yourself, but in the end a restaurant is a business.
You operate more than 30 restaurants and counting. What drives you to expand?
JGV I wouldn’t do another restaurant just for the sake of it. For me, it’s about finding the right partner and location. Singapore is a food-loving nation where everyone is open to new things. Here, we are working with the Ong family, who I already have a great relationship with. A restaurant relies on its humanity—from the people cooking and serving to those behind the scenes. The people, the heart of the project and a unique partnership are essential for success.
Tell us more about The Dempsey Cookhouse & Bar at COMO Dempsey:
JGV I was really impressed the first time I went to Dempsey Hill—it’s green, gorgeous and close to the city. It suits what I’m doing today, where more of our restaurants strive to serve organic, GMO-free produce as well as be sustainable. What you’ll find in Singapore is what I like to call “the best of the best” of what we serve in New York, adapted to Asia. We will take five to six dishes from each of our restaurants in New York, then give them a local twist befitting the historical space. The feel will be similar to that of ABC Kitchen.
What’s a memorable dish that represents your cross-cultural style?
JGV The foie gras with mango and ginger is a good one. Mixing foie gras with ginger cuts the fat, while the mango adds sweetness. I always try to blend things—the sweet, salty, sour, spicy—then look for balance. I always tell our chefs that when you create a dish, the first bite should be as exciting as the last bite. If not, there’s something missing.
You’ve been cooking for 43 years and counting. What’s your secret to longevity?
JGV Eat your own food. Taste it until the last bite. How can you impose a dish without eating it first? One secret is that I never put more than three things on a plate, because the mind won’t be able to digest it. Also, I see my role as a chef as someone who creates cravings and food memories. I need to create dishes that make you want to come back. If you only eat in my restaurant once, then I didn’t do my job properly. Having loyal customers is key for a restaurant’s survival; it’s because of them that I keep my classic dishes on the menu. They come back for that and that’s also why consistency is of utmost importance.
Speaking of cravings, what are you craving for now?
JGV The soya sauce chicken rice from Hawker Chan. I admit, I got lucky—one of the guys further up the queue recognised me and asked for a selfie. I said yes, but in exchange I asked if he could buy one for me! I don’t know if I can have it before I leave, but it’s definitely something I want to eat again.
The Dempsey Cookhouse & Bar is located at Block 17D Dempsey Road Singapore 249676.
Tel: 1800 304 5588 | Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Lunch (available from end March) | Monday – Sunday 12.00pm – 2.30pm
Dinner | Sunday – Thursday 6.00pm – 9.30pm; Friday, Saturday, Eve of Public Holidays and Public Holidays 6.00pm – 10.30pm
Bar | Monday – Sunday 5.00pm – 12.00am
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