One of the world’s most famous chefs, Jean-Georges Vongerichten is particularly adept at harnessing the culinary zeitgeist. His lauded New York flagship Jean-Georges recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, but the tireless (and seemingly age-defying) sexagenarian is still adding to his global empire of 35 restaurants.
From his debut on the New York scene at Lafayette in the Drake Swissotel (where he was crowned ‘enfant terrible of modern French cooking’), Vongerichten has influenced many a dining epoch. He has traded fine dining for casual chic at charming bistro Jo Jo, pioneered fusion cooking at Vong, and most recently, launched the highly anticipated abcV, where vegetables take centre stage. In March, Vongerichten opened his first restaurant in Singapore, Dempsey Cookhouse and Bar, in partnership with the Como Group.
On changing tastes
With the explosion of all the juice bars, more people going vegan and gluten-free, I thought it was time to do something new, different. In the ’80s to the 2000s, we were eating a lot of eggs and beef. In the US especially. You order a big steak and get, like, two string beans. They eat too much for breakfast there – bacon, eggs, sweets, pancakes, French toast. I think we’re now going back to a diet where there’s more balance.
Asia is a good example of this. When I come here, I eat congee every morning! Also, I’m turning 60 this year (Ed’s note: the interview was held in March), so I need to eat better, healthier.
On abcV’s plant-focused menu
For breakfast, we serve black rice or millet congee. We have dosa and kitchuri, which is like an Indian crepe in lentil soup with vegetables. And of course we have the chia and acai bowls.
We have a few dairy products like eggs, just to make sure we don’t push people away, but abcV’s pretty much 80 per cent vegetarian. Even the simple potato can be delicious. Cauliflower is also really underrated. At abcV we serve it whole. First we boil it until it’s tender, then add turmeric and spices before roasting it in the oven. I just found out that bananas are good for your brain. I’ve been cooking for 43 years but I’m still learning, you know, about the medicinal aspect of food.
On what he looks out for at restaurants
I start with the bread and butter – it’s the first thing you eat. Is the bread made in-house? Is the butter tempered, or coming out hard from the fridge?
On the world’s best sushi
Believe it or not, it’s not in Japan. I love Japan but the best sushi in the world, I think, is in Masa in New York. The chef works with a GoPro on his head. He has someone in Tsukiji market and he sees the fish through the camera every day at 4am Japan time. The fish is on a plane at 10am, lands in New York at noon and is on a plate at 2pm that same afternoon in his restaurant. His sushi is impeccable, his rice fantastic.
On taking time off
When I turned 50, I decided not to work seven days a week anymore. I take every Sunday off. I’m a good sleeper so I get my 12 hours of sleep. But even when I’m off I cook for family and friends because that’s what I love to do – maybe a roast chicken with potato, a whole fish, something family-style. I like to garden, fish and in the summertime – paddleboard or windsurf (I’m a Pisces so I love the water). I’m so active I go to sleep before I even hit the pillow. I think it’s in the genes. My mother, who’s 85, still drives. She’s always asking me to give her one of my restaurants to run!
Where he eats in Singapore
I usually go to Jumbo for the black pepper crab. Or the small places like PS Café, Open Farm Community. I didn’t realize there are like 30 restaurants on Dempsey Hill! And tomorrow I’m going back to Sungei Road Laksa for lunch.
On his unusual collecting obsession
I collect toasters. For me, the smell of toast in the morning is unbelievable. It reminds me of my childhood. I have about 55 of them. All of them work. The oldest one is from 1923. I saw it in a flea market when I arrived in New York in 1986. It has a coil that glows red and a little drawer you put the toast in. There’s no security feature. I paid $15 for it. I keep them in my office – I’m not allowed to bring them home!
On cooking for POTUS
He has the garlic soup with the frog’s legs. He loves the garlic soup, which is just garlic, thyme and chicken broth, which we finish with an egg and vinegar. He would never order the frogs’ legs by themselves, but they come with the soup, so he has no choice. He’s a germaphobe and always has his lamb chop, steak or scallops well done. He’s a very basic eater. If he ever called and asked to be surprised, I wouldn’t answer the phone! (laughs) But I would love for him to try something raw, like a sashimi or a ceviche.
On his last meal
It’ll definitely be in Asia. A laksa, sushi or something Thai, sexy, exotic, delicious. A combination of everything. I’d probably die after that – in peace, on a full stomach!