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Chef profile: Jean-Georges Vongerichten

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Chef profile: Jean-Georges Vongerichten

Back in London once more – this time with new restaurant Jean-Georges at the Connaught – global restaurateur and Asian-fusion king Jean-Georges Vongerichten has brought his greatest hits to the capital. Fiona Sims reports

It looks like any smoked salmon sandwich, albeit a dainty one – the way posh hotels like to do sandwiches for their afternoon teas. But this one is leaving a tingle on my lips and there’s a fruity tang to the smokiness – that’ll be the chipotle. This isn’t just any smoked salmon sandwich, it’s a Jean-Georges  Vongerichten smoked salmon sandwich, and it’s on the afternoon tea menu at his new restaurant at the Connaught in London’s Mayfair.

In case you missed it, the three-Michelin-starred, Alsace-born New York chef has moved back to the capital, and this time, he’s serving breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner (plus room service). The whole package is a first for him, and he’s occupying the Connaught’s rather gorgeous, conservatory-style space that was once Espelette, its all-day dining option, elegantly revamped by designer John Heah.

And before you ask, no: Vongerichten hasn’t ousted Hélène Darroze from her  celebrated spot – she’s continuing to do her two-Michelin-starred thing in the wood-panelled splendour of the hotel’s other dining room. Jean-Georges at the Connaught, as it is now called, is a much more casual affair.

interior-portrait-2

“See, we’ve made the backs of the seats and the tables much lower, more lounge-style, and we don’t have tablecloths – we want people to hang out here,” says Vongerichten, looking trim and tanned and speaking the day before the doors  open.

“The most popular restaurants these days are the ones that are the most comfortable and relaxed. It’s somewhere you can come and eat several times a month. Tablecloths makes it too formal,” he says, before adding hurriedly, “but it’s good to have the different approaches in the same hotel.”

The menu is a roll-call of his greatest hits. “I’m calling it the best of Jean-Georges,” grins Vongerichten. “A couple of dishes from everywhere – from the Mark to the Mercer Kitchen, from ABC to ABCV – and a third of our dishes are from Jean-Georges. It represents the best of our recipes, but made with British ingredients – even the caviar is British, from Exmoor.”

A worldwide brand
It’s easy to lose track of just how many restaurants Vongerichten has put his name to – there have been that many openings, and a few closures, and there are 38 listed on his website, jean-georges.com. “Really? No, I don’t think it’s that many,” he frowns. “We run 11 restaurants in New York ourselves, and the rest, like here at the Connaught, are operated in partnership with someone else. All  the restaurants outside New York are partnerships.”

The partnership restaurants include the Inn at Pound Ridge and Le Dock on Fire Island, both in New York state, plus the Matador Room at Miami Beach. Outside the US, there are 15 restaurants, including Dune in the Bahamas, Mercato in Hong Kong and Seared in Los Cabos, Mexico. “I’ll come back to London for a week every month until everything is smooth,” he says.

Vongerichten is still hugely influential – a protean shape-shifter, as the The New York Times once succinctly put it. Quite how he keeps all the balls in the air while holding down the fort at the three-Michelin-starred Jean-Georges in the Trump Hotel on Central Park is astonishing. So what’s his secret?

“I try to recreate myself every time. It keeps the team going,” he replies. “I’m proud of that longevity in our restaurants. Did you know that JoJo has been open  for 25 years, and Jean-Georges has been open 20? The Mercer Kitchen is 17 years old, and I opened ABC Kitchen eight years ago. My latest opening, before this, is ABCV. Everyone kept asking me when I was going to open a vegetarian  restaurant and I wasn’t sure, to be honest, but 70% of the menu at ABC Kitchen was vegetables, and we did so well with those dishes, so we thought let’s go for it. We opened half a block from Greenmarket and it’s doing so well. I’ve got a few breakfast dishes from there on the menu here at the Connaught, including the dosa.”

His customers may love that you can order a dosa for breakfast in their room at the Connaught, but what will the old guard think? “We still offer a full English,” he grins.

Another first is that diners can order pizza to their rooms – complete with the  box. The Jean-Georges pizza comes with shavings of black truffle and oozing with Fontina cheese. It’s one of Vongerichten’s signatures; it was devised for the Mercer and remains one his bestsellers.

Black truffle and Fontina pizza
Black truffle and Fontina pizza

You can find it on the menu at Jean-Georges at the Connaught (at £29) alongside a Margherita (£15) for those who want to keep it real. Other dishes on the à la carte menu include roasted John Dory with a ginger chilli dressing, and Parmesan-crusted chicken, artichokes and lemon basil sauce. There’s also a British classic that Vongerichten has tinkered with – fish and chips with a petit pois rémoulade.

This is Vongerichten’s third opening in the capital. His second venture, Spice Market at the W London in Leicester Square, closed this year after opening in  2010 to a mixed response from critics. Vongerichten has since parted ways with the brand – he sold it to Starwood in 2011, which has kept Spice Market going in a couple of its Middle Eastern hotels.

But there’s no time to rake over old coals – Vongerichten would rather talk about the here and now. “I’ve always loved London,” he says. “It’s probably the most energised city in the world, certainly in Europe. It has such a great vibe and it’s such a foodie city.”

Is the food scene on a par with New York’s? “I’d say above, judging by the variety  of food, from the top hotel restaurants to all those private clubs you have that we don’t. I think people eat out more here. There’s just more diversity.”

Today he continues to eschew rich stocks and cream, focusing instead on vegetable juices, fruit essences, light broths and herbal vinaigrettes. “It’s a great contrast to what Hélène is doing. We know each other anyway, so that made things easy,” Vongerichten says.

Raspberry mojito (lemon mint curd, mojito sorbet, raspberry and demerara sugar meringue)
Raspberry mojito (lemon mint curd, mojito sorbet, raspberry and demerara sugar meringue)

He has a genuine affection for the Connaught – the hotel’s owner, Maybourne, also owns the Berkeley, where Vongerichten opened Vong. “It was the first hotel I  ever stayed in here and the first time I ever tasted grouse, so it holds lots of memories for me. I remember seeing Sir Alec Guinness wandering around in his dressing gown, and I thought, this is England at its best,” he says.

Time for tea
He’s thrilled to be offering afternoon tea. “They don’t do it in New York – it’s too near dinner for them,” he says. So what little surprises has he got in store? “After the smoked salmon, the rest of the sandwiches are traditional. Don’t worry, though – we have spiced up the coronation chicken a little. We’ve used different spices and added a little Thai basil and coriander, so it’s similar, but plus. It’s about adding little nuances.”

He shows me a picture on his phone of a cake tier. On top is a mini chocolate  fondue, garnished with fresh strawberries, ready for dipping. “We have a fantastic pastry chef – Nicolas Rouzaud, who was working at the Le Bristol Paris. There’s so much excitement on the tea menu, which we will keep as seasonal
as possible,” he says. “Breakfast is also very exciting for me. We’ve got lots of healthy things, from our vanilla chia bowl to our wild blueberry bowl and kitchari – with yogurt, fermented carrot, mint and turmeric – plus plenty of  juices.”

Vongerichten is particularly proud of the new bakery in his kitchen at the Connaught.

There are 35 staff in the kitchen in total, headed up by ex-Lanesborough chef Anshu Anghotra, with 15 chefs allocated to pastry alone. “With breakfast, pizzas and afternoon teas, there’s a lot of work for the pastry section,” says Vongerichten.

But can he get the staff? “The hardest thing is finding the right people and  keeping them. Of course, they want to open their own places, which we support, but we are constantly having to find new people and nurture them and give them their freedom as well. It’s important not to block the growth of young  chefs.”

It was Anghotra who came up with the smoked salmon and chipotle combo,  which uses the same chipotle emulsion used in Jean-Georges’s signature dish, crispy sushi, which is also on the menu at the Connaught. Here cooled sushi rice is cut into squares, dusted with rice flour and sautéed in olive oil until crispy. It’s topped with the chipotle emulsion and raw salmon and brushed with ponzu.

Crispy salmon sushi with chipotle emulsion and soy glaze
Crispy salmon sushi with chipotle emulsion and soy glaze

“The smoky chipotle blends so well with the salmon. It’s good together. And it’s  been good working with Anshu. He’s from India, so he has my flavours,” Vongerichten says, before disappearing back into the kitchen.

Jean-George’s journey
Jean-Georges Vongerichten first came to London in the mid-1980s to work at 90 Park Lane (which later became Chez Nico). That was after apprenticing at Auberge de I’lll under Paul Haeberlin and later with Paul Bocuse and other big- name French chefs. He then set off for Asia, working his way up the kitchen ranks at the Oriental Bangkok, then Le Méridien Singapore and the Mandarin  Oriental Hong Kong, where he developed his passion for the exotic and aromatic flavours of the east.

“Asia is still my main source of inspiration,” he declares. “I’m always bringing back new ideas – I travel there three to four times a year.”

In 1991 he opened JoJo in New York to rave reviews, returning to London in 1995  to open Vong at the Berkeley, which remained at the top for a good few years. It closed in 2003.

“Yeah, we did well there, eh?” he nods. Vong was groundbreaking. It was lighter  and brighter than anything that went before (this was pre-Nobu and Zuma); it was French cooking, but not as we knew it, embracing other cultures and with an element of surprise, such as a roast chicken served with lemongrass and sweet  rice in banana leaf, and scallops with a caper-raisin emulsion.

“I think Vong was the beginning of a whole new era of restaurants,” he says. “Hotels were on the sleepy side back then.”

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