The Caterer Interview – Jean-Georges Vongerichten

02 March 2011 by
The Caterer Interview – Jean-Georges Vongerichten

After closing Vong in 2003, US-based French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten has made his comeback to London, with the opening of Spice Market at the W Hotel Leicester Square. The three-Michelin-starred chef tells Kerstin Kühn why the hotel will feature more of a relaxed and affordable dining experience

How do you feel about returning to London? It's great to be back. We closed Vong in 2003 so it's been nearly eight years. I came back a little to consult at the 50 St James Casino, where I was designing menus from 2006 to 2008, but it wasn't open to the public so it wasn't quite the same.

I always come back to London - I have been connected to the city for a long time. I have always enjoyed the openness of the people here and the connection to Asian food.

When I first came here in 1984 there were only a handful of standalone restaurants - Le Gavroche, La Tante Claire - mainly French restaurants. All the other restaurants were in high-end hotels. When we opened Vong in 1995, it was the first restaurant of its kind before Nobu, Hakkasan, Zuma and all the Asian-inspired restaurants. Today I think it's amazing what's happening in London.

Why did you decide to launch a Spice Market here? When Starwood approached me about doing a restaurant at the W Hotel in London, I was immediately drawn to the project and we started talking about doing a Spice Market.

It's fun bringing something here from New York that's quite well known but I'm inspired by London too. I wouldn't want to open anything too serious like Jean-Georges - it's very high maintenance to keep three Michelin stars in New York.

This is more fun, every day kind of food, easy going. It fits the lifestyle of people today. People go to high end places for an occasion but they go to fun places more often, once, twice a week.

You have to choose where you want to be. I am in New York three weeks of the month and one week abroad so I choose to run a high-end place there. My brother runs it so it's a family business.

Tell us about the Spice Market concept. We have four Spice Markets - New York, Atlanta, Doha and London. The essence is that although it's not street food, it's inspired by the flavours of the street food of South-east Asia and it's all about sharing dishes. All the bases and sauces are exactly the same across the Spice Markets but the main ingredients - the fish, meat, seafood - are different at each restaurant.

You've brought back some of the people from Vong including executive chef Tim Tolley and general manager Bertrand Pierson. Is it reassuring to bring back a trusted team? Tim worked with me in New York for a long time before coming to work at Vong. He and Bertrand both went on to launch Plateau after Vong closed and we always kept in touch.

It's good to have them back; it makes it more comfortable because they know what needs to be done. I have trusted them to recruit the team here - around 90 people between front and back of house. This business is all about people, about putting a team together and trusting them and constant teaching.

With four Spice Markets across three continents, how do you ensure consistency at each restaurant? That's the hard part. When you cook with spices you have to be very precise so we have a database of very exact recipes that the chefs have to follow - it's the only way we can do something that respects the quality from a distance. We have two people doing all the base sauces and there are lots of scales in the kitchen. Of course there's still room for error when you overcook the fish or under-season a piece of meat but the condiments are really done by two people.

In Asian cuisine most of the seasoning is in liquid form - soy sauce, fish sauce, chilli sauce, pastes - so you really have to measure very precisely the quantities.

Where do you think this restaurant will fit into the London dining scene? Every restaurant has its own life and I hope this one will too. There are many restaurants you go to once a year for a special occasion but I want this one to be a restaurant where people will come two/three times a month. If they don't we'll have to pack up our spices and go somewhere else!

It's difficult to predict but things are already very busy, lots of walk-ins. This is all about sharing dishes, which makes it more difficult.

Normally you have three courses, which is easy. Here we have to time how many dishes we put on the table which varies depending on how many people there are and how much time they want to spend in the restaurant. So the waiters really set the pace of the meal.

You trained with some of the grand masters of French cuisine - Paul Bocuse, Paul Haeberlin, Louis Outhier - how do you think the industry has changed? When I was young and did an apprenticeship I had to read books to learn everything. Today you can just go online and search for anything you want and in two minutes you have the results.

For young chefs today it's much easier to learn the craft because everything is just two clicks away. It was very slow when I was young. I worked with Haeberlin for three years and I only learned his food, which is very classic French food. Then when I went to Louis Outhier I had to erase all of that and learn his food.

Food is very personal and different from chef to chef. That's why I wanted to go to Asia and travel around and learn about a totally different type of cuisine. Today any type of cuisine is on the internet. I probably would never have gone to Asia if I'd had the internet. Today chefs want to go fast, be a big chef in two years - in my time you had to spend 10-12 years to become a chef.

You have the current Roux Scholar, Kenneth Culhane, coming to do a stage at Jean-Georges in New York. Do you take a lot of stagiers? What makes a good stagier? Not too many. We have a lot of demand but we only take about one or two a year. It's difficult in the USA insurance-wise, it's very complicated to get them covered. The bad stagiers are the ones who stand in the corner waiting to be told what to do. The good ones are interested, ask questions, get involved. You have to blend into the team to really get the full essence of a place.

spice market london
Opened 14 February
Owner Starwood Hotels and Resorts
Executive chef Tim Tolley
General manager Bertrand Pierson.
Design Interiors have been designed by Concrete and comprise a mix of the authentic Old World and the contemporary architecture of the W Hotel. The restaurant features black leather banquettes and booths as well as a ‘birdcage' gold spiral staircase and 600 custom-designed shimmering wok lamps, covering most of the ceiling. The rear wall of the restaurant houses a 24 metre-long wall of spices.
Capacity Downstairs 34 for dining and 32 in the cocktail lounge and sushi bar. Upstairs offers 95 plus 40 private dining.
Menu Signature dishes include spiced chicken samosa with coriander yogurt; cod with Malaysian chilli sauce and Thai basil; black pepper shrimp with sun dried pineapple; and salmon tartare, soy ginger dressing, avocado and radish. Desserts include Ovaltine kulfi with caramelized banana and spiced milk chocolate; and chocolate and Vietnamese coffee tart with condensed milk ice-cream.
Average spend £50
Address 10 Wardour Street, London W1D 6QF
Telephone 020 7758 1088

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