Jean-Georges Vongerichten: ‘What you eat as a child forms your palate’


Special To The Japan Times

Name: Jean-Georges Vongerichten
Age: 57
Nationality: French
Occupation: Chef, restaurant owner
Likes: Life, entertaining, eating, paddle boarding, traveling
Dislikes: “Zoo food” — snake, kangaroo, things from the zoo

1. What made you decide to open Jean-Georges in Tokyo? We have a big Japanese clientele in New York that has been supporting us for the past 18 years. I wanted to do a smaller restaurant with a counter, connected to what’s happening in Tokyo.

2. You’re known for incorporating Asian flavors and ingredients into your cuisine. What approach do you take at the new restaurant in Roppongi, and have you modified your style for the Japanese palate? The flavor combinations are based on recipes from New York but we use local fish, meat and produce. I’ve been using a lot of Japanese ingredients in New York as well — ginger, wasabi, dashi and yuzukoshō (a peppery citrus condiment).

3. What’s your earliest childhood memory of food? Crushed banana with orange juice. I remember the balance of sweetness and sourness. What you eat as a child forms your palate.

4. Why did you become a chef? I was bad at school. On my 17th birthday, however, my parents took me to a 3-star Michelin restaurant and I thought, “This is what I want to do.”

5. What are three ingredients that you can’t live without? Ginger, chilies, citrus.

6. Which culinary movements are having the greatest influence on gastronomy today? We’ve been through different phases such as nouvelle cuisine and molecular gastronomy. Now I think we’re back on the right track. People are cooking with local ingredients, helping the farmers and following the seasons.

7. What technique or ingredient would you like to see disappear from plates? I think that modern techniques are amazing but I don’t like the use of chemicals.

8. These days, which regions around the world interest you the most from a food perspective? Over the past two years, I’ve discovered South America. I’m passionate right now about the fermentation of chilies and pickles.

9. What do you like to eat when you are in Japan? Yakitori — I like to eat the chicken from head to toe. Soba at Matsugen. Sushi.

10. What do you think that the rest of the world can learn from Japanese food culture? Restaurants (in Japan)focus on a few things and use the best of what’s available on the day. If people around the world would do that, we’d eat better everywhere.

11. What inspires you, beyond the world of cooking and food? Fashion and architecture. They’re similar to food because they’re concerned with layers, colors and textures.

12. What are you reading right now? I’m fascinated with an old cookbook by “Ali-Bab” (“Gastronomie Pratique,” written by Henri Babinski (whose pen name was Ali-Bab) and published in 1907).

13. If you hadn’t become a chef, what would you have done? I’d be miserable working at something I don’t like.

14. How do you feel about the cult of the celebrity chef? People who are truly chefs go back to the kitchen because that’s where their love is. But we have to think about the business as well. We have employees that are waiting for a paycheck, so it’s a big responsibility.

15. How do you feel about people taking photos of dishes at restaurants? I don’t mind as long as people are considerate of others around them.

16. Are there any foods that you dislike? Besides “zoo food,” I eat pretty much everything.

17. What are your top comfort foods? Things I grew up with in Alsace (France): sauerkraut, pork, onion tarts.

18. What do you consider to be the greatest achievement of your life so far? What I’ve built. My dream 25 years ago was to start one restaurant, and now I have a whole empire.

19. Which two words best describe you? Energetic and passionate.

20. Do you have any advice for young people? Follow your passion and try to see the opportunities that come. You have to be able to absorb things but also let things go. When I pass through the restaurant door at night, I never look back. If something doesn’t work, do it again from scratch.

JG Tokyo: Roppongi Hills Keyakizaka-dori, 6-12-4 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo; tel: 03-5412-7115; web: www.jean-georges-tokyo.jp