Chef Jean-Georges Never Throws the Same Party Twice

The award-winning chef opens up about his rebellious past, signature flavors, and how he keeps things fresh.



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IN 1980, WHEN 23-year-old Jean-Georges Vongerichten arrived in Bangkok after a rigorous three-year culinary apprenticeship in France, he had never tasted ginger. Ginger powder, yes. But fresh ginger, lemongrass, lime — foundational Thai flavors — all were brand new to the man who would eventually become one of the world’s most famous chefs, winning seven James Beard awards, penning several books, and most notably, helming 60 restaurants worldwide. The marriage of Asian ingredients with his classical French training would become Vongerichten’s hallmark. (He also invented the modern molten lava cake.)

When I meet Vongerichten at The Pink Hermit, his charming cafe at the historic Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, he appears both purposeful and unrushed, sporting an impish grin and spotless black Prada sneakers. Hearing about his time in Bangkok, my mind flashes to my favorite course from the prior night’s dinner at Drusie and Darr — the first Jean-Georges establishment in the South. The closing dish was a passion-fruit Baked Alaska — both a clever nod to the Tennessee state wildflower (the passionflower) and an example of the tartness of the Thai fruit paired with a classic American dessert.

Vongerichten’s great-great-grandfather owned a coal mine in the Alsace region of France, and each subsequent generation was expected to enter the family business. But Vongerichten says his early teens were defined by rebellion. “From 12 to 14, my parents put me in a priest’s school, two miles away from home, Monday to Friday. I loved it because I was out in the street all night. I found my way out.” It was around this time that his nickname emerged: JoJo The Terror.



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“Our parents never wanted us to go out. I was 14; my sister was 15. So we made a club in our basement,” he says. “I was the lighting guy. I was the DJ. It became so popular, there were 80 people in the basement, lines out the door. I started to realize: ‘Oh, maybe I can make a living entertaining.’”

Like all great hosts, every sensory element of the experience was considered. “I liked the control of the design, the lighting, the music, putting it together.” And he took great delight in reading the room. “If I’d see people kissing, I’d dim the lights. I loved it. Food? Food came after.”

On his sixteenth birthday in a stroke of destiny, Vongerichten’s father offered his wayward son the chance to work as a dishwasher at a 3-starred Michelin restaurant near the family home. Instead of dishwashing, Vongerichten became an apprentice and emerged from the three-year training with a razor-sharp discipline and an insatiable desire to taste what the world had to offer.

He recalls his later placement in the south of France with a twinkle in his eye: “Tomato, rosemary, thyme, the gorgeous market, topless beaches. I was in heaven.” Midway through our chat, a man in a trim black suit wanders past our table: Daniel “Danny” Del Vecchio, who has been working with Vongerichten for the last 30 years, first as a line cook in one of the chef’s early New York City restaurants, and now as executive vice president of Jean-Georges Management. It was Del Vecchio who codified all of Vongerichten’s handwritten recipes into a computer database. That database now contains 50,000 recipes, each with the measurements of every ingredient to maintain consistency among the 45 currently operating restaurants.


Del Vecchio has just come from the restaurant’s kitchen, where he has been shucking fava beans. This activity does not appear to be part of his current job description. The two men are clearly good friends, and I wonder, in what other company would a vice president be doing this sort of thing for fun?

We discuss how crucial restaurant design is to every project they approach — in fact, Vongerichten doesn’t begin a menu until the design concept is fleshed out. This process highlights how the food is really in active conversation with its surroundings, rather than the environment just serving as a backdrop. And lighting continues to be critical for Vongerichten. Apparently, even the work of the world’s premier interior design firms frequently requires tweaking by Vongerichten.

I ask the duo about their newest project in Kyoto, Japan: The Shinmonzen, a nine-room hotel with a Jean-Georges restaurant. Vongerichten becomes visibly excited talking about Kyoto carrots and confesses he could move to Kyoto tomorrow. “We have a temple next door, just beside the hotel. They invited us to eat with them, and I realized that instead of giving occasional donations to the monks, I could pay to keep a table in the garden where guests may join in the evening meal.”

The twinkle is back in his eye, and I realize why Vongerichten may never stop opening new restaurants. After all, you can’t throw the same party twice. As he celebrates a half-century in the kitchen, he muses, “50 years in, and here we are. Just warming up.”

Our Contributors

Ivy Elrod Writer

Ivy Elrod is a multidisciplinary creative living in Nashville, Tennessee. Her writing has most recently been published in the new Playgirl Magazine. She is also an actress and a playwright, and was once the youngest Rockette at Radio City. She is now principal designer and founder of Wilder, an experiential showroom and contemporary design firm.

Jingyu Lin Photographer

Jingyu Lin (affectionately known as “Jean”) is a photographer based in New York City. She utilizes a dreamy color palette to capture emotive moments in her portraiture. As the daughter of Chinese immigrants, she strives to tell stories that reflect her own experiences growing up Asian American.


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