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Internationally reputed for his innovative, ground-breaking cuisine, Jean-Georges Vongerichten has emerged as one of the country's leading chefs.
Based in New York City, Jean-Georges Enterprises L.L.C. is the privat ely owned holding company for the global restaurant portfolio of mast er chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. New York properties are anchored b y his signature restaurant, Jean Georges, one of the most respected e stablishments in the city. Area restaurants also include JoJo, Vong, Mercer Kitchen, Perry Street, Vsteak, The Lipstick Café, and 6 6. Jean-Georges Enterprises also operates Vong restaurants, featuring Thai-inspired French cuisine, in Hong Kong and Chicago. In addition, the company's portfolio includes Prime Steakhouse in Las Vegas, Dune in the Bahamas, Market in Paris, and JG in Shanghai. Although less w ell known than Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse, Vongerichten "hasn't played to the Mall of America culture," according to Paula Disbrow, writing for Restaurant Business in 1999. "Vongerichten largely has maintained the halo of master culinary artist. His signatures in clude cooking with vegetable juices and herb oils, or incorporating A sian influences into unlikely fusion match-ups. Yet it has worked so well that one food authority has called him the most influential chef of the decade."
Early 1970s Experience Key to Vongerichten's Career
Born in 1957, Vongerichten grew up in Strasbourg, France. He was the eldest son and expected to take over the family fuel business, but ea rly on his passion became cooking, as he helped his mother and grandm other prepare the daily lunch served to 40 hungry coal handlers. "It was like a minirestaurant at home," he told Nation's Restaurant Ne ws in a 2003 profile. "I'd wake up, and there would be all these smells, and it really started there." Perhaps the seminal moment in h is life came on his 16th birthday in 1973, which he would call the be st day in his life, when his parents treated him to dinner at one of the region's finest restaurants, the Michelin three-star Auberge de L 'lll in Illhaeusern. It was during the meal that he decided he would not follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather but would c ook professionally. Several months later he entered hotel school and began a three-year apprenticeship at Auberge de L'lll, learning from the restaurant's well-known owners, Paul and Jean-Pierre Haberlin. He re he gained an appreciation for the way restaurants were once common ly run: He visited local farms to pick up fresh milk each morning and witnessed hunters bringing in fresh game.
Known to be a very serious and focused student, Vongerichten complete d his apprenticeship in 1976, and then posted the highest score in th e province that year in the required technical examination given to a pprentices. The Haberlins arranged for their star pupil to work in th e south of France as a commis at another Michelin three-star restaura nt, L'Oasis, in La Napoule, headed by Louis Outhier. An exacting chef , Outhier insisted that everything had to be made from scratch; servi ce was not to be begun with anything on the stove. In essence, Vonger ichten started his education from scratch as well, and over the next two years learned the importance of making everything as fresh as pos sible, while also opening his palate to herbs, olive oils, and salads . Vongerichten then moved to the north to work as saucier for another major chef, and taskmaster, Paul Bocuse, and once more felt as if he were beginning his education all over again. "Each night I had to ma ke 12 sauces according to [Bocuse's] palate," Vongerichten told Paul Frumkin of Nation's Restaurant News. "He made me throw them ou t if they weren't right. I went through hell. But I learned real disc ipline and consistency."
Vongerichten took a job at a three-star restaurant in Munich, Germany , after ten months with Bocuse, but was soon summoned by Outhier, who had become a consultant to the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok, Thailand, and wanted to install the 23-year-old Vongerichten as the chef of Nor mandie, the French dining room in the hotel. Over the next two years Vongerichten gained valuable experience in the running of a fine rest aurant and managing staff. Moreover, he was exposed to the multitude of exotic ingredients used in Thai food that would play such a major role later in his career. But his time in Thailand was also an ordeal by fire. Having never managed a kitchen, he felt lost when Outhier l eft after two weeks. "I had no idea how to do anything. All I had was my palate--everything else was weak. It was the toughest six months of my life. Some days I came home crying," he told Amana Mosle Friedm an, writing for Nation's Restaurant News.
Vongerichten Coming to the United States in the Mid-1980s
All told, Vongerichten worked for Outhier for ten years, opening rest aurants for him in Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Geneva, Lisbon, and L ondon. Then, in 1985, Vongerichten came to the United States to open a restaurant in Boston. A year later he was in New York, where he ope ned Restaurant Lafayette inside the Drake Swissotel. He quickly reali zed that classic French cuisine and its reliance on butter and cream was falling out of favor in New York, which was being taken over by I talian cuisine. Vongerichten changed pace, and introduced more salads and vinaigrettes, relying on infused oils and juices. The switch pro ved magical, as the restaurant became a hit within a matter of months , and a year later it was named a four-star restaurant by the New York Times, only one of a handful in the city to receive the hono r.
In 1989 Outhier's contract with the Drake Swissotel came to a close, and as a result Vongerichten was at loose ends. His wife hated New Yo rk and wanted to return to France. When he refused to leave, she took the two children, returned home, and the couple divorced. He was not able to buy Lafayette but his reputation was by now well established in New York, and so he decided to strike out on his own, but in a di rection different from the four-star cuisine of Lafayette. He approac hed television producers and restaurant investors Phil Suarez (for wh om he had previously consulted) and Bob Giraldi about opening a new r estaurant that was more in keeping with the times. With the New York economy mired in recession, Vongerichten wanted to open a bistro-styl e restaurant, offering reinvented bistro-style classics priced under $20. The result was JoJo (Vongerichten's childhood nickname), whi ch opened in 1991. Located in an Upper Eastside townhouse, JoJo was l aunched on a modest scale: six burners, one oven, and 15 employees. S uarez was responsible for arranging the financing, dealing with the l andlord, and essentially freeing up Vongerichten to concentrate on cr eating the menu. It was a partnership that worked well and proved to be a key element of the success of Jean-Georges Enterprises. An intim ate restaurant featuring tables covered in brown paper, JoJo cost jus t $150,000 to launch. "We thought we would do about 40 lunches an d 60 dinners a day," Vongerichten told the New York Times' Flo rence Fabricant. "But when we opened the door, it was a madhouse." Jo Jo earned three stars from the Times and was named by Esqui re as the Best New Restaurant of the Year.
Already with one major success in his solo career, Vongerichten was s oon eager to pursue new ideas. In 1993 he and his partners opened a p air of restaurants: Vong and The Lipstick Café in Midtown Manh attan's Lipstick Building. For Vong, the chef drew on his experience in Thailand, combining Thai flavors with French cooking techniques to create his own version of Thai cuisine. Next door he opened an upsca le salad-and-sandwich eatery that catered to the business crowd. As w as the case with JoJo, both were immediate hits. Vong, because its re cipes were exact and could be easily produced, became a vehicle for l icensed operations. Over the next few years Vong restaurants opened i n Chicago, London, Hong Kong, and Mexico City. Due primarily to a fal tering economy, the Mexico City operation folded after six months.
By the mid-1990s the New York economy was beginning to boom once agai n and Vongerichten began looking for a chance to return to haute cuis ine and regain four-star status. He and his partners found a valuable ally in real estate developer Donald Trump, who was converting the O ld Gulf Western skyscraper at Columbus Circle into the Trump Internat ional Hotel & Tower and looking to house a major new restaurant. The demand for the restaurant space was intense, and Trump was suppos edly in serious talks with a West Coast group when Suarez convinced h im that as someone who personified New York Trump needed to open a Ne w York restaurant. Trump was won over by the argument and leased the 15,000-square-foot space to Jean-Georges Enterprises, which spent the next two years developing a pair of restaurants in the building. One was Nougantine, a modestly priced café-type eatery serving br eakfast, lunch, and dinner, and the second space, known as the main d ining room, became Jean Georges, offering lunch five days a week and dinner six nights. The opening was repeatedly delayed but Jean George s was worth the wait. Vongerichten refused to categorize its cuisine, but diners and critics alike raved about it, and the chef won back h is fourth star from the New York Times. The Trump Internationa l Hotel & Tower actually provided four profit centers to Jean-Geo rges Enterprises. In addition to Nougantine and Jean Georges, the com pany also ran room service and an employees' cafeteria.
John Mariani of Esquire named Vongerichten Chef of the Year in 1997, but the businessman-chef was not content to rest on his plaudi ts. In 1998 he opened a pair of new restaurants. In downtown Manhatta n he introduced the Mercer Kitchen, a chic eatery that offered Medite rranean-inspired cuisine. Vongerichten also opened a Las Vegas steakh ouse called Prime in the new Bellagio Hotel. In addition, as if that did not keep him busy enough, he found time to pen a book for Broadwa y Books called Cooking at Home with a Four Star Chef. The hono rs also kept coming his way in 1998, when the James Beard Foundation named Jean Georges the "Best New Restaurant" and named Vongerichten t he "Outstanding Chef."
New Century, More Openings
Vongerichten resumed his impressive record of restaurant openings wit h the start of the 2000s. In 2000 he opened Dune in the Bahamas, focu sing on fresh local ingredients, including seafood and fruit. A year later he opened JoJo a second time. After the owner of the East 64th Street townhouse decided to make the property his home, Vongerichten began to relocate to the TriBeCa section of Manhattan. Instead, the t ownhouse was bought by another party who insisted on JoJo remaining. Vongerichten took the opportunity to remodel the space and revamp the menu, although he retained some signature dishes to provide continui ty. In reviewing JoJo after its reopening, William Grimes of the N ew York Times commented, "It's older now, but still new in all th e ways that count."
In 2001 Vongerichten reached a significant milestone, opening his fir st restaurant in his native France. Called Market, it was located off the Champs-Elysees in Paris. "As you grow older, you go back toward your roots," he explained to Suzanne Daley of the Times. "Pari s always was a dream. I have always loved this city--its architecture , its energy." Vongerichten brought his style of fusion cuisine to th e French capital, a mix of dishes pulled from some of his other resta urants as well as new items such as a pizza with black truffles. The initial review from Le Figaro was harsh, but subsequent review s were better. Vongerichten refined the menu, and Market was soon amo ng the most popular restaurants in all of Paris.
Vongerichten's next venture was a Chinese restaurant called 66, locat ed at 66 Leonard Street in TriBeCa, unveiled in 2003. It was inspired by a trip he took to Shanghai, where he also planned to launch a res taurant. Whereas Vong was Thai in flavor but French in technique, Von gerichten decided to make 66 more authentic. He told the Times shortly before the restaurant's opening, "We're using Chinese techni ques here even though we're breaking some rules."
The Shanghai eatery opened in 2004. Called JG and modeled after Jean Georges, it offered light French cuisine, relying mostly on locally g rown organic produce and local seafood. Three other restaurants also were launched by Jean-Georges Enterprises in 2004. Bank, a steak and seafood restaurant, opened in the Hotel Icon, a boutique hotel, in Ho uston. In Manhattan's Chelsea area, the old meatpacking district, Von gerichten offered Spice Market, the food of which was influenced by t he street food Vongerichten discovered during his travels in Southeas t Asia. The last of the restaurants was called Vsteak, a pricey steak house located in Manhattan's new Time Warner Center. Vsteak struggled to survive, however, and there were some concerns in the summer of 2 005 that it might be unable to meet its rent payments and was in dang er of being forced to close, making it the first Vongerichten restaur ant to fail.
Forever active, Vongerichten and his partners always had a number of projects in the works. In the spring of 2006 he planned to open a res taurant in the Chambers Hotel, a small luxury boutique hotel in downt own Minneapolis. After enjoying success with Houston's Hotel Icon, Vo ngerichten and his partners were increasingly interested in the bouti que hotel sector. There was even talk in the press of extending the V ongerichten brand to a line of luxury hotels. As Vongerichten told Nation's Restaurant News, "I have to stay excited about projects . I have to keep it fresh."
Principal Operating Units: Jean Georges; JoJo; Mercer Kitchen; The Lipstick Café; Vong New York; Market; JG.
Principal Competitors: Restaurant Associates Corporation; Levy Restaurants, Inc.; Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group.