A taste for innovation Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten has moved from a traditional style of cooking to a new approach inspired by Eastern cuisine. And folks are eating it up.

October 07, 1998|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff

NEW YORK - To see him and to hear him, you'd think Jean-Georges Vongerichten a typical French chef. He grew up in Alsace, on the French-German border, "with a lot of rich food, foie gras and sauerkraut."

This genial, 41-year-old "chef's chef," who's been collecting accolades the way Mark McGwire collected home runs, trained in a Michelin three-star restaurant and worked in the South of France, learning and using the techniques and ingredients that for hundreds of years have defined French gastronomy as one of the wonders of the Western world.

But, in 1980, when he was 23, Vongerichten took a turn to the East.

He was working at L'Oasis, on the French Riviera, for noted chef-entrepreneur Louis Outhier. Outhier needed someone to go a restaurant in Bangkok, Thailand. Vongerichten went.

It was a voyage that took him from tradition to innovation. In its recent passages, his journey has swept up the restaurant-going public in New York with a whole new style of cooking - and along the way, it snagged Vongerichten the title of outstanding chef of 1998 from the James Beard Foundation.

Baltimore chef Cindy Wolf, of Charleston in the East Harbor area, chose Vongerichten's Jean Georges restaurant recently as the place to celebrate her birthday, with her husband and fellow restaurateur Tony Foreman.

"The food is perfection," she said. "It's presented in a beautiful way, with the best ingredients - it's real food that has real depth and flavor."

His impact on the restaurant world has been to remind everyone that such perfection is possible, Wolf said, without the excess that has characterized some "modern" restaurant food. "He doesn't do crazy stuff to make himself stand out," she said.

Sitting in the dining room of Jean Georges, his newest restaurant (of several) in New York, Vongerichten says simply, "I've always been interested in new things."

He has positioned himself between the long, blond bar and the big open kitchen, with his cell phone cradled in one hand. Outside, lunch-time pedestrians trying to get into Central Park vie with traffic on Columbus Circle, but inside, amid pale colors and a subtle grid theme - by celebrated designer Adam Tihany - everything runs smoothly, without fuss.

The air of discreet accomplishment comes partly from the "silent splendor" of the address, as the Nation's Restaurant News noted in 1997, when the building and the restaurant opened. But it also arises from a certain understated confidence reported by New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl when she gave the year-old restaurant a rare four-star review this past April: "In his quiet way the chef and co-owner, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, is creating a restaurant revolution."

The revolution began when Vongerichten spent four years in the Orient, in Bangkok, Singapore and Hong Kong. The experience changed him, and it changed his whole approach to food.

"I had learned all the traditional ways of cooking," he says, "the stocks and the sauces, the hours of preparation. And the first day I am in Bangkok, they put a soup together in 10 minutes." He laughs, remembering the surprise. "It opened up a whole new horizon for me."

It was in Bangkok that he first encountered the Asian tastes he still loves - cumin, lemon grass, ginger, fish sauce, cilantro. "I was cooking in the French style, but every day I was eating - breakfast, lunch and dinner - Thai food," he recalls.

He had other postings - Geneva, London, Portugal and, finally, the United States, landing at Restaurant Lafayette, on the upper East Side of Manhattan. By the mid-'80s, he was becoming famous for the juice-based reductions and flavored oils that gave his food complex flavor without smothering it in butter or cream.

The new style of cooking resulted in part from his discovery of how the American way of dining out differed from the European model he had grown up with. "People in New York go out to dinner five or six times a week," he said. "In Europe, people eat in restaurants for an occasion. In the U.S., they stay home for an occasion."

People who dine out every night don't want heavy food, he says. And when they go to lunch, they don't want to spend three hours over the meal. "That's when I started my style with vinaigrettes and reductions. I tried to create food people could eat every day."

In 1991, he opened his first restaurant, JoJo. The place is small - some call it a bistro - but it gave him the freedom he needed to develop his own palette of flavors. "I always wanted to do a combination of French technique and Asian food - herbs and vegetables and spices," he says. A year later he opened a second restaurant, Vong, where the food is Southeast Asian - with French accents.

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