As the head of a global restaurant empire, Jean-George Vongerichten knows a-thing-or-two about the F&B game. Here he tells Esquire where chefs go wrong and why molecular gastronomy has over-complicated food:
In the kitchen, I am very hands on. I don’t like to run The Pass because it requires all your attention – it’s a bit like driving, if you let it go for one minute, you’ll lose control. I prefer to go around the kitchen, tasting dishes and helping the staff out. And this is because consistSency is the most important thing in the restaurant business – if you’ve enjoyed yourself, you’ll want to come back and have the exact same experience. It is our job to maintain the service, quality, flavour combination and execution.
Cuisine is a very personal thing; everyone has their own way of doing things – like how you dress or write. People’s palates and experiences mean that even if two people were following the same recipe there would still be slight differences. For example, I am passionate about chilies and acidity – so I try to add elements of those into my dishes, whether the recipe asks for it or not.
Growing up in Alsace, my classic French training taught me all about making cream sauces and rich stocks that boil away for days. It wasn’t until I went travelling and worked in Asia that I adapted the way I did things. In Thailand, everything starts with a simple bowl of water, which you can infuse with flavours like lemongrass, lime juice and ginger to make a broth. It allows you to create some incredible flavours, but remain very light. I took that ideology and applied it to what I knew, which allowed me to pioneer a lighter, more modern style of cooking.
Start to finish
One of the main problems in restaurants is that a lot of chefs don’t sit down to eat their own food. They do a lot of tasting, but simply taking time to sit down and eating the dish from start to finish will give you a much better idea as to what’s missing. Seasoning; heat; acidity; portion size – you need to take more than a couple of bites to understand a dish and make sure that it is not boring. The first bite has to be as exciting as the last bite.
Flavour is king
I love real flavour. I think the whole molecular gastronomy phase messed people’s heads up a bit, because all of a sudden nothing was as it seemed. Chefs were making noodles out of shrimps and all kinds of things. Personally, I believe that if someone orders shrimp, then they should get shrimp – cooked perfectly, seasoned perfectly and creatively tweaked – without messing up its nature.
Spice it up
I love hot food. In fact, I am a little bit obsessed with chilies. At my restaurant in Dubai, there isn’t a single dish that doesn’t have a bit of chili in it. It’s in the vinaigrettes; the sauces; the marinades, but only in small doses. Not only does it enhance the flavour of food, but, as an anti-inflammatory, it is also good for you. I can’t eat food without a bit of chili anymore!
The import infrastructure in the UAE is so good that it allows you to get produce – beef from Australia or salmon from Scotland – from the best sources. However, most of the high-end restaurants tend to use same importers. It’s not like there are sweeping mountains and fields here, and we can all go off foraging for wild flowers! Because we share the same elements, a restaurant has to stand out because of its flavour profile, and the talent it has to develop different combinations of food.
I will always be a chef at heart. My career has evolved in a way that I have to spend more out of the kitchen. I now run 32 restaurants worldwide, and employ more than 5,000 people, but when it comes down to it, I will always be a chef at heart. It’s what I’ve been doing since I left school at 16 and I am never going to give it up.
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