Jean-Georges Vongerichten was born in Alsace in 1956. As a chef, he could have easily made a career of preparing choucroute garnie, tarte flambée and other popular Alsatian specialties. But from an early age he the found the flavors of Asia more enchanting than sausages and sauerkraut.
As his landmark New York restaurants of the 1990s — JoJo, Vong, Jean-Georges — he became famous for bringing complex Asian flavors and exotic ingredients into his style of clean, modern cooking.
In this decade Vongerichten has become an international brand. His restaurants — often situated inside luxury hotels from Paris to Istanbul to Bora Bora — appeal to travelers who recognize implicit quality in the name. His cooking, with its East-meets-West sensibility and simple refinement, serves as a kind of jet-set comfort food.
Vongerichten has just opened his second restaurant in Atlanta — Market, inside the W Buckhead. His first local eatery, Spice Market in the W Midtown, features his interpretation of Asian street food. This newcomer serves a kind of "best hits" menu of signature dishes from his many restaurants — some more Asian; some more traditionally French or Italian; many defying labels of origin. He says the menu is "about 80 percent the same" as the menu at his first branch of Market in Paris.
The AJC caught up with the peripatetic chef, who was in Atlanta last week to oversee the opening of Market.
Q: You've been opening restaurants at quite a fast clip. Is the recession forcing you slow down your plans?
A: We're continuing with everything that was in the pipeline through '09. As far as 2010 and 2011, we'll have to wait and see.
Q: Originally you were talking about opening five or six Spice Markets through your partnership with Starwood Hotels & Resorts (owners of the W brand). Not still?
A: Well, we opened Istanbul after Atlanta, and we're getting ready for Doha (in Qatar). With New York, that's four so far.
Q: I had heard a rumor that you weren't pleased with the performance of the Spice Market in Atlanta and were even thinking of pulling the plug. Any truth to that?
A: Absolutely not! We're on target to make $4.5 million to $5 million for the first year.
Q: But surely you're feeling the downturn. Midrange restaurants seem to be hardest hit.
A: Yes, of course — we're off 5 percent to 10 percent left and right. At Jean-Georges (his high-end spot), we feel nothing at all because people are still celebrating special occasions. But the restaurants where people were going twice a month — they're feeling it the hardest.
Q: So how do you best serve customers today?
A: Sometimes it seems that everybody needs a hug on the way in. But when there's a crisis people want to eat short ribs and pizza. I call it "ABC cooking." Back to basics.
Q: When you have restaurants is so many markets, how do you know how to source good ingredients?
A: Everybody who works here is local, so they know. Ian (Winslade, his chef de cuisine) knows where to get the local vegetables and bread. We get these nice little baguettes from — what is it? — Alon's?
Q: Have you had a chance to explore any local restaurants in Atlanta?
A: Yes, Ian took me to Holeman & Finch. They had some pretty amazing sausages. I liked the sweetbreads with grits, and the bone marrow was excellent.
Q: So where's the globe-trotting chef opening next?
A: We're opening a steakhouse in Scottsdale, Ariz. It will be called J&G.
Q: For Jean and Georges?
A: Juicy and Good!
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