This is how it began, the career of one of the most versatile, ingenious and adventurous chefs in the history of American cuisine. Jean-Georges Vongerichten can pinpoint the day, the place, the words.
His family had taken him to Auberge de l'Ill , a restaurant with three Michelin stars in Alsace, the French region where they lived, to celebrate his 16th birthday. To the table came the renowned chef Paul Haeberlin , and the boy's father requested a favor.
"My father liked to talk," Mr. Vongerichten recalled. "He already had three glasses of wine, and he said to the chef: 'My son is no good. Do you need somebody to wash dishes? He will do it.' "
One might assume that an individual who has mastered gastronomy as thoroughly as Mr. Vongerichten would have been fascinated by food from birth, gone from crib to kitchen at a crawl, yanked his mother's apron strings, licked pots, cried out for crème brûlée, been fascinated by the rituals of the family table.
Not so young Jean-Georges, whose primary relationship with food was showing up for meals on time. Every day, his mother and grandmother prepared lunch for the family, 12 in all, and employees of his father's company.
"We were feeding 35 people for lunch," Mr. Vongerichten said. "There was a lot of food on the table at 12:30. By 12:45 it was gone. And we never went to restaurants. The family was too big."
In his mother's cooking lurked a hint of the creativity that would emerge in the son. She made lavish use of an Alsatian vinegar, called Melfor, infused with honey as well as plant and fruit extracts. Today, complex, amplified flavors appear in almost all of Mr. Vongerichten's dishes.
No chef working in America is quite his equal. Many, like him, have created multiple restaurants. A very few, like him, are considered among the best. Even fewer are both. Mr. Vongerichten is able to do more, and he is able to do it better, his style augmented by extraordinary open-mindedness, a willingness to embrace the local culture wherever he might be.
"He has a radar sense of trends, giving customers tastes they crave before other chefs realize they are desired," said Eric Ripert, the chef and co-owner of Le Bernardin , in New York. "And he has an uncanny eye for little-known cuisines."
Mr. Vongerichten met his business partner, the entrepreneur Phil Suarez, almost 40 years ago when the chef was cooking at Lafayette , a restaurant of matchless creativity in the Drake Hotel in New York. Mr. Suarez kept coming in for lunch, bringing celebrity guests like Michael Jackson. Each time, he would hand Mr. Vongerichten his business card.
"Finally," Mr. Vongerichten recalled, "I said to him, 'Phil, I have 25 of your cards.' "
The two now operate 38 restaurants around the world. Few are exact duplicates in size, style or cuisine. Their smallest is JG Tokyo, a ground-floor establishment with 14 counter seats and Mr. Vongerichten's food served in the style of a sushi bar — presented piece by piece, and eaten with chopsticks. The largest (and the highest, more than 1,000 feet above the ground) opened last August in Philadelphia, in a new Four Seasons Hotel: Jean-Georges Philadelphia, a fine-dining restaurant, seats 120, while the JG SkyHigh bar and lounge accommodates 92.
Scheduled to open this year is a 50,000-square-foot food hall in New York's seaport district; the partners opened a seafood restaurant, the Fulton , there in May.
Mr. Suarez said he gets several calls a week from all over the country asking about partnerships. "A guy who wants to be the lead restaurateur in a town wants to set the town on fire with a Jean-Georges restaurant," he said. "They are all flattery and enthusiasm. We're lucky enough, after almost 40 years together, to be at that point."
At 62, Mr. Vongerichten is fit and tireless, as hard-working as ever . He recently published a memoir, " JGV: A Life in 12 Recipes ." He works out daily, keeps his weight steady at 170 pounds, cooks in Prada shoes. Walking with him through the Union Square Greenmarket, where he shops, meets with his chefs and offers advice to anyone who asks, is like stepping into a Las Vegas casino with Frank Sinatra.
He has three grandchildren, and loves everything about them except being called Grandfather.
"I don't think he likes that name because I don't think he likes to age," said his daughter Louise Ulukaya Vongerichten, one of three children. "He is young in his mind."
Retirement, Mr. Vongerichten said, "sounds like a disease."
His youngest brother, Philippe Vongerichten , general manager of the flagship Jean-Georges restaurant in New York (which The New York Times has awarded four stars ) is asked if the chef was as terrible a child as he claims to have been.
His answer is immediate: "He was."
The family business was coal. Jean-Georges's great-great-grandfather, who was Dutch, came upon land alongside a canal not far from Strasbourg, the Alsatian capital, and claimed it, much as American settlers did in the Old West. "It is where my grandfather was born, my father was born and I was born," Mr. Vongerichten said.
The coal was transported from mines in the north of France on barges pulled by horses. Eventually, the family business shifted to heating oil, but when Mr. Vongerichten was a boy, it was coal.
"I was always black from head to toe from the coal dust in our backyard," he said. "We were living and breathing coal. The topic of every meal was coal. No way I was going to join my dad in that company."
Philippe, one of four children, shared a large bedroom with Jean-Georges and their middle brother, Christian. "We had one big closet with three drawers," Philippe said. "Open the drawers and Jean-Georges's was perfectly neat, everything arranged by colors. Christian was two years younger than Jean-Georges, and sometimes he would take a pair of Jean-Georges's socks or even his underwear. It would make him crazy."
Mr. Vongerichten became an altar boy — "but a bad altar boy," he confessed. "I would steal my father's cigars when I was 8 or 9." At 14, he stole a motorbike. The police knew him well: They came to the Vongerichten home and found it in the garage.
His parents sent him to parochial school. He skipped classes, paid no attention to studies. They tried a trade school for engineering, still hoping he would take over the family business.
"The school called my parents and said, 'He's been here for a month, we saw him eight times,' " Mr. Vongerichten said. At Christmas, school officials told them their son had to leave. "They had paid in advance for two years. My father was so mad. I was happy. I was hating it with a passion."
Philippe said his brother is still much the same: When he wants something, he makes certain he gets it. The two have worked together at Jean-Georges for more than 20 years.
"We have never raised our voices at each other," he said. "We do have disagreements about certain things." Philippe paused and laughed. "He always wins."
At that 16th birthday dinner in 1973, Chef Haeberlin showed interest. As a matter of fact, he told Mr. Vongerichten's father, the restaurant was looking for an apprentice.
In those days, France's great restaurants accepted one apprentice each year to serve an unpaid term of three years; that way there was always a one-year, a two-year and a three-year apprentice. On his first day, Mr. Vongerichten washed dishes from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. without complaint.
He moved into a room above the restaurant, and he loved it. He skinned hares, plucked chickens. He ran to the pond when a guest ordered truite au bleu — the trout turned blue only when it was cooked alive. "Everything came to the restaurant whole," he said. "It was a little medieval."
After the apprenticeship came mandatory army service. Haeberlin offered to help get him a job in the Élysée Palace, cooking for the president of the republic. "The three-star restaurants are like a mafia," Mr. Vongerichten said. "You never have to write a résumé."
He turned the offer down, realizing he would do little except peel shallots. He yearned to see the world, and asked to be stationed aboard a boat. He was assigned to cook for the captain and three officers on anti-submarine patrol. "It was a sardine can, but it had a wonderful wine cellar," he said. "The only thing I learned was how to drink."
He recited the ports of call: Hamburg, Copenhagen and Lisbon among them. When the boat pulled into Casablanca, Morocco, he discovered cumin, and prepared carrots with cumin for the officers, his first experience with the spices that would later define his career. The seasonings of his childhood had been meager: white and black pepper, and at Christmas, mace, cinnamon and ginger.
"After this," he said, "I cannot be in my village any longer. It is not the same."
He returned briefly to Auberge de l'Ill, but after three months he left for the south of France, landing a position at L'Oasis, near Cannes, where the chef Louis Outhier had received three Michelin stars.
"It was the opposite of Auberge de l'Ill," Mr. Vongerichten said. "You couldn't prep anything. If you needed parsley, you chopped it at that moment. Every dish, every sauce, à la minute. He didn't turn on the stoves until 11:30 in the morning."
Mr. Vongerichten loved the Riviera, the rosemary, the olives, the markets. There he met the chef Paul Bocuse , who predicted that Mr. Vongerichten would one day work for him. He did, in 1979, but remained only nine months, unhappy with Bocuse's traditional style of cooking.
"I felt I was going backward," Mr. Vongerichten said. "Bocuse was not happy when I left." The chef addressed him with an epithet, he said. "It was his last words to me, but he was a little bit joking."
Mr. Vongerichten was still in his early 20s, and restless. He left for Munich, to work under the acclaimed Austrian chef Eckart Witzigmann . Linguistically, the move was effortless; Mr. Vongerichten had grown up speaking Alsatian, a dialect more German than French. The most difficult adjustment was joining the staff for a beer after dinner service.
"You know Germany," he said. "The glasses are so large, after one beer you are done."
After six months, he got a phone call from Mr. Outhier that changed his life: The chef wanted Mr. Vongerichten, then 23 and with no experience running a kitchen, to be chef de cuisine of a restaurant he was opening in the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok.
He broke the news to Mr. Witzigmann, expecting him to insist that he stay. Instead, the chef told him he had no choice but to go.
Mr. Vongerichten said he wasn't ready, but Mr. Witzigmann promoted him to sous-chef for a week. "After two or three days, I am bossing everyone around," Mr. Vongerichten said. "I realize I can do this. I take the job."
Returning to L'Oasis for a brief refresher course, he cooked for Mr. Outhier, perfecting the chef's recipes, taking copious notes. The boy who had never paid attention in class had turned into a scribe. Today, there are more than 50,000 recipes in Mr. Vongerichten's business computer.
On the flight to Bangkok in 1979, he was surprised to see another young cook from L'Oasis accompanying him: Mr. Outhier had sent a backup, in case one of them failed.
They came to like each other, and went out together after service. Mr. Vongerichten would end his nights at 2 a.m., but his friend partied all night. "I couldn't keep up with this guy," he said. "He went berserk. He wasn't making it. He couldn't handle Bangkok."
Mr. Vongerichten, on the other hand, always came home. "Not always alone," he said, "but I was coming home."
He loved the city, fascinated by all he saw. "Everything was different — the people, the language, the religion, the food." But the tastes he encountered were not permitted at the hotel, where his job was to cook the French food of Mr. Outhier.
Mr. Vongerichten sent ingredients like bok choy and lemongrass to France for the chef to try. "I was doing duck with Armagnac in Bangkok while Outhier was doing duck with spicy sesame sauce and bok choy on the Riviera."
Over the next decade, Mr. Vongerichten opened 10 restaurants for Mr. Outhier, including ones in Singapore and Hong Kong, before moving to the United States. There, he opened the restaurant Le Marquis de Lafayette in Boston in 1985, and then Lafayette in New York in 1986.
He lived on the ground floor of the Drake Hotel, his salary $35,000 a year. He moved up vertically and financially with each additional star that Lafayette received from The New York Times. After achieving four stars in 1988 , he was living on the top floor and earning $108,000 a year, more than the hotel's general manager.
Mr. Vongerichten had met his first wife, Muriel Vongerichten, on the Riviera, and later brought her to Bangkok, where they married. Not long after settling in New York, she moved back to France with their two young children, Cédric and Louise, and the couple later divorced.
Ms. Vongerichten did not want to talk about the marriage for this article, Cédric Vongerichten said. She returns regularly to New York, he said, and the couple's relationship is amicable.
"My mother has no grudges," said Cédric, currently the chef of Wayan and three of his father's restaurants: Perry St. in New York and two in Jakarta, Indonesia. "Anyway," he added, "she has to come if she wants to see her grandkids."
Jean-Georges had no interest in moving back to France. "I felt New York was the town where I could make it happen, and going back was like starting from scratch," he said. "So instead of working 10 or 12 hours a day, I started working 14 hours a day. I was good for nothing but cooking."
That same year, 1990, he ran the New York City Marathon. As a birthday present, a friend bought him a number and persuaded him to participate by pointing out that they would start just behind the elite runners.
Mr. Vongerichten had never run, never worked out, never gone to a gym. He purchased his shorts, shirt and running shoes the night before the race. His rationale for believing he possessed the stamina to complete it: "I am standing 14 hours a day in my kitchen."
"There are 19,000 people running," he recalled. "I think 18,000 passed me." He ran 16 miles, then walked the rest of the way, urged on by a woman who had been following him for miles and insisted he not give up. They crossed the finish line together, and have remained friends.
Years later, he took his daughter Louise to Aspen, Colo., on a skiing vacation. She was 10 or 11 years old and had never had a lesson. He took her to the top of the mountain, and down they went, side by side.
"My dad wants people to go fast, learn, go forward," she said. "He didn't want to wait for me."
He remained restless. After he left Lafayette in 1991, he and Mr. Suarez opened a small restaurant on 64th Street they named Jo Jo , after his childhood nickname. (More than one family member has said he was actually called Jo Jo la Terreur — the Terror.)
Jo Jo was a sensation . For two years, Mr. Vongerichten was in the kitchen every day. But, he said, "I was bored after three months. I thought, 'O.K., what is next'?"
More opportunities came along, and he rarely said no. Among them were his French-Asian restaurant Vong , and Spice Market , which he and Mr. Suarez announced in 2006 that they were selling to Starwood Hotels & Resorts, for an amount Mr. Vongerichten would not disclose.
He learned from his failures. After creating a thriving steakhouse at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, in 2004 he opened V Steakhouse in the Time Warner Center. It featured gold-leaf columns, velvet chairs and rhubarb ketchup. From that mistake came his first lesson: "Don't try to reinvent the steakhouse. It's an American staple."
Another misstep was 66, an upscale Chinese restaurant he opened in TriBeCa in 2003. When speaking of it, his voice rises in frustration, unusual for him. He loved the food. But his fried rice with fresh crab meat went for $15, while four blocks away, in Chinatown, the same dish with canned crab meat was $3.50. Bad idea, he admits.
He reconceived the space, unsuccessfully, as a Japanese restaurant. Another lesson: "If I cannot do the food myself, don't do it. I do not know how to use a wok. I cannot do sushi."
He remarried in 2004. His new wife, Marja Vongerichten, had been working in the reservation office at Jean-Georges. She got the idea he might be interested in her when he said to a manager: "Why is she stuck down here? Bring her upstairs."
And what made her fall for him? "His molten chocolate cake ," she said.
They have a daughter, Chloe, and a house in Waccabuc, a hamlet in northern Westchester County. She says efforts to get him to slow down have shown promise. "The first time I ever saw him veg out on a couch was after we got the house," Marja said. "He'll lay down with the remote and watch mindless movies."
He is not handy. "He can't change light bulbs," she said, but he has demonstrated inordinate interest in their leaf blower. "It can be raining and he's out with the leaf blower. He sees any leaf on the property, he blows it to oblivion."
Finding a connection between the rebellious child he once was and the take-charge adult he is today isn't easily done.
His daughter Louise has an example that illustrates both: Her father brought the family, about a dozen in all, to the Cannes Film Festival in 2016. He learned to his dismay that none of them, himself included, had been invited to a gala at the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc.
Since Mr. Vongerichten was staying there, he came up with a plan: He led them all on a serpentine route through back corridors to the hotel kitchen, where they grabbed trays of canapés and marched into the ballroom, posing as waiters.
"He was very proud of himself," she said. "He had done something a little illegal."
Mr. Vongerichten's best friend, Hervé Descottes, believes that the chef's story is a classic tale of an ugly duckling emerging as a swan. The president of Mr. Vongerichten's company, Lois Freedman, credits the chef's rise in part to his mysterious ability to dream about food. "He sees flavors in his mind," she said. "He told me that."
Asked about the reason for his metamorphosis, Mr. Vongerichten replied, "I have no idea." Then he suggested possibilities: fine mentoring, simple good fortune, a miracle. None was quite right.
Finally, he smiled, having found an answer that satisfied him: "I always broke the rules."
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