Chef Talk: Jean-Georges Vongerichten
The celebrated chef brings his Italian restaurant, Mercato to LKF's California Tower.
At age 29, French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten became the youngest chef ever to receive a four-star review in The New York Times. Together with chef icons such as Daniel Boulud and David Bouley, he led a culinary evolution of French food in New York in the 1980s. For the past several decades, he’s steadily built a global empire that now consists of more than 30 restaurants around the world, including the three-Michelin-starred Jean-Georges in New York. Now the chef is coming to Hong Kong to open Mercato, the second outpost of his American-Italian concept. He tells Leslie Yeh about his dream restaurant, his obsession with Peking duck, and his biggest failure.
You’ve operated Mercato for four years now in Shanghai. What made you decide to bring this concept to Hong Kong? I lived in Hong Kong before when I opened Vong at the Mandarin Oriental [where Pierre is now]. In 2012 we opened Mercato in Shanghai, and people really loved it. I’ve always wanted to come back to Hong Kong but just never had the right opportunity until Allan Zeman [of California Tower] approached me.
How do you think the city’s dining scene has evolved since you last worked as a chef here? Things haven’t changed much as far as I can tell—back then there were still foodies everywhere. Hong Kong is an exciting city to work in—there is so much more produce available to us here than what we have in Shanghai, and compared to the first time I worked in Hong Kong. I remember when I first moved here you couldn’t find basics such as rosemary, pasta, thyme—I had to haul my own bag of ingredients from New York and grow my own herbs in the garden.
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How would you describe the food at Mercato? I would say it’s my personal vision of an Italian restaurant. Living in New York I ate Italian about twice a week and I wanted to open a place that was just simple, shareable, farm-to-table food. It’s more American-Italian cuisine—there are definitely dishes that aren’t truly “authentic” Italian—but what matters is that it’s delicious. When we first opened in Shanghai a lot of Italian chefs would come in and say, “this isn’t Italian food”—but why does there need to be one defined version of Italian food? Sticking an egg in the middle of pizza and pasta with meatballs isn’t something you normally see in Italy but we do it [at Mercato].
Would you open Mercato in New York? I wouldn’t dare open an Italian restaurant in New York—they’d kill me there! The Italians in New York are very protective over their cuisine.
What’s different on the menu in Hong Kong? In Hong Kong we’re working with a better variety of vegetables and produce, like chanterelles from France, white asparagus… Right now we’re opening with about 80% of the menu, and we’ll develop it as we go. I’m going to the local market tomorrow to see what else we can incorporate into the menu.
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Do you cater any of the dishes at Mercato to suit Asian tastes? We really just like to make sure there is something for everyone on the menu—if you come with a big group you may have people who want raw fish so we have crudo, or people who want pizza, pasta, you name it. I think the Chinese really relate to Italian food more than to French food without all the cream and butter.
Do you draw inspiration from Asian ingredients? I love Chinese food—Peking duck and mapo tofu are some of my favorites... Tonight we’re taking the Mercato team to Mott32 for their amazing Peking duck! I love to bring back ideas from Hong Kong and Shanghai to my New York restaurants. I use a lot of Asian chilis, and at Mercato we’ve done an egg pasta before with Sichuan peppers. It had a numbing taste, but my Chinese chef wasn’t a fan. I’m still trying to get more Asian-inspired dishes on the menu; I’m open to anything as long as it’s delicious.
Maybe a mapo tofu pizza? Sure, I’ll think about it!
Are there foods you crave on your days off? I’ve always been a vegetable guy. I really like to play with vegetables and I gravitate towards dishes like eggplant parmesan. Tomorrow we’re coming up with a new roasted carrot salad with avocado lemon vinaigrette… I think everyone craves different food and it all depends on your blood type. My blood type craves vegetables and fish.
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Where did you find inspiration as a chef growing up? I was classically French trained—I cooked with flavors from different regions around Alsace, then went to the south of France to learn about olive oil, rosemary and olives. From there, it was on to Lyon to learn more “bourgeois” cuisine, then on to Germany. I spent the next five years of my life in Asia—Bangkok, Singapore and Hong Kong—and that’s when my culinary vocabulary really took off. It really messed with my head a bit—it was back in the 1980s and I realized there was a whole new palate of ingredients no one was using in France at the time, such as lemongrass, chilies, ginger, soy sauce… Back then, you didn’t have the internet, you couldn’t type an ingredient into Google and have 20,000 recipes pop-up. You had to travel the world to learn about food and new ingredients. I felt like Christopher Columbus, reading books and traveling the world to learn how to season food with spices.
What do you consider your biggest achievement? Probably the three Michelin stars that Jean-Georges in New York received. Also, getting a four-star review in the Times in 1988, just two years after I arrived in New York.
And biggest failure? I opened a Chinese restaurant in New York that closed after four years. It was called 66, and I had called on the help of the chef at who used to work at Man Wah at the Mandarin Oriental with me back when I was in Hong Kong. I told him I wanted to open a Chinese restaurant in New York and asked him to come over for six months to make it the best Chinese restaurant in America. We made one huge mistake—opening just four blocks from Chinatown. I was using handpicked fresh crab in my fried rice when a few blocks down, you could get it for a fraction of the price. But I still hold to this day that it was the best Chinese restaurant in New York.
What is good food to you? The basic food groups they don’t change much—you have white meat, salmon, lobster, crab, shrimp. It’s pretty much the same around the world. The role of the chef is to take a basic ingredient like chicken but season it with something unique and interesting like licorice and turn it into something that someone’s never tasted before. I think today cuisine is very personal: Everyone has their own style as a chef. Just look at Chinese cuisine in Hong Kong. You eat Peking duck from one place to another and it becomes something totally different.
What makes your restaurants successful? I try to create menus that are affordable and attractive and pleasing to people. A lot of chefs fail because they try to cook only for themselves only—but what’s the point if you have only 10 people sitting in your restaurant? When you have people working for you, from the wait staff to the cooks, you have to be practical. It’s your responsibility to make sure the restaurants are successful.
Favorite dish from your restaurants? In New York [at The Mercer Kitchen], the wasabi tuna pizza is a best-seller—it sounds crazy, but it works. It’s a pizza with a ricotta cream cheese mixture with wasabi and when it comes out we put seeds and a disc of tuna on top.
Do you ever see yourself retiring? Not until I’m 95!
What would be your dream restaurant to open? It would be a counter with seven seats, and it’d be just me behind the counter doing everything from the cooking to the serving to washing the dishes. I would go to the market in the morning and pick up a big basket of whatever’s good, and cook up a great meal for those seven people. At the end, nobody pays.
Mercato is open from Mon-Sun noon-2:30pm, 6-11pm. 8/F, California Tower, 32 D'Aguilar St., Central, 3706-8567.