Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten is back in town – to open The Connaught’s new restaurant, with truffle pizza to go
I was born just outside Strasbourg in Alsace, France, in a house my great-grandparents built in 1870. My family were coal merchants, and we would see the coal arrive at the house by canal, or by horse-drawn barge. My bedroom was just above the kitchen, so all the smells would rise as I woke. At lunchtime our kitchen would turn into a miniature restaurant; my grandmother and mother had to cook for as many as 25 family and employees.
Every Sunday we would have baeckeoffe (the Alsatian version of an Irish stew that includes carrots, leeks, onions, pork, potatoes, cheek or knuckle). I have great memories of us peeling and cutting all the vegetables and marinating the meat the day before. On Sunday morning we would layer everything in a large pot topped with a glass of Riesling and drop it off at the baker on the way to church. The lid would be sealed with a strip of dough and put in the oven for a few hours. On our way home we would collect it in time for lunch and eat it with mustard and salad.
My parents enrolled me in engineering school with the hope that I would take over our family business, but I wanted nothing to do with that. Instead, at 16 I started out as an apprentice to the late chef Paul Haeberlin at Auberge de L’Ill. It was the first restaurant I’d been to. I was amazed: the ballet of waiters and food. I couldn’t believe you could make a living out of this.
I went on to work under chef Paul Bocuse and master chef Louis Outhier at L’Oasis in Southern France. In 1980, Outhier made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: to open a restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok. I was 23 years old. I was too young. I had been chef de partie; not even sous chef; now I was to command a kitchen of 20 Thai cooks, none of whom spoke French. But then I thought, ‘if I fail in Thailand, who’s going to know about it?’
I had never tasted fresh ginger before I arrived. All the spices I had ever known were dried. Asian flavours changed the way I cooked – the heat, balance, sweet, salt, spice and umami. I abandoned meat stocks and creams and began to play with vegetable juice, fruit essence, light broth and herbal vinaigrettes. The cooks there would make me traditional Thai dishes after service every night. It was truly inspiring.
It takes a lot of hard work, talented people and team effort to open a restaurant. I have a great deal of respect for everyone who works in this industry, as it requires long hours and dedication. One person who particularly stands out is Nobuyuki ‘Nobu’ Matsuhisa, who revolutionised Nikkei cuisine. I am proud to call him a friend.
For all the projects I’ve worked on (among them the five-Michelin-starred Jean-Georges Vongerichten in New York’s Trump Tower, The Pump Room in Chicago and On the Rocks in St Barths), I tend to have a soft spot for my latest opening – currently ABCV just off Union Square in New York. It’s my first restaurant with plant-based ingredients. We source most things from family farms.
In 1996, I spent six years at The Berkeley’s Vong restaurant. I have great memories of London back then. We played a part in big culinary changes at the time – now this city is one of the most vibrant and dynamic food destinations in the world. It’s fascinating to see how the scene continues to evolve. I particularly love dishes that are produce-driven, such as with Dover sole, langoustine from Scotland or Black Angus beef.
However, The Connaught was the first hotel I ever stayed in when I came to London in 1985. I’d dropped into a pub around the corner for a few drinks after service and was heading back to my room on the top floor when I saw a guy pacing the landing in his robe. It was the actor Sir Alec Guinness.
He’d clearly had a couple of drinks, and so had I. Two tipsy guys meeting on the landing at 2am, talking about films and food – it’s still one of the most surreal moments of my life. Now I’m opening a restaurant at the same hotel.
My cooking at The Connaught will be relaxed and fun, featuring highlights from my restaurants in New York, but with the best ingredients to be found in London. For me, 80 per cent is about finding the right ingredients and making the flavours pop. The first bite has to be as exciting as the last. I always visit local markets and speak to the people who make and farm the food.
At breakfast, I’ll serve things like chia bowls with delicious fruit, dosa with avocado, micro greens and yoghurt. I’ll be making my own baked beans and topping them with a poached egg. We have included some classic British dishes such as fish and chips, but of course they’ll have a Jean-Georges twist. I am introducing the first ever takeaway truffle pizza at The Connaught – I hope it will become a Mayfair classic.
My greatest pleasure is seeing people enjoy my food. Food is love, and you have it three times a day.