Jean-Georges Vongerichten opens his two first restaurants in the Middle East today in the Four Seasons Resort Dubai at Jumeirah Beach, bringing one of the most celebrated names in gastronomy to the UAE.
“I like to go places where I’m inspired,” says the 58-year-old chef, who has earned a prestigious three Michelin-star rating at his restaurant Jean-Georges in New York. “Dubai is very inspiring. So far, I’ve been involved with every square inch of the space, building it and the menus.”
Though they’re both under the same roof, and connected by a massive, marble-top bar, the fine dining JG Dining Room and the more casual JG Kitchen are two completely separate restaurants, from the menus to the head chefs. “They will have totally different atmospheres,” says Vongerichten, who is in Dubai for the launch. “It will be a sharing menu at JG Kitchen, while JG Dining Room will be a similar concept to Jean-Georges in New York.” His namesake restaurant in New York is Vongerichten’s iconic three Michelin-starred restaurant, for which he’s so well known.
Vongerichten has put the best of his signature flavours from New York on the menus. JG Kitchen includes caramelised lamb chops, crackling beef short ribs, a handful of pizzas (try the lobster and mozzarella pizza with lemon zest and black pepper), roasted sea bass with a shiitake-yuzu vinaigrette and a cheeseburger with miso-yuzu dressing and yuzu pickles. At JG Dining Room, you’ll find many of the dishes he’s famous for: toasted egg yolk with caviar, risotto with peekytoe crab, nori and sudachi (a Japanese citrus fruit); lobster tartine with lemon grass and fenugreek broth; and diver scallops with caramelised cauliflower and a caper and raisin emulsion.
JG Dining Room and JG Kitchen are Vongerichten’s 29th and 30th restaurant across the globe; he has 11 restaurants in New York City alone. He also has restaurants in Miami, Las Vegas, Chicago, the Bahamas, Shanghai, Paris, St Barths, Tokyo and Mexico.
“What makes a city so exciting is when you have a melting pot,” explains Vongerichten. “People in Dubai come from everywhere. There are so many flavours coming together. You really get the best of everything here. It’s pretty amazing. It’s better than New York, because New York has the best and worst of everything. I feel like here, you just have the best of everything.”
Growing up in Alsace, France, Vongerichten did not have his heart set on being a chef. In fact, the only reason Vongerichten says he ended up cooking at all was because he was a terrible student. His parents owned a coal business and, as the oldest boy, Vongerichten was expected to take over the business.
“When I was 16, I didn’t know what to do with myself,” he says. “My parents put me in engineering school. I hated every minute of it. I was the worst student. I hated it. It was my way of rebelling. They pulled me out of school and my parents said: ‘What are we going to do with him? He’s a good-for-nothing.’”
Feeling sorry for him, his parents took him out to dinner on his birthday. It was the first time Vongerichten had stepped inside the three Michelin-starred restaurant Auberge de l’ill in Illhaeusern in France.
“I couldn’t believe you could make a living out of food. Watching the ballet of the waiters, I was like: ‘Whoa. What is this? This is what I want to do.’ The silverware, the tablecloths, the candles, the menus – I knew this was for me.”
In a chance conversation, Vongerichten’s father told the chef his son was a ‘good-for-nothing’. The chef said: “Send him to the kitchen. We’re looking for an apprentice.” One week later, Vongerichten started his first job at the restaurant, prepping ingredients, plucking chickens and learning all he could from head chef Paul Haeberlin.
Vongerichten ended up working in four different three-Michelin-starred restaurants in those early years. At the age of 23, he moved to Bangkok to be chef de cuisine in a restaurant at the Oriental Hotel. It was there he developed his love for the exotic Asian flavours that would define his unique take on French cuisine.
Vongerichten has evolved in his 42 years as a chef and says he’s still learning.
“Today, I take all the superfluous away and I go only with the essential. Nothing more than three ingredients on a plate. There’s only so much you can taste. That’s not counting the spices of course.
"For me, the role of the chef is to reinvent ingredients. By mixing up spices and herbs, you can really make it different.”
Though New York is his home, Vongerichten remains heavily involved with each of his restaurants; Dubai will be no different. When asked why he thinks he’s been so successful, Vongerichten says: “I’m an entertainer. In the restaurant business, you’re a performer. When people come to see you in your restaurant, you have to perform. I think I give people what they want.”
He shows no signs of slowing down and is opening another restaurant – a vegan eatery called ABC V – in New York later this year.
“This is my life,” he says. “I still wake up in the morning and I love it. I run to work. Every day is a different day. It’s an amazing business.”
• JG Kitchen and JG Dining Room open today; they will be open for dinner from 7pm to midnight throughout Ramadan. JG Kitchen will begin lunch service later in the year. For reservations, call 04 343 6118