The first time Jean-Georges Vongerichten stepped foot in Asia, his commute from the Bangkok airport to his hotel took three hours. The reason? The then 23-year-old Strasbourg-born chef had stopped at almost every street food cart along the way, enthralled by the herbs and spices new to him.
“This guy started with a pot of water, lemongrass and other ingredients, and in 10 minutes, I got the best soup I ever tasted,” recalls the 60-year-old. “All my life, I had been cooking French cuisine that took long hours to prepare. It was my definition of culture shock.”
Military service as a navy cook had brought a 19-year-old Vongerichten around Europe and Africa, giving him a taste for adventure – which sparked his four-decade odyssey of opening restaurants around the world.
With his acclaimed New York debut, Lafayette, which earned a four-star review from The New York Times, Vongerichten revolutionised classic French cuisine by infusing South-east Asian elements. His two-Michelin-star flagship restaurant, Jean-Georges in New York, had previously held on to its three Michelin stars for 10 years running.
Personally overseeing every detail at his 38 epicurean outposts across four continents, including The Dempsey Cookhouse & Bar in Singapore, means he travels for one week every month. It’s a hectic itinerary from which the chef-restaurateur draws inspiration. “I go to markets to experience how people eat and live,” he says. “I’ll bring 20 new dishes to a city, but I leave with 40 new ideas.”
For his next course, the chef would like to serve up a green hotel that’s 100 per cent sustainable. It would be a far cry from the hotel in Vietnam where Vongerichten once awoke to find his mosquito net buzzing with bugs. “But the food was delicious,” he insists. “And that is why South-east Asia, with its big blend of multicultural flavours, is part of my DNA now.”
– TEXT BY DESIREE KOH
PHOTO: ALAMY (CLICK PHOTOS)
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.