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Although Jean-Georges Vongerichten is one of the kings of the New York dining scene, over in London he’s best known for his Knightsbridge restaurant Vong at The Berkeley, which closed in 2003. Vongerichten’s long-awaited comeback took place in February with the launch of Spice Market. Square Meal caught up with the French-born chef and found out why turtle jelly, fried ants and deer antler shavings will definitely be off the menu.
Oh, completely. In 1995, when we opened Vong, we were probably one of the first restaurants serving south-east Asian food – now there’s Nobu, Hakkasan and lots of others. Compared with back then, more people go out for lunch and dinner – some go out six or seven times a week, like in New York. Because of this, diners want more diversity and variety. And people here are very open-minded, much more so than in other cities.
There are many of them, but if I had to pick one, I’d say the ginger fried rice. Most tables order it. It’s made with ginger, chillies and leeks, and it’s got a fried egg on top, which is the custom in south-east Asia. It’s very special.
With the economic crisis, people are going back to basics with ingredients. There was too much craziness and innovation before the credit crunch – people didn’t even recognise what they were eating any more. Now in New York, the dining scene is more about farm-to-table – artisan cheeses and honey, for example – rather than kitchen-to-outer-space.
I think Leicester Square is a little more peaceful; Times Square is crazy – it’s a zoo. Here you have Chinatown just beside Leicester Square, which is more interesting. New York has lots of lights and noise and everything, but there’s nothing around it.
Probably Thai or Japanese. If it were a choice between British, American or French cuisine I’d probably say British, because it’s different and it’s got more history than American food. I grew up with French food, so I’m not interested in it – apart from the dishes cooked by my mother, Alsatian dishes like choucroute.
I try everything once, but the worst food I’ve ever had was when I went to a ‘restaurant pharmacy’ in Asia. The doctor looks at your hands, your tongue, your eyes, and then he prescribes you a ‘meal’ to deal with your ailments. The prescription he gave me was horrendous – I had to eat turtle jelly, fried ants, deer-antler shavings, and loads of other disgusting things. And it didn’t make me feel any better.
Chocolate. I’ve eaten chocolate every night before I fall asleep since I was four. It gives you sweet dreams.
Probably my Microplane – I use it to grate ingredients like ginger, lemon zest and cheese. I could do without anything else, but not that.
I’ve had many catastrophes. Once I did a party for 500 people and I wasn’t ready – nothing was ready. My timing was wrong: I was two hours late for the wedding. We had to try and entertain the guests for two hours; it was the most embarrassing moment of my life. We had to cook popcorn in the microwave and put salt and pepper on it just to have something to pass round. But what’s nice in this business is the saying we have: ‘what’s broken for lunch is fixed for dinner’.
I’d have been an architect. I love buildings and design, and I think architecture is fascinating.
Interview by Nicky Evans, News and Online Editor