At his new Michelin-starred restaurant in São Paulo, master chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten fuses French tradition, his Alsatian roots, Asian influences and local ingredients in the quest for haute cuisine at its finest and most contemporary. Sudi Pigott asks him what it is that drives him to carry on pushing culinary boundaries.
Jean-Georges Vongerichten, whose São Paulo outpost, Tangará Jean-Georges, has already earned a Michelin star
“Staying curious, that’s my elixir,” quips Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who, at 61, is the ultimate culinary Dorian Gray, barely ageing in the 20-odd years I’ve known him, and still as suavely exuberant as ever.
After conquering New York City and running an empire that stretches from Tokyo to Paris, London to Singapore (he currently has 38 restaurants bearing his signature around the globe), legendary chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten finally arrived in the Southern hemisphere last year. And his first outpost in the food-obsessed Brazilian metropolis of São Paulo, Tangará Jean-Georges, has already earned a Michelin star.
Tangará Jean-Georges is located in Oetker Collection’s newest property, Palácio Tangará, where the Alsace-born chef is in charge of the entire food programme, including breakfast (where Cantonese congee rice porridge sits beside coconut flour pancakes) and room service, too. It marks a departure beyond Jean-Georges’ trailblazing French cuisine with an Asian accent. Now, he cleverly weaves in Brazilian ingredients including tapioca, coconut water, Pupunha hearts of palm, and locally caught fish such as tambaqui and pirarucu as well as more familiar sea bass and sea scallops.
Prawn and pumpkin green curry, one of the dishes at Vongerichten’s acclaimed restaurant at the Palácio Tangará
“I always head straight to the market when I arrive somewhere new,” explains Jean-Georges. “It’s the most powerful way to connect.” Exploring São Paulo, he adds, has been an exciting new adventure. “I felt like Christopher Columbus when I started to make my culinary explorations,” he jokes. “I’ve discovered so many di erent varieties of chilli, yet with a less intense heat, and a far larger and sweeter tropical passion-fruit than any I’ve ever tasted before, called maracujá doce.” And Jean-Georges has now created a version of Baked Alaska using the whole fruit, using the shell as a bowl to present a cream topped with browned meringue. I’ve learnt that the stem of the cashew fruit itself is tasty and fragrant if poached, rather like quince.”
The menu naturally includes a good number of his classics, too.
“We’ve brought several of the best dishes from our New York restaurants and mixed them with new ones created here using Brazilian products,” he explains.
How does Jean-Georges manage his culinary empire? “It’s not simple,” he confesses. While I have entire control of all my 11 restaurants in New York City, the remaining 24 dining rooms spread around the world are collaborations with other partners, including the restaurant and bar at another Oetker Collection property, Eden Rock – St Barths. “What’s critical is that I choose my team very carefully,” he explains. He works with trusted lieutenants: Daniel del Vecchio, originally his head chef at Vong in London, is usually on the road with him; fellow Frenchman and former chef at Alain Ducasse’s Louis XV, Pascal Valero, and his Brazilian chef de cuisine, Felipe Rodrigues, “who spent time with me in my New York kitchens and restaurants” run Tangará Jean-Georges day-to-day.
Hitting the sweet spot – the restaurant’s exquisite strawberry and tapioca pudding
Jean-Georges also has a rule that he only travels one week in every month, in order to “stay fresh”. He loves well-made clothes, and “I always wear Prada shoes – they’re so comfortable, and I often spend 20 hours on my feet in a kitchen.” Downtime is spent with his family, eating out, and paddle-boarding wherever he gets the opportunity. “I’m a Piscean, so I like to ride the waves,” he grins.
“I’ve been cooking for 44 years now and I’ve created a huge recipe base. But I still always want to create new dishes that mix my memories from my childhood in Alsace with the flavours and combinations I first tasted when I was working in Asia back in the early 1980s, spiced up with my most recent travels. This is really what my kitchen is about – my stories, my own journey.”
At heart, Jean-Georges believes in old- fashioned hospitality. Endearingly, he insists that he gets “the greatest pleasure from seeing a guest’s eyes light up when their dish arrives, and continuing to smile as they eat it. I love hearing the hum of a happy, busy restaurant.”
Always ahead of the curve, Jean-Georges was already creating dishes based on vegetable juices and herb infusions and eschewing butter and cream back in the 1990s, well before most of the world of “fine dining” caught up with him. He remains a trailblazer. “My mantra in creating recipes has always been that the last bite should be as exciting as the first bite. I like to keep my diners captivated. Vegetables have so much flavour and can be just as decadent as any other ingredient. It is a question of understanding how to layer and balance, colour, texture and flavour.”
“To be frank,” says Jean-Georges, “I think this is the natural way. When I grew up in France, we usually had one small roast joint of pork for 10 to 12 people in a meal, and lots of cabbage, potatoes, and other vegetables. We are going back to a more balanced diet. Proteins are getting harder to raise, and I’m happy people are embracing a more plant-based diet.”
World-class cuisine combines with supremely elegant decor at Tangará Jean-Georges
It was a birthday treat meal out that turned the chef on to food. He was 14 at the time, and had, by his own admission, been thrown out of school for being useless. His father, who ran a successful business, took the family to a local three Michelin-starred restaurant and the young Jean-Georges was blown away. His father asked if they needed a pot-washer and fortuitously the chef-proprietor was looking for an apprentice. Within weeks, Jean-Georges was immersed. “I remember it had never occurred to me that I could make a living from cooking. I had finally found something I was good at and I was enthralled.” He went on to work at several more three Michelin-starred restaurants in France before going on to open a restaurant for one of his former chef bosses in Singapore.
So will he open more restaurants? “I always feel excited about new projects, but I don’t open restaurants just for the sake of it. They must have a purpose, the right menu, the right destination, something that amuses and intrigues me. Hence, I’ve found my latest: Tangará Jean-Georges.”