You may not see Jean-Georges in the kitchen every night at his Chambers restaurant. But his ideas and food are presented every day at Chambers. The chef visited Minneapolis to meet with his staff and promote his new cookbook "Asian Flavors."
The French-born Jean-Georges is one of the few chefs recognized around the world simply by his first name.
"My name is Jean-Georges. The last name Vongerichten. But everybody calls me Jean-Georges," he explains.
Based in New York, Jean-Georges reigns over an empire of 18 restaurants around the world -- in places like Hong Kong, Las Vegas, the Bahamas, and Shanghai -- and for the past two years, on Hennepin Ave. in Minneapolis.
At the encouragement of some of his regular diners from Minnesota, Jean-Georges began thinking of opening a restaurant in downtown Minneapolis. After several visits, Jean-Georges says he liked the atmosphere and appreciated the sophisticated diners in the Twin Cities. He was also impressed by the availability of something else.
"I love walleye," he explains. "I grew up in Alsace next to the German area. That's why my name is kind of German. I grew up with walleye. We have a lot of lakes there and I grew up with the walleye!"
But it was his time in Asia that influenced his current thinking about food, and helped convince him to come to Minneapolis.
"Part of my cooking is Asian, so you know I visited all of those stores and I found the ingredients that I needed. And I say, 'This is it, I'm coming,'" he says with a laugh.
“In Thailand, everything started with a pot of water. Lemongrass and lime leaves -- in 10 minutes you have the best soup in the world.”Chef Jean-Georges about Asian fusion cooking
In the 1980s, Jean-Georges spent five years living and cooking in Asia. He was trained as a traditional French chef. He made complicated sauces, and spent hours preparing meats and vegetables. He says his mouth came alive with the spices he found in Asia and he admired their simple cooking methods.
"In Thailand, everything started with a pot of water. Lemongrass and lime leaves -- in 10 minutes you have the best soup in the world," Jean-Georges explains.
"I say, 'Wait a minute. I'm confused here,' because I learned about cooking everything for days with lots of cream and butter. And here, a pot of water with some spices -- it makes a whole new different thing," Jean-Georges says. "It's fast and very flavorful and fragrant. It changed my whole way of thinking and cooking."
Jean-Georges visits each of his 18 restaurants in rotation, and spends time working with his staff and developing new seasonal menu items.
Jean-Georges says he likes to stay close to home now because he has a 6-year-old daughter. He loves to cook for her but, like any father, he finds her limited food choices baffling.
"She's into a white food mode. She eats like mashed potatoes, rice, milk yogurt. Anything white," he says, dismayed.
One of his favorite things to cook for his daughter is buttermilk pancakes from an old American recipe. It's a ritual he tries to do every Sunday morning.
Jean-Georges says he does not cook to please himself. He gets excited about experimentation and in making food that people will remember. He says making dishes that diners crave is even more important in these tight economic times.
Jean-Georges says his New York restaurants have remained healthy due to European tourists looking to take advantage of the weak dollar and the strong Euro. He says the economy has also had an impact on the ingredients he uses in his restaurants.
"We buy less from Europe now because it's double the price in terms of wine, in terms of cheeses. So I think if you buy local, you survive," he said.
Jean-Georges says the weak dollar may actually help U.S. food producers in the long term. That's because European chefs are beginning to experiment with the reasonably-priced American cheeses and other artisan products.
As far as the future for American chefs, Jean-Georges says in complicated times people want simple food -- but with a twist.