A Master of the Simply Delicious
Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten's light cuisine style began with a glass of carrot juice
JEAN-GEORGES VONGERICHTEN likes to keep an eye on his customers. Here at his New York restaurant Jo Jo, you can catch the chef peering through a large glass porthole that separates the dining room from the kitchen.Skip to next paragraph
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"It is my eyeball," he says, in a hearty French accent.
Keeping a careful watch on people - as well as food - has always been a natural instinct of Mr. Vongerichten. In fact, it is what led him to create a cuisine of four-star fame.
Back in 1985, Vongerichten came to New York to join his longtime mentor Louis Outhier at Restaurant Lafayette in the Drake Hotel. As chef, Vongerichten noticed early on that American restaurant-goers were different from French restaurant-goers. For one, they seemed to be more in a rush. "In France, people go to lunch in a restaurant and they spend three hours for lunch. People here eat in an hour," he said in a Monitor interview. He also noticed that New Yorkers tended to shy away from rich, butter-and-c ream sauces. They would push them off to the side or request that the sauces be served on the side. That didn't make Vongerichten feel good.
Then one morning in 1987 Vongerichten made himself a glass of fresh carrot juice. As he drank it down, it occurred to him how - with a little seasoning - it would make a wonderful complement to shellfish. Voila! It was the start of a culinary adventure. Like an overcoat, he shed the cumbersome and time-consuming elements of classical French cooking for a more fashionable and practical style, calling it "Simple Cuisine."
"I was looking for a way to give foods more intense flavor, as well as make them lighter, fresher. As it happened, the dishes I discovered along the way were also astonishingly rapid to prepare," he writes in his cookbook "Simple Cuisine." Four 'building blocks'
Simple cuisine rests on what Vongerichten calls basics or "building blocks": vegetable juices, vinaigrettes, flavored oils, and vegetable broths. With these as a foundation, one has the freedom to experiment with combinations of fresh, flavorful dishes without the burden of spending hours in the kitchen.
Imagine these: Shrimp in Spicy Carrot Juice (see recipe and photo at left); Salmon in Rice Paper With Citrus Vinaigrette; Cod Cakes With Orange-Basil Oil; Marinated Lemon Chicken with Fennel Oil; Whiting With Endive Broth; Broccoli Mousse With Truffle Vinaigrette; Lobster Poached in Lemon Grass Broth; and Lamb Cannelloni With Zucchini Juice.
Vongerichten started his chef's training at age 16 in Alsace. Soon he began learning from such culinary greats as Paul Bocuse, Eckart Witzigmann, and finally Louis Outhier of L'Oasis. As part of Outhier's "flying squadron of chefs," Vongerichten traveled Europe and the Far East to learn about food. In 1984, he came to the United States to work in Outhier's "Marquis" in Boston. Then Vongerichten came to New York, where he developed Simple Cuisine that earned Lafayette the New York Times's highest restaura nt rating of four stars.
These days, the 35-year-old Vongerichten enjoys the freedom of having his own restaurant in New York's upper East Side. The name Jo Jo comes from his first name (Jean-Georges): "It is my nickname; ever since I was three years old."
In person, Vongerichten seems very easy-going, as if his reputation in this city weren't as big as its skyscrapers. His accent is endearing, as when he pronounces olive oil "awleev eul."