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.
"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."
Of his career, he says: "I love it. It's my life. I know nothing else." And owning a restaurant has made all the difference in his life: "Before, I felt I was incomplete. Now I have everything." He even jokes about using one of his famous oils in his hair.
As with all restaurants, there are daily challenges - catastrophes every morning, at times. But it's an adventure, says Vongerichten. He is demanding to work for, he says, but in a good way: "I know how to make people work for me."
What did the New York Times award him for Jo Jo? "Too much - they gave us three stars. Too close from four," he says preceding a two-syllable laugh. Vongerichten says he'd rather not go back to that star pressure. "For 19 years I worked in those fancy restaurants, that's enough." People expect so much from you, and you feel you can't leave, he explains. Jo Jo is more casual. "You eat on paper tablecloths, it's more fun."
Jo Jo opened the day after the Gulf War ended, a time when a lot of restaurants were going under. Despite the recession, Jo Jo's success after 10 months is as grand as its waiting list is long: three weeks for a dinner reservation. The staff of 28 serve 350 to 400 people a day.
Vongerichten designed the interior of the duplex bistro, which features large paintings of "oversized people" by Colombian artist Leandro Velasto. (One won't be oversized if they eat his cuisine, he says.)
The main dining room seats 50, the upstairs 40. The wall lighting, dark wood trim, and upstairs fireplace give it the homey feeling Vongerichten had in mind.
"When I was at Lafayette, people came once a year, for a birthday or anniversary.... Here they come twice a week or four times a month. There are enough grand restaurants. I think what's missing in New York is neighborhood places," says Vongerichten. "Especially in New York people eat out a lot. The apartments are so small, they need to go out."
The fare here is similar to what Vongerichten created at Lafayette, light and flavorful simple cuisine that is almost like country French cooking with some international twists. A relaxed restaurant
The menu changes weekly. Lunch, offered Monday through Friday, runs around $25. Dinner, served Monday through Saturday, runs around $45. Compared with other fine restaurants in the city, Jo Jo "is much more relaxed," says Vongerichten. "It's simple, no chi-chi on the plate, very down-to-earth food."
Not that a simpler cuisine or restaurant has made Vongerichten's life any simpler. He estimates he spends 18 hours a day in the kitchen. "I sleep very well at night," he says. "Five hours."
In July, Vongerichten will open another restaurant in New York. (He also has a restaurant called Citronelle on the small Caribbean Island of St. Bartholomew.) When asked for clues about the new place, he grins and says he cannot give details. The cuisine, he hints, will be Thai-French. "Thai is the best food in the world," he says confidently.
Also on his agenda are more books, even simpler than "Simple Cuisine," which he now feels isn't simple enough for the general public.
Creating something simple isn't easy, he notes. "Simplicity is very difficult. You have to know what to buy and what goes together.
"The most important thing in cooking is you have to test in your mind before you do things."