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Jean-Georges & Cedric Vongerichten - The artisan and his son


by Matt DeLucia



The practice of an artisan handing down his or her business or craft to a son or daughter was a revered tradition dating back to the Middle Ages, when artisan guilds holding trade secrets within tightly-knit secret societies were organized. During this time, tradesmen were held in high esteem, standing higher within the social pecking order than all but the richest aristocrats. If a son was not available to take over the craft of the father, one would be recommended by the guild, and the valuable knowledge of the elder artisan would be passed along. The industrial revolution brought an end to these artisan guilds, and for the decades that followed it became less and less common for a father to pass his trade down to his offspring. The modern era’s economy had created higher-paying jobs in less physically demanding environments, presenting desirable opportunities to the sons and daughters of those who had toiled in jobs like factories, farms, and other low-wage, manual labor careers.

Major trends in careers and lifestyles, although perhaps not as quick an evolutionary cycle as fashion or music may have, tend to shift subtly along social, political, and economic tides. Career paths that have historically involved working difficult hours and hard manual labor have once again become in vogue for today’s youth, including vocations that revolve around the production of food such as farming, cooking, food production and distribution. The longevity and success of many of the world’s finest restaurants, along with the prestige and financial rewards offered to today’s more successful restaurant entrepreneurs, have strengthened the modern chef’s already robust tradition of artisan/mentor relationships. The question of whether increasing financial rewards within the fine dining industry will result in an increase in artisan/parent mentor/child relationships remains to be seen. But perhaps a more interesting question might be whether or not the children of talented chefs and restaurateurs have a natural, hereditary advantage to succeed in their parent’s industry? Or, is there rather an environmental advantage of children growing up in and around restaurants, along with an implied inevitability to their destiny? Will we see more children willingly following in their parent’s footsteps in vocational areas that in the past they had been pushed away from, rather than being encouraged into? Many children of restaurant families, whose parents had pushed them into such traditionally appealing careers as medicine or law and away from their family business, inevitably found that it just didn’t feel right to them. Ironically, many find their way back to what they always loved doing, in spite of their parents insisting that they follow an easier road, rather than the difficult path they had chosen for themselves.

Inevitably, it is a parent’s love and support for their children that eventually lead to their blessing and encouragement, even if their child’s career choice breaks their heart. The eldest son in the Vongerichten family, Jean-Georges, was pre-destined to take over his father’s heating business, and was sent to engineering school when he was 16. “When they put me in that engineering school, I resented it,” said Jean-Georges. “I had more sick days than anybody else in the school. I was the worst student they could possibly have. My parents went there twice to meet the teachers. I was just waiting; I was killing time.” They threw the young Vongerichten out of school after six months, severely disappointing his father. “It was probably the worst six months of my life,” Jean-Georges admits. His father’s disappointment was short-lived, however, and when Jean-Georges’ parents took him to Auberge de l’Ile, a three-star Michelin restaurant, for his 16th birthday, he had an epiphany. His father must have seen in his son’s eyes the excitement that he had hoped to see in engineering school as Jean-Georges admired the service, the presentation, and the food. As his palette experienced its first sensation of foie gras, frog legs, and venison, he was also amazed by the professionalism and choreography of the entire operation. To Jean-Georges’ surprise, his father called the chef over to the table and asked him if he needed an apprentice, joking that “We have a guy here who is good for nothing, and we don’t know what to do with him! But he looks like he’s interested in this.” His father left their phone number with the chef, and sure enough, a week later the restaurant called to offer the young Jean-Georges a work trial.

The wide-eyed boy spent a week at the high-pressure restaurant, and enjoyed every moment. “I was running around cutting pheasant, peeling potatoes, doing everything they asked me to do, and I really loved it because I was passionate about it. Ever since I went to that dinner, I was into it. Then they sent me home, and they said to me, ‘We’ll call you.’” Several months passed before a call finally did come. It was 4 p.m. on July 13th, a Friday night on Bastille Day weekend, which is a national holiday in France.  They informed him that if he wanted to work, he’d have to be in the kitchen at 8:00 o’clock the next morning. “I’m like, ‘Shit, I’m not going, I’m having a party tonight.” His father disagreed with that particular choice, and said to Jean-Georges, “I’ll bring you tomorrow morning at 8 o’clock. You’ll be there.” That phone call along with his father’s encouragement essentially launched his career, and he subsequently began a three-year apprenticeship under Chef Paul Haeberlin.

Three years later, Jean-Georges made the decision to get his military service out of the way early, at the age of 19. France has since then suspended their mandatory military conscription, abolishing it in 1996 while still requiring that men born before 1979 complete their service, which meant that his son Cedric, who was born in 1981, was one of the first generations of Frenchmen not required to serve in the military. But the teen-aged Jean-Georges was already a tactful negotiator, and he used the connections he had made at his restaurant to get the assignment he desired. While he had the opportunity to serve his time in Paris at the Elysee hotel, he instead chose an assignment at sea. This allowed him to realize his goal of traveling around the world, a desire that would both drive him and define him in later years.

“They put me on an anti-submarine boat. I was cooking for the Captain and two officers, so I was cooking for just three people. We went everywhere, it was a military zone, but we went to Spain, Portugal, Casablanca, Tunis, all over the North African coast, all over the Italian coast, and all the way north across Europe and England. So for a 19-year-old, it was pretty good.”

Although Jean-Georges would later become an avid hunter, he never had to resort to using his weapon during his military service. “I never used my gun. I trained, but at the time, they were running out of munitions where I went. So we were faking our shooting.” After his military service, Jean-Georges moved on to work with chefs like Paul Bocuse and Louis Outhier at L’Oasis before he began a long tenure with the Oriental Hotel chain, where he would eventually open and run ten restaurants around the world including Thailand, Portugal, and Hong Kong, before finally being sent to America .

Cedric Vongerichten’s first restaurant memories came during this time at the age of 4, when Jean-Georges moved his family to Boston from Thailand, Cedric’s birthplace, and then on to New York at the Lafayette restaurant in the Swissotel. Cedric eventually moved back to France with his mother at the age of nine, just a year before his father would open his first restaurant, JoJo, in 1991. Over the next five years, he heard of his father’s culinary successes - mostly by phone - as Jean-Georges opened restaurants such as Vong and his 4-star Jean-Georges Restaurant in the Trump International Hotel. At 14, Cedric began attending a small cooking school in France, and at 17 he began working at several restaurants throughout the country, including L’Oasis, where his father had also worked as a young man about 20 years before. I asked Cedric if he thought his passion for cooking was something he developed, or if it had been with him all along.

“I have no idea how it started,” he said, laughing. “But I remember being at school and all the kids were saying, “What do you want to do?” For me, it was always cooking, being in the kitchen. I love eating. My mother always told me that when I was a baby, I was crying all the time, because I was always hungry. So, yeah, it’s always been within me, I think.”

So, is the formula (hungry baby + great chef dad) = successful chef? Perhaps not, but even though Jean-Georges was not exactly “grooming” his son to join him in the business - quite the opposite - he gradually saw that every path Cedric chose was leading in the same direction. Resigned to the fact that Cedric was not taking his advice to choose a different career path, he began to bring his son along with him for several months at a time whenever he opened a new restaurant. In effect he replicated his own background by giving Cedric the same sort of eye-opening travel he had experienced. “I started to send him to the Bahamas and Paris, Hong Kong, London,” said Jean-Georges, “because he wanted to really to go into the business, so I said to him ‘You know what? It’s all right, but before you decide you really want do to this, have the experience first.’ After three or four openings, he said to me ‘This is what I want. I really want to do this, and I want to come to New York and go to school.’”

After six months of classes at NYU refreshing his English, Cedric passed his GED exam and applied to the culinary school that his father recommended, CIA in Hyde Park, New York. He signed up for most aggressive schedule, the four-year bachelor’s program. He was again closely following the footsteps of his father, who had gone to culinary school in France while working at Auberge de l’Ile, and years later had taken a 6-week course called “How to Open a Business in New York City,” just before he had opened his first restaurant, JoJo.

At CIA, Cedric was put to the test; the 4-year program includes two years in the kitchen, followed by two years of management training. Although he felt more at home during the first two years when cooking was the main focus, he nevertheless enjoyed both aspects. When he was ready to do his externship, he aimed high: El Bulli in Roses, Spain. No one from CIA had ever worked there for an externship, so Cedric found himself filling out heaps of paperwork to make it happen, and he was eventually approved to work there for three months. Based on his performance – and it may not have hurt that he was Jean-Georges’ son as well - he was invited by Ferran Adria to stay on after the restaurant closed down to work in Adria’s famous kitchen workshop “El Taller” in Barcelona, something only a few lucky chefs are invited to each year.

Cedric’s primary job at El Taller was to browse the stalls and compete with the mobs at the huge La Boqueria market in Barcelona each morning, and bring back items that Mr. Adria and his team had requested. The workshop is a full two hours from the El Bulli restaurant, and its proximity to La Boqueria marketplace – it’s only a few blocks away – was no accident when Adria had set it up. “We’d grab everything fresh in the morning,” Cedic explains, “then arrive at the lab and take out everything and put it out on the conference table. Then we would work until 4:00 o’clock creating things, taking notes and pictures to keep it precise. For two hours before we went home at night, we’d gather around the table and just brainstorm, and talk about new ideas for the next day.”

After his valuable learning experience in Spain, he came back to New York and finished his last two years at CIA; time spent for the most part in the classroom and not in the kitchen. “You start with the basics, like Economics, then move your way up with Finance, Accounting I, Accounting II. I think it gives you a better understanding about having your own restaurant.” This was the first time during our interview that Cedric mentioned anything about having his own restaurant. In person, he never once gave the impression that he was overconfident or headstrong, or that restaurant ownership was inevitable because of whom his father was. Instead, he spoke modestly as if this were something that may come to him some day if he worked hard enough. While Jean-Georges tried very hard to make sure that other choices were available to him, the pride he shows that Cedric has gone in this direction and has done well is evident in his eyes and in his words.

New York is filled with entrepreneurs and chefs who have resisted the gentle push from their restaurant-industry parents, who try to steer them away from the industry they grew up around. Sirio Maccioni raised three sons, sent them to college, and encouraged them away from the family business, only to bring them back into it where they now each run a Maccioni restaurant of their own. Donatella Arpaia’s father’s dream was that she would be a lawyer or a doctor, and he provided her with the best education that he could afford so she could achieve that goal. She did become a lawyer; then resigned from that job to become a successful restaurateur on her own. While Jean-Georges brought Cedric along with him when he opened many of his restaurants, giving him a taste of his father’s life in the kitchen, he also kept him at a distance. He made sure he spent his childhood in France, as he also had done, so he could follow his own instinct and his own passion, as opposed to just following what his father does. Yet when I asked the junior Vongerichten what his future plans were, he showed little hesitation.

“I want to work for a little while here. My future goal will be to have my own restaurant - it’s a lot of work, a lot of commitment. And if it goes well in a few years with that restaurant, I would like to work with him within the group. But I think it’s important for me to have my own restaurant to be independent, not under his wing.”

“Right now, I think what’s important is that he finds his niche on the team,” said Jean-Georges, “and I think he’s found his niche here. Everybody likes him. He’s really a team player, which is important, because he wants to show that he’s paid his dues.” Showing others that a job has not been handed to him primarily because of heredity is important to most parent/child combinations who have pride in what they do. Jean-Georges may have given Cedric a chef’s job at his flagship restaurant, but he started him where all his cooks start – in the downstairs kitchen, preparing food for the more casual Nougatine. It is there where Cedric will have to show his father that he has what it takes to move upstairs, and then possibly into a restaurant of his own.

Stepping out from his father’s towering shadow to open his first restaurant could be the biggest professional step that Cedric takes, considering the size of his father’s expanding worldwide restaurant empire. With his restaurant count currently at sixteen, Jean-Georges and his partner Phil Suarez also have several deals in the works that will boost the number of restaurants he owns or manages in a substantial way, including plans to build a chain of Spice Markets all over the world. But Jean-Georges still recalls the circumstances surrounding the opening of his first restaurant like it was yesterday. He may not have had a famous, wealthy father at the time, but he did have a wealthy client. Suarez was a friend and a regular customer at The Lafayette, and after Jean-Georges had worked there for a short time, Mr. Suarez came in and handed him his card, and informed him that he’d like to work with him some day. Jean-Georges soon earned Lafayette its fourth star, and after another two years passed he stumbled upon a restaurant at 164 64th street that had a “for rent” sign in front of it. He called the realtor the next day and he was told that the current occupant was not paying the rent, and that he could have the place for the first month’s rent, which was eight thousand dollars. He calculated that the place would need perhaps a hundred thousand dollars to fix it up properly. He wrote up a business plan on a piece of paper and asked his friend Phil out for lunch, telling him that he had a business proposal for him. Suarez became excited about the idea, and they both drove out to the location to check it out.

Jean-Georges remembers the moment. ”Phil said ‘How much do you think you need? You said yesterday it was a hundred, but I think you need a little more. We have to change the chairs, the tables, and a couple of things in the kitchen.’ I looked at the kitchen, and I said, ‘Oh, my God, it’s the smallest kitchen in New York.’ He said, ‘Okay, you know what? I’ll write you a check for $20,000.’ I said, “You will?” No paper, no lawyer, no nothing. He wrote me a check, I opened a bank account, I put the rent in there for the next day, and the place was ours with a 15-year lease.” They closed for 45 days for renovations. Jean-Georges went to the Bowery to get chairs and equipment, and Phil used his contacts in the film industry to get carpenters and painters. With the 1991 Gulf War just starting and 250 restaurants out of business that year, he lowered the prices on the menu and business boomed - especially after getting three stars from the New York Times’ Bryan Miller within a month of their opening.

So after 15 years of hard work and cooking in other people’s restaurants, he finally had a place to call his own. It’s easy to imagine why, after meandering down such a long, difficult road to success, that Jean-Georges would not provide his son with an easy path to his own personal success.

“He’s similar to me,” says Jean-Georges, “he likes to entertain people, and he likes to please people. And I think that this business is not just about going back on the line and cooking; it’s all about pleasing people. We share some loves, like sushi and Asian food and Asian things. But he definitely has a more modern approach than me.”

The similarities between father and son stretch far beyond their obvious desire to impress and entertain their clients, traits that are essential to any successful hospitality entrepreneur. But once again, when Jean-Georges assessed the timing of when he feels Cedric will be ready for the next step, he related his son’s timeline to his own past experiences. “When I was 16, I was an apprentice, and then it was not until I was 23 or 24 in Bangkok that I had my own team. It was very hard for me. I imagine that in the next few years, I’d like him to take one of my restaurants over, but I don’t know which one.”

Soon, there will be many more for Cedric to cut his teeth in. The new deal that Jean-Georges and his partners made with Starwood Hotels, which owns W, Westin, Le Meridien, St. Regis and other hotels, and Catterton Partners, a $2 billion private equity firm, will see up to twelve new Spice Market restaurants developed throughout the world, in places as diverse as Vegas, Miami, Istanbul, Mexico and Singapore.

“Phil (Suarez) wants to retire in five years, and I don’t blame him, he’s 65. So I said to him, ‘Find me a good big deal before you leave,’” Jean-Georges said laughing, and adding, “so he did. We had a great time with these guys, because we don’t have to go to the bank any more to beg for money.” A brand new company will be created for this multi-concept restaurant and licensing business, and each new Spice Market built will be in the 10,000 square foot range. While this is not exactly a new idea for restaurateurs, the sheer size and global scale of the project is unprecedented for a 4-star chef.

One might wonder how someone who is already overseeing so many restaurants can handle more - especially twelve. In light of the recent New York Times’ review in which Mr. Vongerichten’s flagship restaurant retained its four stars, yet still received criticism for the reviewer’s perceived decline in quality at a few of his other Manhattan restaurants, one wonders how anyone, even the energetic and charismatic Jean-Georges, can continue to deliver the high-quality food that his name has become synonymous with. He explained how his New York restaurants are all fully owned and managed by his company, Jean-Georges Management. He puts most of his time into Jean-Georges, yet he also spends a great deal of time in his other Manhattan locations; in meetings, checking the food, and “looking for dust on the walls,” as he puts it. But the other locations – London, the Bahamas, Chicago, Houston, Vegas, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Minneapolis, are all management deals, where he does not run the day-to-day operation. They supply the name of the restaurant, the look, a chef and a menu, and other consulting and take a percentage of the gross. He still visits these restaurants, but far less often than the New York ones where he retains ownership. When I asked him what he sees as his future, without wavering he answered, “probably the managed deals.” The Starwood project alone is proof of this entrepreneurial direction, which allows him to continue refining his magic trick of cloning himself and his cuisine style throughout the world. Yet in spite of all his new projects, he still dedicates most time to his Manhattan locations, and while he admitted that a few of them are not quite as trendy as they once were, they continue to be very successful, each retaining its own dedicated base of loyal clientele.

Back in the kitchen, Cedric is at work helping his father prepare a dish for our photo shoot. He begins talking excitedly about a new contraption that they are testing in the kitchen, an anti-griddle developed by Grant Achatz and PolyScience that flash-freezes anything you place upon its -30F metal surface. Earlier, in a separate interview, his father had also spoken of the device. The singular passion they both had for this one new method of pleasing their customers displayed once again how similar they both are.

“Instead of cooking with hot, you cook with cold,” Cedric explained. “You can play with some textures; we have a new dish I started here, bay scallops with Concord grape juice all the way on the top, so it’s like a frozen ring. But when you eat it, its sugar texture melts in your mouth and releases all the flavor from it.”

Jean-Georges has mentored so many chefs over the years - far too many to list in a single page of a magazine - but watching him work with his son in the kitchen, its difficult not to think of the future. Today’s best chefs can trace their roots back to a small handful of great masters, most from France and many of whom are either retired or passed on. Yet tomorrow’s artisans have many talented practitioners to learn from, not just from France but from America and Spain and Japan, and from places that are not currently considered to be culinary destinations. But no matter where you’re from or what your cuisine is, there is no finer way to learn the craft of cooking than from a loving parent or grandparent.

 

 





           

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