Jean-Georges Vongerichten on 20 Years in Shanghai

By Ned Kelly, June 7, 2024

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Shanghai can be a fickle city for restaurateurs. Even more so for those that set up shop on the Bund.

Not so for Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who just celebrated the 20th anniversary of his eponymous fine dining institution.

We caught up with the French chef and global superstar who, at 67 years young, is still burning with his trademark energy, enthusiasm and ambition.

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Jean-Georges Vongerichten at his eponymous Bund restaurant. Photo by That's Shanghai.

On how Jean-Georges Shanghai came to be...

Back in 2000, a diner in my restaurant in New York approached me. They had just taken the Three on the Bund building in Shanghai, and wanted to fill it with F&B.

Wow... Shanghai.

I knew Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore, so I said "Let’s go visit Shanghai!"

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Jean-Georges Vongerichten outside an empty Three on the Bund in 2000. Photo by Daniel Del Vecchio.

The only thing open at the time was M on the Bund; from there, all the way to the Peace Hotel, there were no other restaurants, just banks, insurance companies, and offices.

The Three on the Bund building was gorgeous, and the fourth floor [where Jean-Georges was slated to be] was huge... but a complete shell.

I thought "How are we going to do this?"

Well, fortunately, Michael Grave was the architect, and he was based in New Jersey – making it easy for us to talk to the guy. So I came back and said, "Let’s do it."

On the original Jean-Georges Shanghai look…

We started working with Michael Graves, and the concept was France in the ‘20s. So the first 10 years the restaurant was a wooden parquet floor, exotic eel skin furniture at the bar, and velvet. A lot of velvet.

Much darker. Very dark.

But it was fantastic. Fun. French old school – like back in the good ol' days. A crossover with Shanghai in the ‘20s and all that romance.

And it took off right away.

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The original Jean-Georges look. Photo courtesy of Three on the Bund.

On sourcing issues (& solutions)...

The big problem in those early days was a lack of produce. We went to the markets, and there was no parsley, no basil, no rosemary, no thyme… no herbs except cilantro.

So we started to bring in some seeds. A couple of small bags of seeds every time we had a meeting here.

And Three on the Bund found a farm for us, so we gave the seeds to a farmer to grow our own herbs for us, along with edible flowers, that kind of thing.

Then, little by little, every year, more and more, ingredients slowly became available – a guy would pop up from Yunnan selling morel mushrooms, a new fresh seafood supplier would appear from Dalian.

We were – and are – always looking for the best ingredients. That’s what good food is all about.

On the birth of Mercato…

Jean-Georges did so well that, after six years, we decided to do a second restaurant. At the time we were opening ABC Kitchen in New York, a farm to table restaurant, so we considered that, but in the end decided to do kind of the opposite of Jean-Georges: a trattoria.

So we worked with Lyndon Neri [of Neri&Hu], who was working with Michael Graves at the time, and put in a pizza oven, and used a whole load of reclaimed wood – the floor, the bar, the tables.

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Mercato with its reclaimed wood. Photo courtesy of Three on the Bund.

Weixin-Image_20240606125618.jpgThe Mercato dining room. Photo courtesy of Three on the Bund.

At the beginning, it was a difficult sell – you’re not Italian. "Well," I told them, "it’s New York Italian: we have meat balls, truffle pizza, all that kind of thing."

And it was another instant success.

On changes made over the years…

Ten years ago, we decided Jean-Georges needed a little revamp. It was getting old, the heavy drapery.

Weixin-Image_20240606121426.jpgThe old Jean-Georges private party room. Photo courtesy of Three on the Bund.

And we had no party room with a view. Nobody wants to party out the back, so we made the restaurant a little smaller and built three party rooms with a river view.

Suddenly, everybody wants to party with you.

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Jean-Georges as it looks today. Photos courtesy of Three on the Bund.

On the joys of visiting Shanghai…

I always love to come here because you get so much out of it, you know? I bring 20 new dishes, but leave with 40 new ideas in my head.

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Photo by Daniel Del Vecchio.

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Photo by Daniel Del Vecchio.

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Photo by Daniel Del Vecchio.

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Photo by Daniel Del Vecchio.

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Photo by Daniel Del Vecchio.

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Photo by Daniel Del Vecchio.

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Photo by Daniel Del Vecchio.

On a favorite Chinese ingredient…

Sichuan peppercorn. I cannot live without it. You know, the green one, the dry one, the flavor, the sensation.

At one point we ended up taking things in the other direction, as Sichuan peppercorn was banned in New York for three years.

I had Vong and Spice Market in New York, and out of 50 dishes between them, there were something like 20 with Sichuan peppercorns in.

So we came for a little visit… and left with suitcases full of it!

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Sichuan peppercorn. Jean-Georges Vongerichten cannot live without it.

On changes observed over the years…

When we first opened Jean-Georges, it was 80% expats and 20% Chinese; now it's like 95% Chinese.

Even Mercato was 50-50 until a few years ago, but with the pandemic that has changed completely. Now Mercato is 85% Chinese.

So, we had to adapt. We have changed management a little bit, because if you don't speak Chinese, you can't sell anything.

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The view of Lujiazui when Jean-Georges first opened. Photo by Daniel Del Vecchio.

On what has stayed the same…

Believe it or not, we have not changed the food to suit local tastes at all. We have a classic menu, and we stick to it.

The Egg Caviar, for example, has been on the menu for 20 years. Expat or Chinese, it is popular. People love it.

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Jean-Georges' legendary Egg Caviar. Phtoto courtesy of Jean-Georges.

On consistency…

You know what's good about Shanghai? I find these are probably our most consistent restaurants.

I feel like when you show a Chinese chef how to do something, that is how they do it; they see you do two turns of pepper mill, they're always going to do two turns of pepper mill.

In New York, you show them two turns of pepper mill, and when you turn around, they do one-and-a-half or three. So it's a bit different.

Each time I come back to New York, I tell them, “The guys in Shanghai, I really don't have to repeat 20 times the same thing. You know, they do it.”

And half of the staff is still here from the beginning. We have something like 12 cooks in the kitchen from 2004.

We've never had that in New York. Ever, ever, ever. So it's pretty amazing.

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The original Jean-Georges Shanghai chefs' team. Photo by Daniel Del Vecchio.

On his passion for Asia…

Coming to Asia is always a treat. Travelling is my inspiration. Discovering the best Chinese, the best Thai, the best Japanese. The best of every Asian culture.

And if you do quality work, people support you; they’ll come to see you.

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Jean-Georges Vongerichten, a man of many hats. Photo by Daniel Del Vecchio.

On his celebrity following…

We have lots of friends in music, fashion, movies. They all come to New York, and when you pamper them in New York, you know, “Oh, you have a place in Paris? In Tokyo? In Shanghai? I'll be there next week. I'll come by.”

Okay. Yeah. Perfect. It is the advantage of being an international brand. It's cool.

On ending up at the head of a global empire…

I did my apprenticeship when I was 16 – started cooking 50 years ago. Did I think I was going to be in the position I am today? Of course not!

It was just a matter of following a vision. I think I was lucky to arrive in New York at the right time in the mid-80s when there was a new wave of food; the magazines started to talk about food, the TV cooking show thing started taking off.

So I feel like it was just the perfect timing.

We started by opening one restaurant, Jojo, my first one. And at first I wanted to be there for the rest of my life. But I had too many ideas to be stuck in one place.

I decided it was a choice; I did my apprenticeship at L'Auberge de l'Ill, where it had been seven generations in the same house. So, you can either do that, stay in one place and create a legacy.

But for me, after my five years traveling in Asia, I had too many ideas. I wanted to do everything.

On his plans for retirement…

Are you kidding me! I'm 67, and I probably have another good 10 years to go. We just opened ABC Kitchen in London, and we have like three, four more projects on the go.

Retirement? No. I don't have time for that. I'm just warming up!


Jean-Georges Chef Specials

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Photo by That's Shanghai.

Here, Vongerichten introduces four Chef Special dishes...

Sea Scallop Tartare

Tahini Citrus Dressing, Chili Oil, Shiso, Sea Asparagus

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Photo by That's Shanghai.

"The fresh scallop has a tender and delicate texture, which perfectly blends with the sweet and tangy flavor of the citrus sesame sauce and the aroma of roasted sesame."

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Photo by That's Shanghai.

"The addition of chili oil further enhances the overall taste, adding layers of richness to the dish."

Kingfish Sashimi

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Photo by That's Shanghai.

"The Kingfish Sashimi undergoes meticulous preparation and knife work, presenting a color and structure reminiscent of a piece of artwork."

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Photo by That's Shanghai.

"The accompanying side dishes serve as the finishing touch, incorporating seasonal ingredients to add a unique flavor to the dish, which varies depending on the time of year."

Australian M7 Purebred Wagyu Beef Striploin

Pistachio Crusted Broccoli, Espresso Butter

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Photo by That's Shanghai.

"The M7 purebred Wagyu sirloin exudes a rich aroma with every bite."

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Photo by That's Shanghai.

"The crispy pistachios complement the tender beef, while the broccoli adds a refreshing texture to the dish, keeping it healthy."

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Photo by That's Shanghai.

"As the concentrated coffee butter overflows, its unique fragrance and deep flavor blend harmoniously with the succulent Wagyu beef, making each bite a truly enchanting experience."

Chocolate

Passion Fruit, Caramel, Cocoa

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Photo by That's Shanghai.

"The richness of chocolate intertwines with the freshness of passion fruit, the sweetness of caramel, and the bittersweetness of cocoa, allowing you to savor different layers of flavors and textures with each bite." 

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Photo by That's Shanghai.

"The exquisite presentation is irresistible, adding an extra touch of passion and allure to the dish."


Jean-Georges, Three on the Bund, 4/F, 3 Zhongshan Dong Yi Lu, by Guangdong Lu 中山东一路3号4楼, 近广东路

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