Interview: Jean Georges on His Brand New Shanghai Look

By Dominic Ngai, April 1, 2016

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“I landed at 5am yesterday, arrived at the hotel at 6am, and went to the gym for an hour,” Jean-Georges Vongerichten says. “It’s good for beating jetlag.” 

For someone who flew in straight from New York just 36 hours ago, the world-renowned chef and restaurateur looks extremely refreshed. It’s the same adjective that came to mind when we stepped onto the fourth floor of Three on the Bund for the first time since November. The new Jean Georges, designed by Neri & Hu, feels like a brand new restaurant instead of one that’s 12 years old. 

Jean Georges Shanghai: Refreshed

As workers put final touches in the open kitchen, the newly installed bar/lounge area and private dining rooms, we sat down with JG in the warm and pristine dining room to talk about the concept and process behind the renovation, Shanghai’s increasingly competitive dining scene, his travel essentials, plus a book that he thinks everyone should read.

We feel great about it because we’re changing everything; we gutted the whole place, from floor to ceiling. It feels fresh.

Do you feel any different about opening Jean Georges Shanghai in 2004 and now reopening it after renovation in 2016? How so?
Back then, M on the Bund and [Jean Georges] were the first two restaurants on the Bund. It was challenging at the time, but today we face different challenges. We’re a little more seasoned now. The restaurant is 12 years old, so it’s time give it a little facelift. We feel great about it because we’re changing everything; we gutted the whole place, from floor to ceiling. It feels fresh.

Jean Georges Shanghai: Refreshed

Tell us more about the inspiration behind the new interiors? How did you guys come up with the idea? 
The idea was to bring back the French heritage of the building, but to keep it contemporary. You know, most people don’t like to [use the term] “fine dining” anymore. So I want the atmosphere to be more relaxed, more chic, more “today.” There are some great touches – a good mix of leather, metal, stone and wood, a lot of natural, earthy, organic elements, which are very important for me. 

You chose to work with Neri & Hu on this renovation project again, after working with them on Mercato and Chi-Q as well. Tell us more about how this long-term collaboration started.
We worked with Michael Graves on the interiors for the original Jean Georges (in 2004), and that’s how I met Lyndon (Neri). This is actually the fourth time we’ve worked together. We’re currently working on our fifth project – Mercato Hong Kong – together as well. We love working with him because he understands [what we want], and he’s always able to come up with the right plan. 

We designed this place over many dinners, followed by more emails. We probably met about a dozen times (in both Shanghai and New York). The actual renovation took only three months; it would take maybe 10 years in New York!

The actual renovation took only three months; it would take maybe 10 years in New York!

Are there any changes to the menu? 
There are, but the essence of Jean Georges is still there. There are a lot of imported fish from Japan [available to us] now; there’s a madai (sea bream) sashimi served with a hot broth, lots of spring vegetables such as peas. Basically [we’re] using similar proteins, but paired with new flavors, fragrances. 

There are so many high quality French restaurants in Shanghai now, such as Mr & Mrs Bund and Robuchon (which just opened in March) on the same street. So how do you differentiate yourselves? 
I think every restaurant is very different. For example, Robuchon’s style is probably more [classic] French; we’re more ‘French-Asian.’ Everyone has [his or her] own style of cooking. Food is very personal, and I think the food at JG suits the local palate – it’s not as heavy in cream and butter – which is important.

Jean Georges Shanghai: Refreshed

But it’s great to have more [international] chefs coming in. It shows that Shanghai is really evolving, and that we were [on to something] when we opened here 12 years ago. I’m sure we’ll see more local talents pop up in the next 10 years. For example, our chef at Mercato (Kelvin Chai, who’s Shanghainese), is amazing. Young guys like him are going to be the future of the food scene here. 

What items do you always travel with?
My phone. If I lose my phone, I feel naked. I travel very light: comfortable shoes, a couple of chef jackets, a couple of outfits for going out, gym clothes. You can’t travel with knives anymore, or else I’d bring mine too.

What’s your favorite book?
There’s an old book that I read at least once a month. It’s called Ali Bab Gastronomie Pratique, written by a food philosopher of the same name about 150 years ago. It has everything you need to know about food. Everyone should have this book but nobody knows about it. 

See listing for Jean Georges here.

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