After conquering New York City and running restaurants from Japan to Los Cabos, Mexico, from Paris to Singapore, legendary chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten has finally landed in South America. More specifically, the chef is planting his flag in São Paulo, the food-obsessed Brazilian city, where he is opening Tangará Jean-Georges, a restaurant located in the brand new luxury hotel Palácio Tangará, on May 10. It will be his only restaurant in the Southern Hemisphere.
Known for his French cuisine with an Asian accent, the chef created the hotel’s entire food program, from room service to a six-course tasting menu. Among the recipes served at Tangará Jean-Georges (which also has a chef’s table inside the kitchen and a private dining room) are several highlighted Brazilian ingredients, such as tapioca, coconut water, Pupunha hearts of palm, and local fish.
Vongerichten was so impressed by maracujá doce — a local sweet passionfruit variety — that he created a version of Baked Alaska using the whole fruit, using the shell as a bowl to present a cream topped with browned meringue. “I love these tropical ingredients you have here, specially the fruits, so tasty and so different from what we have in New York," he adds.
But the menu displays many Vongerichten’s classics, familiar to anyone who has been to his restaurants. "We brought some of the best dishes from our New York restaurants and mixed them with some new ones created here using Brazilian products," he says. Among the dishes presented in Tangará Jean-Georges’ menu: beet carpaccio with lemon yogurt, pickled and fresh grapes, and a rack of lamb with mushroom bolognese and broccoli, the latter served in the tasting menu.
With an empire of 35 restaurants around the world (there will be 36 in June, when he opens in the brand-new Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills, in Los Angeles), the French legend is unstoppable. Two days after this interview, he had already left Brazil for New York — but he promised to be back in June, for the official opening and to check in on how the restaurant is progressing.
Eater talked to Vongerichten about his new restaurant, how he manages an empire, the process of creating new recipes, and also how he feels about running his eponymous three-Michelin-starred New York City flagship in a Trump building.
How do you maintain the Jean-Georges empire you’ve been building?
It’s not simple. I have entire control of all my 11 restaurants in New York City. All the remaining 24 venues spread around the world are in partnership with other investors ... It’s hard to be aware of paying rents, employees, and everything. So I choose my partners well and invest in my crew, training them as much as possible. Felipe [Rodrigues, head chef of Tangará Jean-Georges] and Pascal [Valero, executive chef] spent more than 10 days in my kitchens in NYC to learn how we work. We also brought 10 members of our crew there to work here. Here, I worked with the local architect, for example, to design the kitchen and the rooms. I’ve been working on this project for three years, and only now we are able to open, after all this work.
And how do you create so many menus, trying embrace local ingredients while also keeping your authorial trademark?
As we run many different restaurants in New York, all with different concepts, we create lots of recipes. And we are always doing this. This menu in Brazil is a mixture of recipes we created in Jean-Georges, in Jojo, a couple of dishes from ABC Kitchen, from the Mark ... But the fact is that as soon as I land in a new country I’m opening a restaurant in, I immediately go the the central market because that’s where you not only learn about new ingredients, but you can see what people usually buy and eat, and that’s really interesting. I brought some Brazilian ingredients I knew in local markets to this menu, such as pupunha, tapioca, local fish, and more...
I’ve been cooking for 44 years now and created a long recipe base. But I still want to cook dishes like the ones I have in my memory from my childhood in Alsace... or the flavors and combinations I first met when I was working in Asia. This is really what my kitchen is about, my stories, my own style, and I try to bring it to any new restaurant I open.
You just opened AbcV in New York three months ago, with a menu of vegetarian and vegan dishes. How did this impact your creative process for Tangará?
AbcV is changing my game, but I think it is also changing the game of eating healthy in New York. I must confess, AbcV is the restaurant I miss the most now that I’m far from New York. We created many delicious recipes there, using only vegetables. In America, breakfast is always too sweet, too heavy, too much bacon. We wanted to create much more savory recipes.
When I was in Asia, I tried congee, dosa, and these things blew my mind. So we decided to offer something really new. For a little time, we thought nobody would come or [we thought people] would at least ask: “Where is my bacon?” But it worked. We have 60 seats and serve more than 150 breakfasts a day. Vegetables always had a bad reputation: the same old recipes, always cooked with olive oil, the same flavors. We tried to create an exciting menu.
And what do you make of the rising trend of vegetable-focused dishes in fine dining?
I think this is the natural way. When I grew up in France, we usually had one small roasted pork for 10 to 12 people in a meal, and lots of cabbage, lots of potatoes, and other vegetables. Proteins were something more rare, served in smaller portions. When I went to America, I was impressed by the size of a big 25-ounce steak, served with a small amount of beans. We are going back to a more balanced diet. Proteins are getting harder and harder to raise, and people are embracing a more plant-based diet. This is something that not only changes our recipes, but also our consciousness. That’s something creating AbcV changed in my beliefs: I’m 60 years old now, and I expect that for the next 30 — hopefully — my mission will be to work with more organic and as little GMO products as possible.
You are an immigrant French chef running a three-Michelin-starred flagship restaurant in a Trump tower in New York City. How do you feel about this?
I went to New York in 1986 with 5 dollars in my pocket, I left school when I was 15 years old, and thanks to America I could build the company I have today that probably I couldn’t have anywhere else — so I can’t complain. But regarding [being in the] Trump building [on Manhattan’s Columbus Circle] I don’t like that, but I have no choice. I have 250 employees there. We pay our rents separately, I pay my bills to another company. But his name is on the building, I feel like taking it off... [Laughs] People know I’m close to it, but I am not part of it. But you know, c’est la vie. I have to feed people.
You are about to open a new restaurant in June, in Los Angeles, but you are in Brazil for yet another opening. How do you handle such a busy agenda? What are your next plans?
I started the LA project five years ago and this Brazilian project three years ago, but they are all arriving at the same time. That’s something we can’t predict. I’m very disciplined: I stay for three weeks in New York and spend one week traveling, visiting my other restaurants both in the U.S. and abroad.
I feel excited about new projects, like this one in LA, my first venue in town. It will be in the Waldorf Astoria hotel and it will work as an all-day eatery with a compilation of many recipes I created. California is New York’s garden, and we can use many fresh ingredients from there. But I have to say I don’t open new restaurants just for the sake of it. They must have a purpose, the right menu, the right destination, something that amuses me. There’s something amazing in running a restaurant in LA, so I’ll be there. But I definitely have to say that this is all I have for this year. I’m not planning to open anything else in 2017. I have family, you know?
Rafael Tonon is a Brazilian journalist and food writer based in São Paulo.