As acclaimed as he is prolific, Vongerichten is best known for his four-star French restaurant Jean-Georges. Along with Phil Suarez, Vongerichten also owns high-profile dining spots like Vong, Spice Market, JoJo, Mercer Kitchen, and Matsugen.
The son of a local coal baron, Vongerichten grew up in an Alsatian village with a name almost as long as his own—Illkirsch-Graffenstaden. He apprenticed with famous chef Paul Haeberlin as a teenager, when his menial duties included a turn as chef for the customers' dogs. During his compulsory military service, he cooked aboard a French anti-submarine boat, then had stints in the kitchens of mega-chefs Louis Outhier and Paul Bocuse. In 1980, Outhier—who had by then taken over the restaurants owned by the Meridien hotel company—recruited JGV to head up the chain's eateries in Southeast Asia; six years later, Outhier helped Vongerichten land his next gig, when he hooked him up the executive chef job at Lafayette restaurant inside the Drake Hotel on Park Avenue.
Vongerichten's culinary star exploded soon after. Over the next few years, he upended classical French cooking by replacing butter and cream sauces with vegetable juices and infused oils and pioneered soon-to-be-cliché fusion cuisine (thanks to his stint in Asia). With a four-star Times review under his belt, in 1991 he partnered with admen/Lafayette regulars Phil Suarez and Bob Giraldi to open his own place, the three-star (yet casual) Upper East Side bistro JoJo. And so began a procession of Vongerichten eateries. The Thai-French spot Vong opened in New York and London soon after and Jean Georges debuted inside the Trump International in 1997. Dozens of additional restaurants have followed.
Even though Vongerichten is associated with a rarified cuisine enjoyed by the few, he sits atop the largest restaurant empire of any New York chef—18 restaurants worldwide that employ some 2,200 people and handle more than 20,000 covers a week. His New York holdings have grown to include Mercer Kitchen, Spice Market, and Perry Street, situated at the base of one of Richard Meier's West Village condo towers. He and Suarez are also active on the national level—there's Prime Steakhouse in the Bellagio, Chambers Kitchen in the Chambers Hotel in Minneapolis, which is co-owned, like the buildings that house Mercer Kitchen and Perry Street, by Richard Born and Ira Drukier; internationally, JGV and Suarez now have spots in London, Shanghai, the Bahamas, and Bora Bora.
With so many restaurants to his name, JGV has long taken heat for being overextended, and evidence that he's spread deleteriously thin has lately been piling up. In 2006, Frank Bruni amputated a star each from Vong and Mercer Kitchen, citing a drop in quality. And JGV's Time Warner Center steakhouse V bit the dust in 2006, after only a year. But JGV shows no signs of scaling back his international footprint. He inked a major deal with the Starwood Hotel Group in mid-2006, which means his he'll be opening over a dozen iterations of tried-and-true properties like Spice Market at various Starwood properties across the globe. And in 2008 he opened Matsugen int he space that used to house his 66.
Vongerichten may draw in hordes of foodies and trendmongers, but not everyone's a fan. After Graydon Carter got seated in Siberia at 66 in 2003, he put JGV on his shit list, dispatching the bitchy British critic A.A. Gill to review the restaurant for Vanity Fair. (Mills's verdict: the shrimp-and-foie gras dumplings tasted like "fishy liver-filled condoms.") Some of Vongerichten's biggest detractors have been on his payroll. In January 2007, an ex-waiter at Jean-Georges slapped JGV with a federal lawsuit, claiming restaurant employees had harassed him for being gay and had forced him to engage in sexual pantomime with a stripper. And in July 2007, former waiters at V Steakhouse filed a class action suit against Vongerichten, claiming he paid them below minimum wage and skimmed off the top of their tips.
Vongerichten is known for producing pointedly simple dishes, and a number of the books in his predictably large cookbook oeuvre trumpet the virtue of culinary simplicity, including 1990's seminal Simple Cuisine and 2000's Simple to Spectacular. His latest tome, Asia Flavors of Jean-Georges, appeared in the fall of 2007.
Vongerichten had two children with his French first wife, a daughter named Louise and a son, Cedric Vongerichten, who is also a chef. He later dated a former Lafayette cook, Lois Freedman, who became his business manager; they were together for nearly a decade. He's now married to a much-younger, half-Korean-quarter-Native-American-quarter-black former Jean Georges hostess/former actress, Marja Allen, with whom he has a daughter, Chloe. His brother, Philippe, is in charge of cheese-buying at Jean Georges.
Vongerichten lives in the Richard Meier-designed building at 176 Perry, which is where you'll find his collection of over two dozen vintage toasters. His restaurant Perry Street—which was also designed by Meier—is located on the building's ground floor.