Chef Jean George Vongerichten

Jean-Georges Vongerichten

Image courtesy of Jean-Georges Vongerichten

Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten

This is the story of the birth of the herb-infused oil, a story that dates back to the days before herb oils were a cliche: mass-produced, and sold at Williams-Sonoma in every mall across the country.

Ten years ago, the lightest sauce one could hope for in high-style dining was a fat-rich beurre blanc or an unctuous jus. When Jean-Georges Vongerichten, chef of the celebrated Restaurant Lafayette at the Drake Hotel, looked out the kitchen window into the dining room, he saw the same scene repeated: diners scraping his carefully wrought butter sauces off their entrée, leaving congealed yellow pools on the plate. Every night Vongerichten got increasing requests for “sauce on the side.” Some people didn’t even want the sauce — the very soul of haute cuisine — at all. It was not how this chef wanted his cooking to be appreciated.

From his childhood in rural Alsace, the land of duck fat, thick sausages, and rich, yeast-risen kugelhopf, Vongerichten showed an aptitude for cooking. His family owned a coal business and he was raised upon his grandmother’s traditional French cuisine, accustomed to enormous daily meals with his family and the employees of the coal business. At age 15, his parents sent him to a highly traditional professional cooking school where he won a work-study position at Auberge de l’Ill, the first of a succession of three star Michelin restaurants in which he would earn a reputation as a first- rate chef.

Vongerichten then travelled abroad to become chef of a highly respected French restaurant in Bangkok. There, the young chef’s palate was besieged by the lemon grass, chiles, and galangal he sampled when the Thai chefs in the kitchen prepared their own meals. However, just as Vongerichten was becoming impassioned by the assertive spices and seasoning surrounding him, he found himself a prisoner of French cuisine. To a Thai clientele who wanted the exotic — tart tatin, beurre blanc, and foie gras — his experimental pineapple tart proved scandalous, characterized as food for the poor by his upper class Asian audience. Vongerichten left Thailand in l980 to open restaurants in Singapore and Hong Kong, where he continued to learn about and be inspired by Asian ingredients. “The flavor of lemon grass, cilantro, ginger, curries, and coconut milk changed my life,” he recounts.

In 1986 Vongerichten moved to New York where he was commissioned to cook French food at Lafayette. But after just a few weeks of seeing his entrées denuded of sauce, he radically changed the menu, abandoning heavy French preparations and butter-rich foods for a lighter, more fragrant cuisine of fresh vegetable juices, simmered vegetable broths, citrus vinaigrettes, and the much-copied oils infused with the herbs and spices of Asia. His innovations were promptly rewarded with a four-star review in the New York Times and a crowded dining room packed with people greedily and thankfully spooning up every last drop of limpid sauce. His cookbook, Simple Cuisine, is now practically a required text for young chefs learning the art of Vongerichten’s alternative cuisine, which fast became the industry standard for chic food.

With the opportunity allowed by a four-star review, Vongerichten opened JoJo, a bistro-style restaurant in 1991, and subsequently Vong, the site of his “Thailoise” Franco-Asian fusion cooking. At Vong, the chef has finally been able to act out the vision that he had begun to experiment with in Asia. His most popular dishes include foie gras with mangoes, rare duck breast with hot and sweet pineapple fried rice, and white pepper ice cream.

“I just want people to leave with a mouth full of spices and pleasure,” he says. And, as goes without saying, appreciation for the chef who helped revolutionize contemporary cuisine.