A week ago, I went down to Shanghai to join my dining counter part Joanne for the culinary legend’s cooking demonstration and spent an hour speaking with the man himself. Holding Southeast Asia dear to his heart, he draws inspirations from his travels and Asian spices that changed his perspective on cooking. Jean-Georges worked and live in Bangkok in 1980 and speaks of Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong with nostalgia.
Do you visit all your restaurants around the globe every time you change your menus? You mentioned in your blog that you are here in Shanghai to introduce the new menu and to train your staff at it.
Yes I’m here for one week to introduce the new menu for spring and summer. I will probably come back again for the fall/winter menu.
So, you work only with local ingredients?
Yes, the food is developed in New York, but when we come [to Shanghai], we work with what we have and make adjustments. Not every recipe works exactly the same way on each continent. The quality is excellent, but the same ingredients like a carrot, garlic or potato can taste very different. Like cabernet sauvignon from the Napa Valley, France or Italy, these wines from three different places will taste quite different.
What is your best childhood memory with food?
Well, my bedroom was right on top of the kitchen, so I used to wake up to wonderful smells every morning. Upon waking, I knew exactly what was cooking. Coffee and toast is one of the best smells to wake up to and I remember waking up to this every morning.
You chose to be a professional chef at 16, what was that experience at the 3 Michelin star restaurant Auberge de l’IIl that cemented it?
Well, after that dinner, it changed the way I looked at things. I never knew that you could make a living out of food, outside of the home. Food was always a pot on the table. It was good food made at home—the smells that I wake up to every morning. I never knew that people were making a living with food outside of the home. I was only exposed to good food at home with the family. Christmas was always spent with my aunts or grandmother. Growing up in the 60s, eating out wasn’t common like today. We’d go to a restaurant every two to three years on a special occasion.
What are your thoughts of creating new dishes that would tickle the palate of the Chinese as the Chinese market is quite unlike anywhere else in the world?
I started my proper culinary education at 16 and in 1980 I had the opportunity to go to Thailand and spent two years in Bangkok, Singapore and Hong Kong. Everyday, I was learning all about Asian food. I think it’s easier to braise pork belly and pigs trotters with black sauce and ginger. It has more appeal.
What do you think you learnt from cooking in Asia? Are there any specific techniques that you use a lot now?
In Asia in general, you learn how to cook vegetables by blanching it. It gets steamed and you serve it super green right away. I love the freshness. When I was cooking in Hong Kong in 1982, a customer sent the fish back saying it was four days old. I didn’t understand it as I had gotten it that morning. The Chinese are so used to getting things alive, straight from the tank before it’s served. The fish was filleted and killed a couple of days before. I mean it was fresh, but by Chinese standards, it was a few days old.
So, even in your other restaurants like in New York you try to get everything as fresh as possible?
It’s difficult to get everything live in New York. I try to get all my fish from the wild as the fish farms sometimes don’t rare them properly and they taste very different—a little muddy. A wild fish fighting for his food would taste better. I work with a lot of small boats in New York. The big boats leave on Monday and come back on Friday. Naturally, some of the fish come back a few days old. I work with small boats that leave at 6am and they are back at 12, so you get the fish in the same night. It’s more expensive, but you’re paying for the quality. Just like Fedex has a price.
What do you think of the quality of local produce now that the Chinese are producing a lot of truffles and foie gras locally?
I think some of the stuff is pretty good. I tried farm raised caviar and it was pretty decent. It doesn’t matter where it comes from. You need to know how it is grown, is it organic or not?
Isn’t it hard to tell?
We really push the farmers to give us the best stuff, hormone-free and organic stuff. It wasn’t like that when we started six years ago. It is now as people are becoming more aware and cautious. There are beautiful things out there. I think the mushrooms here taste better than those in Oregon.
Ever thought about opening a restaurant in Beijing?
I don’t know, if the opportunity turns up, why not. I love Shanghai, but I’m nore attracted by Southeast Asia. For me, Thai food is the best in the world. I’m a big fan of Chinese food, but I’m more a fan of Southeast Asian flavours like those of Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore. I also love Korean and Japanese food, there’s so much to learn everywhere.
Do you think that there will be an influx of talented Chinese chefs overseas like Japanese chefs (eg Nobu) who are really famous in the US?
I think so. Although it’s really a surprise that Chinese cuisine has been set for the last 2000 years and nobody has really taken it onto the international level, apart from someone like Jereme Leung that has brought it to the forefront. I can’t think of anyone else. Is it because people are very fixed on the idea of eating authentic Chinese food and nothing else? Chinese are very loyal, they don’t plan to Americanise or Europeanise their cuisine.
As the culinary scene is constantly evolving, how can the new generation of chefs work towards achieving/maintaining a Michelin star rating?
Basically, the tough part is the ingredients, but it also depends largely on the customers. Nobody wants to go to fine dining restaurants as much anymore. People don’t spend five to six hours in a restaurant these days, things are changing. With the economic crisis, nobody wants to spend so much money. You have to keep reinventing yourself.
Why is this the only other one of your restaurant that is your namesake apart from the one in New York?
It’s very difficult to run a high-end restaurant. I didn’t choose Shanghai, Shanghai chose me. The owner is one of my customers in New York and she approached me to see if I was interested in opening a restaurant in China. I said yes and here I am. Also, the people here are serious, I wouldn’t trust to do the same in Boston or Vegas.
Globally we have 3000 people, but we work with partners, like with Three on The Bund. Recently, we’ve also started working with hotels, consulting on concepts. As chefs move on after every two to three years and the restaurants have to start all over with the turnovers of the General Managers and F&B Managers. You have to be open to start a restaurants in China. I think a lot of chefs love to do what they do on a high level and they don’t want to give up their control.
You’ve been running Jean Georges Shanghai for six years, why did you only open Nougatine recently?
Well, we decided last year with the bar here. The world is changing and everyone wants to dine more casually, so we came up with the concept of a bistro where people can come here share a quick bite, a burger or something simple when they come to Nougatine. We do 25-30 covers a night. We really want to offer something more accessible. The whole world needs to rethink this three-star Michelin rating. In France last year, three chefs gave back their stars.
Are your clients mostly expats or Chinese?
I would say the first four years they were mostly expats about 80% of them. Today, the tables have turned, it’s 90% Chinese.
What do you think about top restaurants in Asia only opening on prime locations like Three on the Bund, Legation Quarter in Beijing or five-star hotels? (I suppose the ambience and French food is a factor) In Europe, it seems the opposite, a good restaurant is rarely housed in a five-star hotel.
I suppose this is because they are the only ones that can afford them. Here in Asia, you need to re-enact the ambience. If you ask me, I like the hole in the walls better. In Singapore, you’d eat in the hawker centre not the hotels, isn’t it?
Jean-Georges Restaurant Shanghai
4/F, 3 Zhongshan Dong Yi Lu,The Bund near Guangdong Lu
中山东一路3号4楼近广东路 Tel: 6321-7733