World-renowned chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten has returned to the Maybourne Hotel Group with a new restaurant at The Connaught. Reyhaan Day finds out how he’s planning to bring his exotic, Asian-inspired flavours to a discerning Mayfair crowd.

 

For nearly 10 years, The Connaught has been London’s go-to destination for contemporary French gastronomy, with the three Michelin-starred restaurant overseen by Hélène Darroze taking pride of place at Mayfair’s chicest hotel. That reputation is to be solidified with the arrival of another revered French chef, Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

Those old enough to remember Mayfair’s mid-90s dining scene will remember the opening of Vong at The Berkeley, which Vongerichten opened to acclaim after years in Asia and the United States; particularly knowledgeable foodies might also recall 90 Park Lane at The Grosvenor House Hotel, which Vongerichten helped garner a Michelin star in 1985.

But since 2003, and the closure of Vong, Vongerichten has been seldom seen on London’s food scene – instead building a bevy of culinary hotspots across the pond, in his adopted home of New York City.

Vongerichten’s career began at the three-starred Auberge de l’Ill in his home region of Alsace, when his parents took him for his 18th birthday. The as-yet undecided young man asked for a job, immediately taken with the atmosphere in the bustling restaurant. “I didn’t know you could make a living out of food. The service, the ballet of the waiters, the look of the place – and the food…” recalls Vongerichten. “It was the ultimate place. That was it for me.” Vongerichten stayed at the restaurant, training under Paul Haeberlin for three years, quickly moving on from his pot-washing position to each station in the hallowed kitchen.

Launching his career at such an acclaimed restaurant gave the aspiring chef a solid start – learning his trade with the best in the business. Appointments at L’Oasis, under Paul Bocuse and Master Chef Louis Outhier; and the only two-starred restaurant in Germany at the time, Aubergine in Munich, alongside Eckhart Witzigmann. “I never wrote a letter for a job; it was just a phone call and I was there months after.”

After honing his craft in Provence and Munich, Vongerichten received a call from Outhier, who told him that he had landed a gig at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok, Thailand. He wanted Vongerichten to be his chef. “In Alsace, we use a lot of spices: cardamom, cinnamon, cloves – particularly in pastries. I had learnt about all the colonies, that all the spices were coming from Asia. It was my dream to go to Asia one day and follow the spice trail.

“But I was scared. I had never been a sous chef before. I’d never run a kitchen. I was 23. Chef Outhier called me every day for three months, and sooner or later, I said I would give it a shot.”

It was while in Bangkok that Vongerichten began to formulate his own style of cooking. “I’d been cooking for seven years in a professional kitchen, but it was still not my food. I was cooking Outhier’s food. But often, I couldn’t find things like apples. So I started to work with things that I could find – I was doing foie gras with mango. It allowed me to develop something new.” The two years he spent in Bangkok were formative in what would become his general cooking ethos. “I learnt everything about Thai food. I wanted to know everything about this cooking. I began incorporating Thai ingredients into our dishes too.”

Vongerichten went on to open a number of restaurants alongside Louis Outhier; first Singapore, then Hong Kong, Japan, Geneva, Portugal and at The Grosvenor House Hotel: Vongerichten’s “first step inside Mayfair”.


But the chef was yet to settle. After six months in Boston, Massachusetts, Vongerichten was sent to New York, to open Lafayette at the Drake hotel. “New York is always a city you want to visit. At the time – 1986 – there was not much going on. The food culture was very behind. There wasn’t a farmer’s market; everything was imported from California or Paris. After five years in Asia, the only place I felt comfortable was Chinatown. It had the only open market with fruit and vegetables.”

Vongerichten began buying his produce in the Chinese district of the city – which immediately saw the chef developing pan-Asian and French cuisines. He credits this as being the beginning of his personal style, a style he developed over the next five years at Lafayette. “I was supposed to be in New York for one year. I never left.”

Soon, he had opened his own restaurant, JoJo’s, with regular Lafayette diner Phil Suarez. The pair have worked together ever since. “He charmed me to death,” says Suarez. “We’re more than friends. We’re tied together at the heart. Never lovers, always friends!” Vongerichten obviously cherishes this working relationship. “I gave him a business plan. He said, ‘How much do you need?’ I said around $250,000. He wrote me a cheque right there. No lawyer, nothing. We shook hands. We’ve never had a fight in 32 years. It’s been a good journey with Phil.” The original Vong followed in 1992. “It was perfect. It was a hit right away.”

So much so, that Vongerichten and Suarez brought the concept to The Berkeley. “It was the perfect move for us to come to London, because London was already used to spicy food. The Asian culture was already here. It was even better received here than in New York.”

His new restaurant in The Connaught marks a change for the chef, as it is his first spot to offer four meals: breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner. “I like the challenge,” he says. Vongerichten is aware of his market – particularly having a presence in a hotel. “We have complex dishes for somebody that really wants to try our flavours and our food; and we also have a Simply Cooked section, because a lot of people might want a grilled Dover sole, langoustine or salmon.” For Vongerichten, it’s all about traceability these days. “Today’s food is all about ingredients and sourcing. Being sustainable and organic. That’s the big issue today.”

For now, Vongerichten has no specific plans to increase his presence in London, like in New York. “They offer you this corner to cook; how can you say no? It’s impossible,” says the chef. “I’m just taking it all as it comes. It’s about being consistent, being good in six months and in two years.”

 

The Connaught, Carlos Place.