One of the most hotly anticipated openings of 2015 has been the launch of chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s first-ever Dubai venture. Having opened in June at the Four Seasons Resort Dubai at Jumeirah Beach, Jean-Georges has brought two venues inside one space: fine dining spot JG Dining Room and the casual JG Kitchen.
Originally from the Alsace region of France, chef Jean-Georges (or ‘JoJo’ to his friends, he tells us), has accumulated more than 40 years of experience in the kitchen, winning three Michelin stars and operating 26 restaurants in ten cities around the world in the process. The Dubai opening is the latest in a list of restaurant openings in cities including New York, Miami, Las Vegas, Paris, Shanghai and Tokyo. ‘Dubai is a great market food-wise,’ Jean-Georges begins. ‘Everything is imported, but I think people are very sophisticated in Dubai. They like a diversity of food, and similar to in New York, people go out to eat almost every night. It’s a great food scene. A great multicultural scene.’
Jean-Georges says that his aim with the space in Dubai was to essentially open up a huge dedication to gastronomy – ‘a more casual, relaxed place for everyday dining, with pizza, pasta, salads, fried chicken and burgers. People don’t want to eat “chef-genius” food every day,’ he laughs. ‘And then, we have a 45-seat room for fine dining; something for people who want to spend two or three hours at dinner, and maybe enjoy a tasting menu. We have a similar concept at JG in New York. It’s great, because you pass through the energy in the [casual dining spot] to get to the fine dining space, so it feels less intimidating.’
While chef Jean-Georges has ‘young talents’ in charge of each venue in Dubai, overseeing the kitchens at both is notable Dubai chef Colin Clague, previously responsible for award-winning restaurants Qbara and Zuma. ‘We met Colin when I came to Dubai five years ago, when he was at Zuma. He has an impeccable reputation. For us it was important to find the right chef. There is a lot of spice in our food, which is something he is very comfortable with. He came to New York to do a tasting for us, and we were impressed. He was the perfect choice.’
Describing himself as a ‘reject from school’, Jean-Georges’ first experience of the restaurant business was a birthday treat at a three Michelin-star restaurant in France at the age of 16. ‘I didn’t know you could make a living out of restaurants,’ he recalls. Having never been to a venue of this level before, Jean-Georges describes himself as fascinated by every aspect of the experience. So much so, that his parents asked the chef of the restaurant if he needed a pot washer or vegetable peeler in the kitchen, which resulted in Jean-Georges being taken on as an apprentice. ‘That was destiny,’ he smiles. ‘I had never washed a pot before. Now, chicken comes in a plastic bag, but I had to pluck the chicken, plunge it in hot water and take the feathers off.’
From this early introduction, thrown in at the deep end of plucking and pot washing, Jean-Georges describes how he worked across several Michelin-star restaurants in France, before moving to Bangkok.
‘I remember the first time I tasted coriander. I thought it tasted like soap. I used to tell the chefs in the kitchen, “I want you to feed me Thai food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. That’s all I want to eat. I want to learn everything about Thai cooking.’’’
After five years in Asia, Jean-Georges moved to New York, in 1982. ‘In New York at the time, most ingredients came from California,’ he says. ‘Union Square Market was very poor, there was not much going on. The only place I was comfortable after years in Asia, was in China Town. I did all my shopping there; everything I needed was there –ginger, lemongrass, pomelo, chilli. So I started to cook with all those ingredients and I made a name for myself by doing so.’
It is rare for French chefs to entirely leave their culinary heritage behind, and Jean-Georges explains that he has also incorporated French influences into his style. This includes the importance of seasonality – ‘even in New York, this means asparagus in the spring and tomato in the summer’ – as well as French techniques – ‘I’m not very good at using a wok, I still use the French methods, such as sautéing’. Famous for his very un-French focus on lighter sauces and broths as opposed to butter and cream-based recipes (Jean-Georges gives us the example of shrimp sautéed in carrot juice) this lightness is, in fact, a reference to his memories of home cooking in France.
‘When I started, I was doing French food with cream and butter. In New York, where people were eating out a lot and trying to eat lighter, they found it too rich. If you look at regional French food, sauerkraut, cassolette, all the traditional dishes, there is no cream and butter. My mother never made a hollandaise or a beurre blanc. These are the traditional, heavy sauces from [renowned French chef Auguste] Escoffier. Most people in France used to eat very well at home, so when they went to a restaurant, they wanted something they couldn’t do at home. I thought, let’s go back to regional home cooking. I started using much less butter and cream, and the restaurant filled up in a second.’
Since Jean-Georges is famous for embracing global ingredients, have Middle Eastern influences infiltrated his kitchen? ‘For sure. Zaatar is coming back with me to New York,’ he says with enthusiasm, adding that pigeon with zaatar has already made it onto his menu in Dubai. ‘I’ve developed a taste for sumac, too.
I really like acidity. Vinegar, tamarind, sumac. Acidity is very important to create balance.
‘We created a zaatar mix that suits my palate. It is a little hotter than usual, with chilli in it. In everything we do, there is a hint of chilli. Different chillies, for different purposes and to different levels. It makes the first bite as exciting as the last,’ he adds. He says that his passion for chilli developed as a result of his travels (chilli is common to the food of the southern hemisphere). ‘It is also the number one anti-inflammatory and it makes the food pop.’
Having opened Spice Market in Doha and Abu Dhabi in collaboration with Starwood Hotels & Resorts back in 2010, Jean-Georges explains that he is no longer involved. ‘Starwood bought Spice Market from me, so they were able to open Spice Market around the world. It is still using my inspiration, but I am no longer involved,’ he says. Nevertheless, further expansion in the Middle East could still be on the menu for him. ‘Yes. After six months, a year, we’ll see how this develops and then we’ll think about opening in another country. I’d love to bring ABC Kitchen here, maybe. Our options are open. I have to explore more. Maybe Riyadh is opening up, I’m not sure.’
ABC Kitchen in New York, he explains, is a farm-to-table concept that involves sourcing from local farms only in the New York State area. ‘I think it is the only green restaurant in New York City. We don’t buy anything new, everything is recycled (glassware, tableware). We compost in the kitchen and use meat from animals that are grass-fed. Today, people want to know where their food comes from; traceability is the most important thing,’ he explains. ‘You should see what we find in New York on eBay. Nobody eats in the restaurant with the same fork and knife. We find plates that are silver plated from the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s. All those plates that grandma had in her closet. I’m sure we would find many treasures here: someone’s junk is someone else’s treasure.’
ABC Kitchen is maybe a little ‘shabby chic’ for the Four Seasons, though, he says. ‘We’re talking with our partner about opening a project in Dubai Design District, instead. I’m going there this week to have a look. The project would be a good fit, but one at a time!’
JG Dining Room and JG Kitchen are now open. Restaurant Village, Four Seasons Resort Dubai at Jumeirah Beach, Jumeirah Beach Road, www.jean-georges-dubai.com (04 343 6118).
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