Two clay pots of tea, four slices of lemon, and one extremely stylish, extremely empty chair later, it’s official: Jean–Georges Vongerichten is now over one hour late for our interview. In the time I’ve waited, Sheikh Hamdan’s entourage has come in to scour the restaurant for a potential lunch visit. If that’s not a sign of a buzz-worthy dining spot in this city, I don’t know what is. When Jean–Georges does arrive, he admittedly has the best possible excuse for a chef; he’s late because he’s been “negotiating fresh fish at the local market”. He explains this to me while wearing – what I can’t help but notice – is his head-to-toe chef gear. We sit together in the Jean–Georges Dining Room, with its tables draped in white linens and topped with single red roses, open kitchen, and oversized clay pots brimming with bamboo. The conversation that follows covers everything from how his famous salted-caramel sundae came to be, to how to properly cook asparagus.
Why open in Dubai?
I met someone who was a close customer and a good friend. We talked, then I visited her here. There was a niche for us to do our style of restaurants here, so we decided to do fine dining with a fun kitchen all under one roof. We have the best of our popular dishes on the menu, which have become favorites here too.
Everyone wants to cook like Jean–Georges. What’s your secret?
For me, 80 percent of delicious food comes down to good ingredients. With the right herbs, the right fish, meat, or whatever, you don’t have to do much to it. As a chef, when you add spice, it makes a dish personal. When I cook food, I want each bite to pop. I want the first bite to be as exciting as the last one. Every bite should be inspiring.
Every bite should be inspiring.
To give you an example, a lot of people ask about my asparagus. When you cook asparagus, you boil it, you shove it in ice water, and then you put it in the fridge for two to three hours. You reheat it and then serve it. But if instead, you drop asparagus in the water with a little bit of salt for a couple of minutes before you serve it, people will have never tasted anything more delicious.
The simple procedure of cooking in that minute, as opposed to preparing food, keeping it in the fridge, and then serving it, makes all the difference. I think if you accept that it is easier in a restaurant to prep everything, cook ahead of time, put everything in the fridge, and then reheat it, you’re losing about 50 percent of your taste.
Where do you source ingredients in Dubai?
We work with a local farm. The fish market in Sharjah is spectacular. I also love the little boats around the spice market, where I tried zaatar this morning.
I tried zaatar this morning.
Do you think any dishes will come out of the ingredients that you’ve experienced in the Middle East?
For sure. Spices have always been an interest of mine. I think it is a bit different here, because you can’t use any alcohol in the cooking, so you have to adapt the dishes. And you know what, they still taste great.
Let’s talk about one of your most beloved desserts – the salted-caramel popcorn sundae. How did it come to be?
It was created with a lady that I met about six years ago. We were sitting down talking about creating a new addition to the menu. I said my favourite is a candy bar. I love nuts, I love peanuts, I love caramel, I love chocolate. So I said you have to create something that’s not boring and not a typical dessert. And she said, “Chocolate fudge, salted caramel ice cream, added popcorn, and then some peanuts”.
Any advice for aspiring chefs?
Listen to the customer. Bring it all. I think the chef should always bring his or her personal touch to a dish. Cuisine is very personal. If I give you a recipe for a sandwich, you’re going to do it with your touch. If you give me the recipe, you’re going to lose 30 percent of the recipe. Food is really personal. So even if you take ten chefs with the same recipe, you will see everybody doing it differently. It differs from kitchen to kitchen. My mom will teach me to cook something one way and I will have one flavor, and I go to my sister’s and she has a completely different interpretation of the same dish. In a restaurant, it’s all about balancing this and maintaining consistency.