Just like Oprah, award-winning chef Jean-Georges needs no last name. (It’s Vongerichten, FYI.) Arguably the most famous chef in the world, Jean-Georges’ restaurant empire spans the globe, with restaurants and collaborations in nearly a dozen countries, including the legendary Jean-Georges restaurant and ABC Kitchen, both in New York City — as well as Chicago, where he’s the creative force behind the storied Pump Room in the Public hotel. (This is his second stint in our fair city; he collaborated with Lettuce Entertain You on Vong’s Thai Kitchen, which shuttered in 2009). Jean-Georges’ schedule keeps him on the move, but he stops through several times a year for menu development, then leaves the restaurant in the hands of executive chef Mousah Reaume. As he celebrates his 40th anniversary in the kitchen, Jean-Georges reflects on his time in the industry and gives us the scoop on the Pump Room’s new seasonal dishes.
Splash: You’re celebrating 40 years in the industry this year. How does it feel?
Jean-Georges: It went so fast! I’m ready for 40 more. My first day was July 13, 1973, and I was 16 years old.
S: How did you end up in the industry?
JG: My parents were coal distributors, and I was supposed to take over the business. I went to engineering school, but I was so bad at it they threw me out. My parents were mad at me for months. For my 16th birthday, we went to a restaurant. I saw the choreography of the waiters, the food — it opened something up inside of me. The chef came to the table and my dad said, ‘My son is good for nothing, if you need him to peel a potato.’ The chef said he needed an apprentice, so I went one day and ran around asking, ‘What can I do?’ The chef called my father and said, ‘He can start tomorrow.’ My dad dropped me off that morning at 8, and that was it.
S: And you lived in Asia for a while, didn’t you?
JG: I lived in Asia for five years. Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo. I arrived in New York in 1986, it was the only place I was comfortable. In ’86 in New York, and all over the states — aside from California — there weren’t many markets. Even Union Square in New York, there was like, some apples, some potatoes — nothing going on there. So the only place I was comfortable was in Chinatown. It’s just like being in Hong Kong. I was there everyday.
S: How does the Pump Room fit into your portfolio of restaurants?
JG: We wanted to make it relaxed, so we serve everything from tuna tartare to fried chicken. To have a restaurant in Chicago, especially the Pump Room, which is such an icon, to recreate it, it’s amazing. I’ve always loved Chicago. When Ian [Schrager, owner of the PUBLIC hotel] approached me about this, I was nervous. It’s like taking over the Plaza in New York, it’s such an icon. But I saw the design, and what was happening and I [wanted to do it].
S: What are some new dishes on the Pump Room’s summer menu?
JG: We change the menu every few months, but this is the most exciting season. We have about 20 new dishes. There’s a halibut with tomatoes, cucumbers and yogurt ($36), a salmon with miso and yuzu glaze ($29), crunchy calamari with ancho-chile glaze served on a bed of pea shoots ($12). For us, it’s all about the market. There are so many farmers, we try to use as many local ingredients as possible.
S: What’s your most popular Pump Room menu item?
JG: The truffle fontina pizza, with fontina cheese, truffles and truffle juice on a whole-wheat crust. If we took it off the menu, there would be a riot outside. But with any dish, if the first bite is not as exciting as the last, we don’t put it on the menu.
S: What do you like to eat at the end of a busy day?
JG: Simple stuff. Like tonight, we’re going to Big Star [1531 N. Damen, Bigstarchicago.com] to get a taco and beer, or a margarita. In New York, I’ll go to Chinatown and get a bowl of noodles, or some barbecue in Koreatown. Simple.
S: What’s your favorite way to spend your off time?
JG: I bought a country house — I worked six days a week for 35 years, so I decided to take a some weekends off. Finally [laughs]. I have friends and family up there. Actually, lots of ABC kitchen recipes came from the house. A lot of things come out when you’re cooking for friends and family. But I plate nothing, because I plate all week, so everything is family style.
S: Is there a particular dish you like to cook for friends and family at the country home?
JG: I love grilling a lot, so it’s mostly outdoor cooking. But it changes. Every weekend it’s something else. I’m a big fan of seafood, so I cook everything whole. When you grill a small piece of fish it dries out, so I keep it on the bone. I also develop a lot of sauces and a lot of chili sauces. Take Tabasco sauce, the most popular sauce in the world. It’s just a fermentation of chili, salt, vinegar. Even sriracha, which has become the new ketchup, that’s a fermented chili as well. So I love to work with chili. There are so many different types. I put chili on everything.
S: What do you still want to accomplish?
JG: I’d love to do a hotel one day. I feel like came to this world to pamper and to please people, to feed them. Here [at the restaurant], people spend 2-3 hours with us. But at a hotel, they’re spending much more time. I love doing breakfast, and Iove the little details in a place. A JG hotel would have all the amenities. I’ve learned in my travels. My food is very inspired by traveling; I know what I like.
S: What has been your biggest honor?
JG: Every review is an honor — if it’s a good review. [He laughs] No, but even the bad ones, you learn from them and make changes. You know, the bigger honors, the three Michelin stars, four stars from the New York Times, the James Beard awards — every time I get something it’s an honor.
S: Do you pay attention to Yelp and other online reviews?
JG: Of course! You can gauge what people like, what they don’t and change it hour to hour. What’s not working for lunch, you can change it for dinner. If people tweet a dish is a problem, you can take it right off the menu. With social media, everyone is a critic. Before we were stuck with one person judging you, and now it’s the whole world judging you. I love it.
S: Do you have any guilty food pleasures?
JG: I eat a piece of Lindt milk chocolate every night before I go to bed. It’s comforting for me. I can’t go to sleep without it.
1301 N. State, (312) 229-2740; Pumproom.com
Story by Molly Each | Food photos by Ramzi Dreessen
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