Gordon Ramsey calls him his gourmet hero and he has earned the respect of food critics worldwide thanks to his innovative and ground-breaking cuisine. Now French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten – who has been dubbed as one of the world's culinary masterminds – is gearing up to make his restaurant debut in the Middle East, Emirates Business can exclusively reveal.
"I flew to Dubai last week, and I actually shared a plane with Gordon [Ramsey], and he said: 'What are you doing here?'" Jean-Georges says. "It was my first time in Dubai and it was crazy; my head is still spinning. Starwood showed me a couple of projects of theirs at Dubai Festival City and The Palm Jumeirah. They want me to open my restaurant, Jean-Georges, on The Palm."
Jean-Georges is referring to the deal he and his business partner Phil Suarez signed with Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide and Catterton Partners, a consumer-focused private-equity company that owns, operates, manages and licenses restaurants in Starwood properties worldwide, including Sheraton, Le Meridien, Westin and W hotels.
The chef's contract calls for the opening of 56 restaurants, including seven Spice Market outlets, his famous Southeast Asian street food-inspired chain, where you can order everything from Thai lemongrass soup with shrimp to Malaysian cod with chilli sauce.
We meet Jean-Georges at the opening of his newest Spice Market at the launch of W Istanbul, the very first W hotel in Starwood's Europe, Middle East and Africa region. He is getting ready to cater for 600 guests at the launch party that night, joking that catering for that number is "like a vacation for me".
He continues: "We started Spice Market about four years ago in New York, and it encompasses memories of the fabulous time I spent in Asia: in Bangkok, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and Tokyo. Spice Market was a dream of mine because I had always wanted a big place that felt like a spice market. Starwoods liked the concept, so they pushed the partnership."
And no other hotel seemed more appropriate for the restaurant than the W Istanbul, considering the Turkish capital is home to many of the world's best-known spices. "When they told me about W Istanbul, I was like, 'Wow, Spice Market belongs there, because the original spice market was in Turkey. All the spices that were transported to Europe or Asia came through Istanbul."
The UAE and Qatar are the next stops for him on the map in the region. He opens a Spice Market at the W in Doha, Qatar, this September, and then the Emirates is next. And Dubai is particularly exciting for Jean-Georges if his official blog is anything to go by, where he writes: "Already well-established as a buzzing metropolis, Dubai continues to grow its luxury market. That's where I come in. Given the city's appeal, I may open even more than one spot."
He elaborates to us: "I loved Dubai. It's like a new era over there. It was amazing. The city consists of handsome, elegant clientele who are open to trying new things.
"What's great about cities such as Istanbul, Dubai, New York or London is that people go out every day, so they want variety. Today you want Arabic food, tomorrow you want sushi, and then the day after something else."
Refreshingly, Jean-Georges has not taken the "celebrity chef" route to get where he is today, avoiding reality television shows and food programmes, acquiring his reputation through his remarkable talent for creating inventive dishes. "I won't be popular because I'm not good at cursing and viewers won't understand my accent," he jokes. "I get some proposals for shows, but it takes two months of your life and I couldn't do it. If somebody gave me something for a day or two, I would do it, but longer than that is impossible. I don't know how Gordon does it."
He was 32 years old when he opened his very first restaurant, JoJo, in New York in 1991; it was immediately named Best New Restaurant of the Year. Another notable achievement was opening his signature Jean-Georges restaurant at the Trump International Hotel and Tower in 1997. He earned a rare four-star review from The New York Times less than three months after opening, and the Chef of the Year Award from John Mariani at Esquire magazine. Jean-Georges remains one of three restaurants in the city awarded four stars by The New York Times and three stars by the Michelin Guide.
But the chef insists that the key to his success in the business is simply not rushing into things. "If you believe in it, you can do it. You have to have determination, but I think the real key was that I didn't rush things," he says. "I spent 15 years just cooking, and when I mastered my craft I was ready to take the next step, where I could make money with it, and I did. I arrived in New York with $500; now I have a $120-million company.
"I also think that quality is very important. If you don't have quality or consistency, your brand's not going to be very good either," he adds, pre-empting our question about whether a dish tastes different in different parts of his empire.
He says, however, that he had to go to business school to study how to make it in the cutthroat world of the food industry. "When I left school I was 16, so my business experience was zero. I went back to school to learn how to run a restaurant. I was attending school with kids, and it was a three-month crash course on how to run a business. Then I opened my first restaurant in New York in 1991, and I haven't stopped since."
Eighteen years on, he is still passionate about the business side of his profession. "It's so exciting – it's the best," he says, his eyes lighting up. "I cook about six hours a day, which keeps me grounded; that's my love, and my passion, but I love the business too. Business is innovative for a chef. If you don't have a business, you're nothing, then you have to be a chef in a hotel, or a chef for somebody else."
But he insists his success has not changed him. "I'll always be a cook," he says. "I came into the business 35 years ago, because I like to please people. To see somebody eating and enjoying themselves is 'it' for me. Owning restaurants is just part of the equation."
Non-celebrity chefs who have made it big
Ferran Adrià: He began his career in 1980 as a dishwasher, but today, Adrià is considered one of the best chefs in the world and tops the European Restaurant Ranking. He runs El Bulli in Spain, which has three Michelin stars and is regarded as one of the best restaurants in the Western world. In 2006, the restaurant was awarded first place in the Restaurant Top 50, and has retained this title in 2007 and 2008.
Paul Haeberlin: The culinary world lost one of the greatest chefs of the 20th century, Paul Haeberlin, earlier this month. He was the owner of Auberge de l'Ill, which was first awarded a three-star Michelin Rating in 1967 and continues to hold that status till present. On his blog, Jean-Georges pays tribute to him, saying: "I simply wouldn't be who I am and where I am without my great mentor and friend."
Anne-Sophie Pic: In a world where the restaurant industry is very much male-dominated, Anne-Sophie Pic provided a welcome change to the stereotype when she became the first woman chef in 50 years to be awarded three Michelin stars for her French establishment, La Maison Pic, in 2007. She continues to be one of the most respected chefs of our generation with her seafood cuisine.