"The world is your palate. To be creative, you have to have an open mind. The role of a chef is to come up with his own combinations,” says Jean-Georges Vongerichten, one of New York’s most celebrated chefs.
He was in town for the opening of The Dempsey Cookhouse & Bar at COMO Dempsey earlier this month – his first restaurant in Southeast Asia. For the record, Jean-Georges owns 34 restaurants worldwide, including Jean Georges, a three-Michelin-stars restaurant at 1 Central Park West on the lobby level of the Trump International Hotel and Tower, in New York City.He also has three restaurants in Asia: one in Shanghai, one in Hong Kong, and one at JG Tokyo in Roppongi Hills. The 30-seater restaurant showcases the freshest local and seasonal seafood from Tsukiji Fish Market and the surrounding areas. There are 14 exclusive counter seats, in front of an ultra-modern exhibition style open kitchen, which allow guests to go for the Jean-Georges 13-course Omakase experience.
“Japan has been a great influence to me and Japanese food is on the top of my list,” says the chef. He attributes this love to how Japanese restaurants tend to be very focused on specific types of cooking. “You [can] go to special restaurants, so when you go for sushi, you only have sushi. Then there’s yakitori, shabu-shabu, tempura –I like these focused, small bites."
But this love is not only limited to Japan. He says: "All the countries in Asia inspire me. I love soy sauce, I love ginger."
He first came to Asia at the age of 23, armed with an Alsace background and classical French training, landing in Bangkok in 1980. The aim? To explore spices, such as lemongrass, gingers, chillies that were not native to France.
What followed was training stints in Bangkok’s Oriental Hotel, the Meridien Hotel in Singapore and the Mandarin Hotel in Hong Kong.
"My grandmother was making cookies with spices. Spices do not grow in Europe, or Alsace where I come from. We do not have black pepper, star anise, cinnamon, so I have to go to the source, to see fresh ones."
In fact, he was so excited that upon landing in Bangkok back in 1980, he asked his taxi to stop four times en route to the hotel. “There were street vendors along the road. I come from France and there are no street vendors. I ate Thai food and nothing else. I just want to learn more about the cuisine."
One particular herb that stood out was coriander, which he thought tasted “like soap” at first. But so lasting is the impression that it has become one of his favourite ingredients today.
"My philosophy is about having the best ingredients, and a personal touch. My foundation is French, but I borrow flavour from all over Asia,” he says. “Southeast Asia is my biggest influence."
His is a classic tale of going from tradition to something totally innovative after interacting with Asian ingredients. He concocted, in his own words, an "explosive" combination, from a spoon of soy sauce and a spoon of butter. Seemingly from contrasting worlds and cultures, but to him, the best combination ever.
"The second combination was foie gras, paired with ginger sauce and caramelised mango. Foie gras is usually served with apple, but ginger, mango and foie gras was perfect. My head was spinning with the possibilities."
He's made a couple of trips to Singapore in the 80s and has fond memories of including of "old buildings, shophouses and markets".
The old buildings, he says, are fewer in number now, “But the flavours are still here. Singapore’s modern appeal and burgeoning culinary scene is a dream for top chefs, the country is only 50 years old but the flavours you get are unbelievable. I bring 20 dishes here but bring back 20 ideas to New York. I feel blessed to be able to share my experience wherever I go."
Inspired by Dempsey Hill
In Singapore, Jean-Georges has created an effortlessly elegant restaurant, inspired by Dempsey Hill’s natural surroundings as well as the city’s multi-cultural and cosmopolitan background.
Designed by renowned architect and designer, Paola Navone, the casual but refined 5,845-square foot restaurant-and-bar has a seating capacity of 160. Signature elements like an open kitchen elevates the cooking process into performance art, while communal dining makes the experience more familial and relaxed. But just because he had Navone’s guiding eye didn’t mean he took a hands-off approach.
"When I was young I wanted to be either an architect or chef. I think it’s very important to create a mood. Because a restaurant is a whole experience. So I was involved in the selection of every teaspoon, down to the floor, the lights, the glassware – everything you touch."
“Over here in Dempsey, the setup is Singapore in the 1920s-30s in a black and white colonial house. The area used to be military barracks for the British so we try to give a little flavour of the past and the present."
The menu he curated showcases the culinary innovations and refined style that runs deep within the DNA of every Jean-Georges restaurant. Diners can expect his indulgent signatures such as the Egg Caviar, and the Black Truffle and Fontina Pizza. An exquisite curation of his unique cocktails and specialty concoctions inspired by Asian flavours, complement the contemporary menu.
“We hope that every guest can taste the passion that is infused in every morsel.”
Tips On Innovation And Creativity
The very affordable menu also showcases his belief that a chef's role is to make a new flavour with a familiar ingredient, he says.
“For me it's about colours and flavours. Try things. Be bold. I take the best of what suits me, everybody is an individual so it’s very personal.”
Solid grounding with kitchen techniques and patience is also important.
“When you start cooking in the first ten years, you really absorb techniques, whatever, whoever is your mentor who teaches you. After a while, with your experience and your palate of flavours, you create new things. It doesn't come right away.”
More so, it is open mindedness and generosity that will lend chefs in good stead.
“When you get older, you get more open to the world. Try to share things, be more generous. My message to the young chefs would be: if you are passionate about it, it's the best job in the world.”
Block 17D Dempsey Road Singapore 249676