Jean-Georges Vongerichten
Images: Lateef Photography

Meet the chef: Jean-Georges Vongerichten of Abc Kitchens

15 Apr 2024 | |By Annie Lewis

We sit down with one of the world’s most celebrated French chefs to discuss his 50 years in the game

Jean-Georges Vongerichten wasn’t always destined to be a chef. He admits that himself as we sit down to chat in the marmalade-hued dining room he is about to open at The Emory hotel. He once, in fact, intended to take over his family’s coal business in the north-eastern French region of Alsace, where he grew up with his three siblings. The idea didn’t last long. “It was too dirty for me,” he chuckles, gesturing to his spotless chef whites. 

Instead, Vongerichten followed a very different career path, landing his first job at the three Michelin-starred French restaurant Auberge de l’Ill shortly after his 16th birthday. While precise cooking was foreign, a busy kitchen atmosphere was not, having grown up with his mothers, aunts and grandmothers cooking feasts for the 16 members of his family that lived under one roof. His fond memories of simple, delicious food informed the ethos behind his signature restaurant brand, Abc Kitchens, which, he says, “goes back to the ‘abc’ of cooking”. 

Today, Vongerichten has more than 60 restaurants across the world to his name but Abc is his signature brand. It started in New York with the flagship farm-to-table Abc Kitchen, which opened 14 years ago, quickly followed by the South American-inspired Abc Cocina and then the vegan AbcV. For the first time, at The Emory hotel in Knightsbridge, Vongerichten is bringing the trilogy together under one roof. Though the three restaurants showcase different culinary offerings, they share the same philosophy: a commitment to sustainable and ethically-sourced local produce, removing the traditional (and classically French) use of rich meat stocks and creams, instead imparting flavour via vegetable juices, fruit essences, light broths, and herbal vinaigrettes. 

Overseeing the menu under Vongerichten’s stewardship will be executive head chef Ben Boeynaems, serving ingredient-led menus – think crab toast dressed with green chilli, crispy fish tacos served alongside cabbage-apple slaw, and chargrilled beef tenderloin with chimichurri and lime – in a serene 55-cover setting and private dining room designed by renowned French architect Rémi Tessier and with artworks by Damien Hirst. 

While this isn’t Vongerichten’s first London restaurant opening – he’s also over at The Connaught Grill – this is the first time he’s opening a collective. So, how does he feel about it? And, after 51 years in the cheffing game, what’s the biggest lesson he’s learnt? 

Tell me about your childhood. What's your earliest food memory?

I was a bad boy, a delinquent. My parents had a coal business that supplied the village. I would always have soot on me from head to toe. At the time there were still three generations living under one roof – grandparents, parents and kids – so at the dinner table there were always 15-16 people. There was lots of food – it was like a mini restaurant as my mum would cook for so many people everyday. It was a little chaotic and my bedroom was right above the kitchen so I could always smell it. I would wake up in the morning and know what my mother was cooking – cabbage, roast pork, potatoes. The food was very uncomplicated and wouldn’t be plated, so in the middle of the table there would be a big pot we all shared.

What encouraged you to get into cheffing?

My family was in the coal business and I was meant to go to an engineering school to take on the company. I was the eldest boy – my sister was older but I had two younger brothers – and my father took over the company from his father, so when I was born I was predestined to take it over. I hated it – my parents were always talking about it and I said I didn’t want to be in it.

My parents took me to a high-end, three-Michelin star restaurant for my 16th birthday. It was a revelation for me because we never went to a restaurant because the family was too big and I didn’t know you could make a living out of food. I saw the cutlery, the waiters and the food and thought it was amazing. When the chef came to the table and asked how everything was, my mum asked if they needed anyone to wash dishes because ‘my son is good for nothing’. I was lucky because the chef said they were looking for an apprentice and asked if I could come the following week for a trial. I went, was running around like a lunatic to help everybody and after a month they gave me the job. I was very lucky to start in a three-Michelin star restaurant – it was my lucky star.

What did you like about the kitchen environment?

It reminded me of home because there were always lots of people in the kitchen, but perhaps just not as chaotic. I started in pastry because you have to weigh everything, and I never actually had to wash dishes. I started doing all the desserts, from souffle to ice cream. I stayed there for three years, then went to Asia for five years, London for a year and then New York.

"It took me about 10 years to know what I was doing in the kitchen, but I feel cooks today are just ready – I love that and think it’s amazing."

Jean-Georges Vongerichten
Tell me about Abc Kitchens.

I wanted to go back to the ‘abc’ of cooking – the roots and the basics to create simple and uncomplicated dishes. That was 14 years ago [in New York] and then 10 years ago we did Abc Cocina which followed the same ethos but Latin-inspired so we have food from the likes of Peru and Mexico. Both restaurants were very vegetable forward so then I was encouraged to open a vegan restaurant, so I did.

And the three are now together under one roof for the first time at The Emory?

When [the Maybourne Group] asked me six years ago [to be part of the hotel], I suggested we do a trilogy so there’s something for everyone. There’s a lot of young people now who are vegetable forward, enjoy Latin flavours and [Knightsbridge] is a familiar area so we decided to open the trilogy here. We have chef Ben Boeynaems in the kitchen and he came to New York for four months to train with us, and he’s the one who’s sourcing everything.

What did you want to bring to London with this restaurant?

The flavour of New York with local ingredients. This is the best time to open because it’s spring and everything is sprouting, from English peas to wild garlic. Good food is always about the product, and our dishes aren’t complicated.

What’s your favourite dish on the menu?

I love our pea guacamole, scallop tartare and a beet carpaccio made up of all different beetroots – white, yellow, striped and red – and seasoned like a steak tartare with pickles and shallots. I’m trying to finalise the menu but can’t because every morning Ben comes in with something else!

What’s your favourite London restaurant?

The River Café – it’s uncomplicated and the product speaks for itself.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in your career?

In 51 years of cooking, I’d say it’s about sourcing the right ingredients, going back to Mother Earth and taking care of it, and finding great talent like Ben. When I started, I had to travel the world to learn about cuisines and buy books. It took me about 10 years to know what I was doing in the kitchen, but I feel cooks today are just ready – I love that and think it’s amazing. Progress is great.


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