Jean-Georges Vongerichten

Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten had just climbed Camelback Mountain, the landmark icon of Phoenix, Arizona — and a really tough hike.

“I wish we had a mountain like Camelback next to the restaurant in New York,” he said. “I’d climb it every day.”

The Michelin-starred chef and savvy restaurateur was in town to cook a dinner in his honor at J&G Steakhouse at The Phoenician resort, as part of the 33rd Annual Scottsdale Culinary Festival.

When I suggested he could take the stairs instead, he replied that there are 80 floors at the Trump Tower where his eponymous restaurant is located. Besides, he loves the outdoors, so it wouldn’t be the same.

Vongerichten oversees a vast empire of restaurants (Jeans Georges, JoJo, Vong, Spice Market, and ABC Kitchen, among others in New York) and is partnered in many more around the the country — and the world for that matter, including Jean Georges Shanghai. Another J&G Steakhouse will open at the St. Regis in Mexico City later this year.

He has another cookbook (his 5th) in the works, too, based on his cooking at home for friends and family, which will be released in October.

His Jean-Georges Cooking at Home with a Four-Star Chef (1998) is one of my favorite cookbooks by a celebrity chef. The recipes are blessedly simple considering the cuisine. Perhaps that’s because Vongerichten partnered with Mark Bittman.

“Our food is simple as it is, but Mark showed me that my recipes were really two or three recipes, so he helped me simplify it further, and make it accessible to home cooks. He helped me with my cooking, too. It was a little more elaborate before collaborating with Mark. Less is more,” he said.

His favorite recipe in that book is a sauce that he still uses today. It’s a raisin-caper sauce, made by plumping raisins and pureeing them with capers and a little sherry vinegar. It goes with most anything, especially fish and seafood.

“My favorite thing to do is create dishes. As a cook in a kitchen, working a station, you have to cook that same piece of fish or meat the same way over and over again. I did that for many years, but now I have the best job in my company, creating dishes,” he said.

For inspiration, Vongerichten walks the kitchen, tasting ingredients. That’s how the raisin-caper sauce came about. He’d just popped a raisin in his mouth from one station and picked up a caper from another. The two flavors exploded on his tongue, and he stopped in his tracks — a sauce was born.

“For me, 80% of my work is finding the best ingredients. The freshest piece of fish, the best meat, produce and eggs,” he says. “Add a little touch of chile and a little touch of acid. Use citrus or a hint of vinegar to make the flavors pop. It has to pop.”

Vongerichten loves chiles — all kinds — including serrano, poblano, Thai, Caribbean and Japanese chiles.

“For me, it is impossible to eat without chiles. I like to put a little chile in everything. The first bite should be as exciting as the last bite,” he said.

Vongerichten’s six-course Tribute Dinner at J&G Steakhouse began with three passed hors d’oeuvres, all featuring a different chile, little bites of mouth-tingling flavors.

The rest of the menu wasn’t as chile-centric but it was just as pleasing on the palate: egg toast caviar (top left); tuna tartare with avocado & ginger (top right); spring pea soup with Parmesan (bottom left); halibut with celeriac and jade emulsion; prime NY strip steak with coriander and sesame (bottom right) and a rhubarb & lychee trifle.

Vongerichten, who comes to Phoenix two or three times a year to work with the J&G Steakhouse staff, did get out to explore the Phoenix dining scene while he was here, stopping in at Pizzeria Bianco.

“It’s amazing pizza, but they gave me an antipasto with all warm, grilled vegetables. You don’t usually see warm vegetables. It’s usually served cold, but this was sublime. Really excellent,” he said.

Traveling five to seven days each month gives the chef an opportunity to return to his home base in New York refreshed and inspired by his travels.

Who knows, maybe a warm antipasto plate, in some variation, will show up on the ABC Kitchen menu, a New York restaurant focused on local farmers and producers.

And it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if a little chile was on the platter, too.
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