The Next Generation: The Vongerichtens

November 8, 2013
by Kathleen Squires

They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Jean-Georges Vongerichten and his son Cedric prove the old adage, even though father did his best to prevent son from landing anywhere within the vicinity of his own branches. Despite Jean-Georges’s efforts, however, Cedric Vongerichten, a one-time 30 Under 30 honoree, wanted to be just like his award-winning dad, whose restaurant empire includes three dozen restaurants from ABC Cocina in New York City to Spice Market in Qatar. Realizing that he also rebelled against his own father’s wishes, Jean-Georges eventually welcomed Cedric into his restaurant family, too. Both Jean-Georges, 56, and Cedric, 32, shared the secret to their collaboration, which now feels as natural as an freshly-picked McIntosh.

Jean-Georges: I was the oldest of the boys in a family of four. And at the time, the oldest always took over the business from his father just because he was the oldest boy. I was supposed to take over my father’s business, which was heating and coal. So they sent me to an engineering school and I hated every minute of it. I was so bad in school that after five months, they let me go because there was no interest. I was 15 and I didn't know what to do with myself.

My father was really mad at me. He said, “Oh my god. What are we going to do with him? He's good for nothing. No good for school. No good for anything!” A couple months after, my parents took me for my 16th birthday to a three-star Michelin restaurant. When the chef came to say hello at the table, he said, “Listen, we're looking for somebody to clean dishes.” We rarely went to restaurants when I grew up and for me, it was a revelation because then, I didn't know you could make a living out of food. I started work there the next week for a trial and the rest is history. I think for me at first, it was about looking for an escape. I wanted to leave home. I wanted to be on my own. I wanted to be independent. Eventually it became a passion and a profession for me.

Cedric: As I was applying for cooking school, my father was talking to my mother, saying, “Why are you letting him go in that direction? He should go to be a doctor, a dentist.” We had this whole discussion over the phone. He was in New York City and I was in France at that time. Since we were talking on the phone, he couldn't really stop me from doing it and I was a little stubborn. His dissuading me made me 100% want to go in that direction even more. But at the end of day, it was more of a passion also. I think I made the best choice for my life.

JGV: In the beginning, I wanted to discourage Cedric because it's not an easy life. You work until midnight. You work the holidays. You work when everybody else is at home watching TV and eating. It's not for everyone, so I tried to push him away to be a lawyer or doctor or something else, something where you could have a life because it's difficult to have a life when you're a restaurateur.

CV: Now that I look back, I understand what he meant by “Go do something else. Don't do it because it is tough.” Maybe it was a way of him testing to see if this is really what I wanted. I guess I proved him wrong.

JGV: I also have a daughter who just got her MBA in business and hospitality, but she's not sure what she wants to do yet. She's the smart one in the family, so I don't know, she could be in the hotel business or restaurant business. So here I am - I try to push everybody away and everybody's doing it.

CV: The reason why probably I chose that path was because of my memories of the restaurant Lafayette. When my father was chef there, we lived in the [Drake] hotel above it. That was our home, at the hotel. So every day after school, I spent some time in the kitchen and I would be making pastries. I remember little shaped carrots for the carrot cakes we were doing at that time. I was 9 years old. And I loved it.

JGV: I tried to make him understand what it is all about. So when Cedric was about 18, I sent him around to different restaurants. He went to Hong Kong. He went to the Bahamas. He went to London. So I tried to put him in each place during an opening or holidays, simply to discourage him. But he became more interested, so it was a mistake to send him around to check out things.

CV: At every restaurant I learned different skills. When I was in the Bahamas, it was mostly to do a lot of butchering - all the fresh fish and all the meat. I did that for six months, only butchering. So I really perfected the technique. And in London, I started working on the hot appetizer station. We all had to know how to manage your station and how to time everything and how to run the line. Then in Hong Kong, I was working with different ingredients I had never seen before. I feel like he almost had a plan for me, like a schedule.

JGV: When I started, I had to travel to see everything and to learn about everything. I was 23 when I went to Thailand to work for the Oriental Hotel in 1980. I really wanted to travel to learn about spices, about lemongrass, about ginger and really see and test and get inspired. Today, you go to the internet if you want to know about tamarind or you want to know about ginger. It gives you not only where it comes from or how you grow it, but 10,000 recipes, 10,000 inspirations. At the time, I had to go to the library and I had to travel for the information about an ingredient and its seasonality.

CV: Our approaches to cooking are similar, in terms of the ingredients, for sure. His wife is Korean. My wife is Indonesian. Both cultures like using high notes in the spice. So we definitely like to use chili in almost everything, and a little acidity also, so it's a well-balanced dish. I feel like I'm much more daring in terms of techniques we use - I like to use the newest techniques. But at the end of the day, we’re similar in the plating, and using the finest ingredients and making the dish well-balanced.

JGV: Working together…sometimes we don't have to say much to be on the same channel. Sometimes we just have to look at each other when we do an event to understand each other. Sometimes it is hard, though. Sometimes I don't want to hurt his feelings, but I want to be honest as well. So you're still parenting no matter what. Even if your kid is 40 and you're 65, you're always still parenting him.

CV: If I give him a dish, he tries it, and if it sucked, he will say something like, “it sucked.” It's a more open communication and better trust knowing that you have your son or father in your location.

JGV: I want Cedric to grow and maybe take over little by little what I do. I see us collaborating maybe on a collection of restaurants, too. I have big dreams for him, so let's see. Only time will tell, you know. I'm a very challenging guy and he is very humble and nice. The most important quality, I think, in this business is you need a team in the restaurant, and he's an amazing team player. He teaches people around him and he wants everybody to be happy around him. A happy chef makes happy food. And I’m very proud of him.

CV: I have two children and I would love if they got into the business someday. I definitely would love to help them. It would be great to have a third generation following up.

JGV: I don't say anything anymore because I told my own children that they should be something else and nobody listened. So I don't think my grandchildren are going to listen to me. I guess I didn’t listen to my father, either. I feel like if you feel passion for something, follow your passion. Passion speaks first.