What's NOT on My Resume: Jean-Georges Vongerichten

By Kathleen Squires  |  December 26, 2013

No one starts out on top, especially in the food business. In this weekly column, chefs and restaurateurs across the country share the stories of their humble beginnings.

One of the most recognizable chefs in the world, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, likes to tell the story about how his failure as an engineering student sparked a promising career in the culinary world. Due to poor performance after only five months of attendance, he was asked to leave school. “My father was so upset,” the Alsatian-born chef remembers. “He thought I was good for nothing.” Shortly thereafter, while celebrating his 16th birthday at the famous Auberge de L’ill with his parents, Jean-Georges’ father half-jokingly proposed his son as a dishwasher to the chef, who was looking for some extra hands. The adrift, young Jean-Georges leapt at the opportunity. “I thought I was going be washing dishes for two years, and that is absolutely not what happened. Believe it or not, they taught me right away,” he says, incredulously. “It started with six months of learning how to hold and to use a knife.”

Then Jean-Georges was put on depluming duty. “I plucked and cleaned all the chickens, which is not easy. You have to learn how to do it without ripping off the skin.” The six months of honing his knife skills then came in handy for cleaning carcasses of whole animals brought in from hunters, before moving on to the more delicate work of deboning fish. “I never saw a filet of fish before - fish was always brought in whole,” he remembers. “Today, most restaurants get everything - meat, poultry, fish already cleaned. Not then. I had to do it.”

Vongerichten went on to work his way up in kitchen stations all through Europe and Asia, before founding the international restaurant empire that made him a household name. Ironically, he says those very first experiences brought him to where he is today, which is preparing to open his first vegetarian restaurant in New York City. Even so, he stresses that all of that butchering gave him his base. “I did not consider these dirty jobs,” he says. “They were just learning jobs. These are the jobs that really taught me the basics.”