I have a thing for audiobooks. I always have one playing in my car radio. Recently I devoured — not once, but twice — “JGV: A Life in 12 Recipes,” by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who at age 62 recounts his journey as a chef and restaurateur through 12 recipes.
Vongerichten has become one of the world’s most famous chefs, but his skills extend far beyond the kitchen. A savvy businessman and restaurateur, he is responsible for the operation and success of a constellation of three- and four-star restaurants worldwide.
I believe the book should be required reading for culinary students. While you’ll discover how he developed his style of cooking, which has influenced chefs all over the world, the book is more than a memoir. It’s an eye-opening look into the world’s greatest restaurant kitchens and filled with lessons learned.
Vongerichten grew up in Alsace, France, where his mother fed her family and the employees of the family- owned coal mine business. She served a three-course lunch for 40 at 12:30 p.m. and a dinner for 20 at 7:30 p.m.
His mother taught him the most important skills of cooking. For instance, “She told me a sauce must be three times as powerfully flavored as the meat you’re serving it with,” he writes.
Her secret ingredient for goose stew, one of his favorite dishes of hers? Leftover coffee. Later he would use coffee and chicory for steaks and other meats at his Michelin-star eateries.
She also influenced him about how to taste food.
“It’s a matter of understanding the salt level, the level of acidity, the intensity of the spice or pepper, and the ideal balance between these three fundamental components,” he writes.
Vongerichten’s first restaurant job was at age 16 in one of the best restaurants in France, L’Auberge de l’Ill, where he had an epiphany.
“This is where I belong,” he writes. “I knew it. I thought, this is going to be my life.”
He credits Louis Outhier, owner of Restaurant L’Oasis in the south of France, as the chef who most influenced him. It was Outhier who taught him the meaning of a la minute — dishes prepared at the moment. That meant there were no stocks or even vegetables prepared ahead of time at his eatery.
“We could not even mince a shallot before an order was placed,” he writes.
Other chefs he worked under make his resume sound like a roll call of the most famous chefs. One is Paul Bocuse in Lyon. Vongerichten perfected Bocuse’s famous poulard de Bresse en vessie — a whole chicken laced with truffles and cooked in an animal bladder.
But Vongerichten became known for his Asian flavors, and that began with Outhier, who sent the 23-year-old chef to open a French restaurant in Bangkok. Vongerichten fell in love with Asian street food, with its new-to-him flavors of ginger, galangal, coconut milk and Thai chili paste.
“This is how my style of cooking was born,” he writes. “Tom Yum Kung is the soup that changed my life, and is a lesson in simplicity. So simple, yet I make it for my best chefs today, those who have been with me for years, and still they taste, they shake their heads and marvel.”
In 1986, Outhier sent Vongerichten to Manhattan to open Lafayette in the Drake Hotel, which earned four stars from The New York Times when he was just 29. In 1991 ,he launched his first restaurant in the Upper East Side, a bistro called JoJo. It was named Best New Restaurant of the Year and earned three stars from The New York Times. During the years hence, he has opened 26 restaurants in the U.S. including New York City, Bridgehampton and Pound Ridge, N.Y., Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Miami Beach and Los Angeles. Plus more international places in 11 countries.
The book includes a link to a PDF with recipes, which I downloaded. The recipes alone are worth the $26.95 price tag for the book. Each of the 12 are pages long with detailed directions for culinary techniques and hand drawings for plating.
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