IN the Friends episode called The One Where Ross Can’t Flirt (Season Five, obviously), Chandler divulges to Ross that he has scored dinner reservations at Jean Georges to celebrate his ten-month anniversary with Monica.
Jean Georges is the Manhattan restaurant owned by Jean Georges Vongerichten, an Alsace-born, New York-based celebrity chef. To have penetrated pop culture to this degree (Friends!) is clearly a sign of power. But Vongerichten’s influence is not limited to soap operas or fad: in terms of sheer volume (he now has 29 restaurants) and quality (his Jean Georges flagship in Manhattan has three Michelin stars and was given an almost unheard of four stars by the New York Times on opening in 1998), his power is inarguable.
Vongerichten’s style took a different direction in New York (he also has restaurants in Las Vegas, Boston, Atlanta, Doha and Shanghai) with the opening of the Spice Market – South-East Asian food done with glamorous panache and above averagely attractive waiters.
So the opening of a Spice Market at the new W Hotel, the splashiest hotel to open in London (Leicester Square, no less) in ages, is a big deal. We catch up with the super-chef during his short stay in London to launch the restaurant.
WHAT IS YOUR INSPIRATION FOR THE SPICE MARKET?
I spent five years in Asia before opening in New York. I was in Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan – it was life changing. The restaurant recreates a blend of memories.
ISN’T PAN-ASIAN FOOD AS A CATEGORY A BIT PAST-IT?
It’s not pan-Asian. It’s South-East Asian – the spices and aromas of South-East Asian street food were my inspiration. The result is 80 per cent Asian, 20 per cent American/French.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE SPICE MARKET DISH?
Black pepper shrimp with oven-dried pineapple is a great one - based on a Singaporian dish. The best Asian food for me is the stuff you find outside temples and in markets.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE FOOD OF TODAY?
Food today is very personal. My menu, for example, comes from my dreams, my experiences. My voyage. The little lady or guy cooking on the side of the temples I visited. And in terms of ingredients, globalisation means that everyone now has some ginger in their larder. It’s no longer exotic.
HOW DID YOU GET FROM CLASSICAL FRENCH COOKING TO SOUTH-EAST ASIAN STREET-FOOD?
My soul is classically trained, but as you grow, you pick things up on the road. And when you have an economic crisis, people want simple things – farm to table. Most restaurants that have opened in New York City since the recession have been Italian because it’s back to basics. Chicken samosas and black pepper shrimp can be basics, too.
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE LONDON AS A LOCATION FOR A SPICE MARKET?
The Asian influence is so integrated into the food scene here. Londoners have grown up with more Asian influence so they understand the appeal. Also the ingredients taste stronger – you’re getting lemongrass, galangal and ginger straight from Asia, not from Florida and California.
THERE ARE A LOT OF BIG ASIAN HOTELS OPENING IN PARIS. HOW ABOUT A SPICE MARKET THERE?
I don’t know about Paris. The energy in London is different. The French are not as open to other food. Nobody grew up in France eating Indian food/spicy food – Spice Market is too Asian, they’re not used to it. New York and London are much more open.
WHY THE W?
I have a partnership with Starwood, the hotel group that owns the W – I help them develop restaurants in their hotels. But I also love the location of the W, right by Chinatown. We are just round the corner from that authentic spice market.
ARE YOU WORRIED ABOUT APPEARING OVER-THE-TOP IN CONSCIENTIOUS TIMES?
These are different times and you have to be cautious. It’s not like the 90s and early [naughties]. Appearance-wise, there is sexy lighting; the room is coppery but not too gilded. But it’s also what’s on our menu. We only have sustainable fish, for example. We care about finding small farmers to supply. Yes, it’s more work. But it’s exciting: it’s the future. We want our children to be eating great food on a healthier planet, after all. In New York you hear of a lot of Wall Street people who lose their jobs and go become farmers. It’s very compelling.