From Cabbage and Sausage to Spices and Seaweed

World-famous chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten built his cooking empire on the foundation of his rural French childhood kitchen that was steeped in the aromas of cabbage, potatoes and sausage.

Vongerichten is responsible for the operation of three- and four-star restaurants in the United States, United Kingdom and Shanghai. He owns 18 restaurants worldwide that employ about 2,200 people and handle more than 20,000 covers a week.

His palate for good food, he said, was borne out of the cooking of his mother and grandmother.

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Vongerichten and Phil Suarez, his business partner of 16 years, recently opened his restaurant Matsugen, a New York City-based Japanese restaurant where he stepped out of the kitchen and handed the chef duties to the Japanese Matsushita brothers and their team of chefs.

Vongerichten and Suarez have also collaborated on Culinary Concepts by Jean-Georges, a venture that creates international and multiconcept restaurants and businesses for the Starwood hotels and resorts including Lagoon at the Bora Bora St. Regis Resort and the Spice Market in New York City.

He's also published several books, including last year's "Asian Flavors of Jean-Georges" as well as being the chef-in-residence for CITY magazine.

From School to the Kitchen

Born in a small French town in Alsace on the border of Germany, the home-cooking that Vongerichten was used to consisted mostly of cabbage, potatoes and sausage.

His family settled in the area in the 1870s after a canal that used to haul coal to the area froze over one winter and stranded his ancestors. He likened his family's kitchen growing up to a "minirestaurant" where his mother and grandmother fed two to three dozen area workers and residents.

"My grandmother and my mother were cooking there every day -- 35 people for lunch, 20 for dinner. ... It was big ordeal every day. My room was right above the kitchen. So I would wake up in the morning and ... it was mostly potato, cabbage, sausages, things like that. I grew up with all these smells and really developed a nose for all these foods," Vongerichten recalled fondly.

In his teens Vongerichten bucked the family's central heating businesses by getting himself booted from engineer school. Instead, much to the surprise and chagrin of his father, he proclaimed his desire to spend his career in the kitchen.

"He said, 'You are crazy or what?'" Vongerichten remembered.

Father and son had chosen to dine at Auberge de l'Ill in Alsace for his 17th birthday and that's where he broke the news.

"And at the meal, the chef passed by all the tables and to see how everything was and then he arrived at my table and my father said, 'Listen my son is good for nothing, you know, do you have any room for him to peel potatoes? He said 'Yeah, give us a call next week,'" Vongerichten said. "A month later I started there. So it was very lucky."

Figuring he'd have to work his way up the ranks by doing the restaurant's dirty work, Vongerichten was pleased to instead learn the basics of food preparation. He skinned deer, stuffed salmon, prepared salads, learned about seasoning food.

"When you are passionate about something you're good at it from the get-go. I was passionate about learning how to do all the things and it was so new for me and so different from home," he said. "It took a long time, it took about seven years of cooking before I really said, 'Wow!'"

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