Photo courtesy of Jean Georges Management
Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten has attained that totem of cultural status: instant first-name ID. He’s amassed an international culinary empire anchored by his eponymous three-star Michelin Manhattan flagship. He’s opened two New York restaurants in the past six months: the farm-to-table-based ABC Kitchen and the casually refined The Mark. When he looked to purchase a weekend retreat for his family three years ago, he could have gone anywhere. He considered upstate, Shelter Island, and the Hamptons, but he chose Westchester. Diane Weintraub Pohl talks to him about everything from his Hudson Valley food vendors to taking some of Martha Stewart’s chickens.
So, why the move to Waccabuc?
I’d been working for thirty-five years, twelve to fourteen hours a day, six days a week, with only Sundays off, and decided I wanted to live my life a little. I thought it’s time to get a little place in the country, take two days off, and relax. I love this area; it’s so beautiful. I grew up in a house in the outskirts of Strasbourg, so to me, it’s like coming home again.
The house was the first one my wife saw. It was owned by an architect who had extended it upon on an old foundation and wanted to sell to someone who really loved it. We walked in the door and felt it was our dream house. It’s on four-point-three acres with a stream and a pond, where we fish. It’s just forty-seven miles from my home in the West Village, so I drive one hour and I’m there. It’s a perfect escape.
It sounds idyllic. What do you do there?
My nine-year-old daughter started horseback riding. I keep bees, grow vegetables, and want to get some chickens this year—they’re easy: they just eat and lay eggs. Martha Stewart [a Bedford neighbor] said she’d give me some of hers. We have wild berries in the woods and wild watercress near the stream. I’m going back to my roots.
Of course I have to ask: do you cook when you’re there? I can’t imagine you ordering takeout.
There’s a lot of cooking, a lot of friends. On summer holiday weekends like July 4, I’ll roast a suckling pig or baby lamb in the big pit outside. I don’t have many chefs coming up, because I see them every day in New York. My brother lives in Connecticut, so he comes to see me. We invite local friends with children. In winter, I go ice skating on my pond. Everything we do is like what I grew up with.
But you must sometimes get tired of cooking, even casually for friends. Where do you go when you want to be patron, not proprietor?
I like the brunch at The Barn at Bedford Post. They have great eggs; often Martha Stewart drops her eggs off there. And Peter Pratt [of Peter Pratt’s Inn], he’s a friend of mine. If my daughter is in the mood for pizza, we go to 121 Restaurant & Bar in North Salem. Sometimes I go to Vox Bar & Restaurant; the owners are French, so when I feel like speaking French and having steak au poivre or escargot, I go there. The kids can run around in the garden; it’s very family-oriented. And Blue Hill at Stone Barns has a wonderful Sunday lunch. Friends will say they come to visit me, but they really want to go to Stone Barns.
The Hudson Valley has become a Mecca for quality food products and high-profile farmers and purveyors. Whom do you patronize here?
I’m very familiar with the Hudson Valley area and know farmers for many years from the Union Square Greenmarket. I’ve shopped there since I arrived in New York in 1986. I buy from Honey Locust Farm House [Newburgh], from Rick Bishop [Mountain Sweet Berry Farm in Roscoe], and Paffenroth Farms [Warwick]. On Saturday morning, before I come up for the weekend, I go to Union Square, buy my vegetables, and bring them up here. I stop at Table Local Market in Bedford Hills, which sells all local products, and I’m stocked for the weekend. A neighbor here has a wine company in Chappaqua, Serge Dore Selections, and he brings in nice country wines from France, unusual things.
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Renowned chefs like Dan Barber and Andy Nusser have restaurants here. Do you think you would join them and open a place?
I don’t think so. I work very hard Monday through Friday, and it would take away from my weekends. I enjoy having my friends over, spending time with the family, relaxing. I get very little time to rest. But you never know. Maybe in fifteen or twenty years.
So it would be like a little country auberge in your retirement?
Yes, I’d have friends and grill my own stuff and just put it on the table. Nothing would be plated, I’d just put it in a pot and put it in the middle of the table, family-style. Platters of fresh greens with interesting dressings, simple roast chicken and root vegetables, casseroles with sauerkraut and pork. Homestyle cooking.
What, no tarragon foam?
No, nothing like that.
Contributing writer Diane Weintraub Pohl can attest that Jean-Georges is as down-to-earth as his achievements are stellar.