From Rebel Son to World Class Chef
Jean-Georges Vongerichten | Chef

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Why Should You Care

In his teens, famed chef Jean-Georges dropped out of engineering school and spent the next years aimless and passionless. In his interview, he talks about the life-changing dinner that opened his eyes to the world of fine dining and his meteoric rise as a chef and restauranteur.


Jean-Georges Vongerichten is a legendary French chef, who pioneered modern Asian fusion cuisine.

Born and raised on the outskirts of Strasbourg in Alsace, France, Vongerichten first fell in love with food at age 16, when his parents brought him to a 3-star Michelin-rated restaurant for a birthday dinner.

Vongerichten began his training soon after in a work-study program at the Auberge de l’ill as an apprentice to Chef Paul Haeberlin. He went on to work with the top chefs in France, including Paul Bocuse and Louis Outhier at L’Oasis in the south of France.

During his 20s, Chef Jean-Georges traveled throughout Asia where developed his love for the exotic and aromatic flavors of the East. He would go on to marry such flavors with his traditional European culinary education.

Jean-Georges runs a constellation of restaurants including the acclaimed Jean-Georges in New York and ShanghaiPrime Steakhouse in Las Vegas and Market in Paris.

He is the author of five cookbooks and has been featured on countless TV shows including Top Chef and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.

Jean-Georges’ culinary vision has redefined industry standards and revolutionized the way we eat. Yet after years of success, Jean-Georges’ favorite retreat is still the kitchen, and his favorite meals dished from a street cart in Thailand.

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I’m chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. We are here at Jean-Georges in New York City.

I was supposed to take over the company of my father because he took over the company from his father. It was heating. It went from coal, it was coal distribution, then it was gasoline, and it went to central heating, then solar heating. So, I was the older of the kids and they sent me to an engineering school at 16 to start learning the craft and I hated every minute of it. And then about 6 months after they threw me out of school because I was just no good and not interested, I had no passion for it.

My father was really mad at me and they say “Oh what are we going to do with this guy! He’s been thrown out from the best school in Alsace.” I didn’t know you could do a living out of food. Eating was really at home, pot on the table, so it was very simple. I didn’t know that those fancy restaurants existed.

For my 16th birthday they took me to L’Auberge de L’ill. So the dinner was really an eye opener for me. My parents saw that right away. They saw me looking around, picking the plate, like “what is this?” This was like “wow!” The food was unbelievable They gave me a taste of wine, which they were not supposed to, but I had a taste of wine. It was really important and magical for me.

The chef came to the table to see how was everything and I was so impressed with his big hat, so my parents say as a joke, “are you looking for someone who can wash dishes or peel? My son is good for nothing and maybe he can go into the kitchen to peel and wash and chop or do something, and they so oh as a matter of fact we are looking for some apprentice, so I started my apprenticeship.

You know when you’re cooking in a restaurant you live your 20s different than everybody else because you have to work until 11, 12 o clock at night, so you go out when you get off, it’s really a different lifestyle. When you go out people go to bed, you’re working, you’re really working 16 hours a day, 15 hours a day. It was a different life because we never went out before 12 o clock at night. Have a bite here, little club there, but we were mostly working.

So at the time I was pleased, but not really pleased because I was like, ‘what kind of life is this?’ You scratch your head, is this my path for the rest of my life or is it just going to be just passing by? And I thought about doing different things, I experimented to be a waiter, so I was a waiter for a week. I experienced to be a sommelier at the restaurant as well. But in the end I was always attracted back to food.

When you enter into the 3 star Michelin restaurant circle it’s like entering the Mafia. I never wrote a letter for a job. I got a job at L’Oasis, so I was there for 2 years. And then Outhier from L’Oasis, chef Outhier, he called me up and he said I’ve got a job in Bangkok and I said there’s no way, I’ve never been a chef before, I’m 23 years old I can’t do this. He said you can do it. Called me for 3 months every single day. I give up, I said okay. When I landed in Bangkok and the plane opened the door it was like a whole new, a culture shock for me. I felt like Christopher Columbus, just going to a new continent and it was like wow. That really changed my life because I knew I was cooking for 7 years in France but not, you know using black pepper, using spices, using things but never knowing where they come from, cardamom, black pepper, star anise, all of those, dried ginger, never fresh, so that really changed my pallette of food, my cooking.

When I was in Bangkok, I tried to be funny with the staff so we one day opened many bottles of wine in the kitchen and we all got kind of drunk and the next day I was in the office of the manager and he said you can’t do this in the hotel, and I was like come on, we work hard at night and I want everyone to be happy and go home happy. It was a big scandal in hotel, they wanted to send me back to France for the whole thing, and that’s you know the 20s! I was a bad boy in my 20s.

I didn’t know if I was going to choose this as the rest of my life, because it’s not a life for somebody if you don’t accept that you really have to work and pamper people when it’s time for people to have fun. And everyone watches TV at 8 o’clock at night and you’re in a stressful kitchen trying to feed people. I wasn’t sure if that was going to be my life.

And then Cedric was born there. He was born in Bangkok after a year and a half there. So he was born in Bangkok.

Made By

Cinematography: A. Mert Erdem & Danielle Calodney

Edited by: Tom Eagar

Interviewed by: Laura Lehmann

Produced by: Batsheva Lazarus & Laura Lehmann

Danielle Calodney

Danielle Calodney has been called the Chief Content Officer for 20to30, and that is the closest she has ever come to a proper title. She produces, shoots, and edits most 20to30 videos while also taking care of the site. She is grateful to live in a time when playing on the internet and making movies can be combined into one job.

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