by Joe Satran
In September 1991, chefs Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Todd English looked unstoppable. English had just been named the James Beard Rising Chef of the Year after leading his restaurant Olives in Charleston, Mass., to two years of wide acclaim. Jean-Georges had just opened his first solo restaurant, JoJo, a bistro on New York's Upper East Side, after over four years as the chef of Lafayette, where he'd earned a rave four-star review from the New York Times at the age of 31. JoJo, meanwhile, was quickly becoming a smash hit. Times restaurant critic Bryan Miller said that the dining room was so packed that it often evoked "Epcot Center during spring break," and declared the food, light on cream and butter, "cooking for the '90s." They were young, good-looking, prodigiously talented chefs cooking in a country that was just starting to grow taste buds -- why would anyone even want to stop them?
Twenty years later, they have become household names, received further accolades and thickened their wallets considerably. Jean-Georges now owns 27 restaurants, and English owns 20. Dishes they've invented -- Jean-Georges's molten chocolate cake and foie gras crème brûlée, English's fig-prosciutto pizza -- have become industry staples. They've made inroads to becoming a part of the mainstream, each releasing guides to home cooking this fall, and being featured in People magazine. They are celebrities and restaurateurs, rich and famous -- but are they still chefs?
That's the question that has haunted English, Vongerichten and the whole coterie of "emperor-chefs" since their ascension. (By "emperor-chef," we mean to exclude celebrity chefs, like Giada de Laurentiis and Ina Garten, who are more TV personalities than restaurateurs.) Pretty much everyone knows that, if you go into one of the 23 restaurants owned by Gordon Ramsay or the 13 owned by Bobby Flay, your chances of eating a meal actually cooked by the chef are slim to none. So the question of what the job of "emperor-chef" entails -- beyond appearing on TV, writing memoirs and cashing a fat check at the end of every month -- is a salient one.
It's a question that has been known to raise tempers. Alan Richman, the restaurant critic for GQ, is an especially harsh critic of empire-building by talented chefs. "Cooking is one of the most individual enterprises in the world," he told the Huffington Post. "There's nothing that lends itself less well to franchising than cooking."
Richman argues that the emergence of the emperor-chef -- a phenomenon he traces back to Wolfgang Puck, now the owner of 92 restaurants -- is a product of cooks' material aspirations. "For most of history, nobody got rich being a chef. Then they figured out a way to get rich -- it was TV and franchising," he said.
English and Vongerichten rose in parallel for most of the '90s. English won his second Beard Award when named Best Chef in the Northeast in 1994. He opened branches of Olives in Washington, Las Vegas and Aspen. He wrote cookbooks and launched other restaurant concepts: Figs, a more casual version of Olives, in Boston and La Guardia Airport; Kingfish Hall, a seafood eatery in Faneuil Hall; an Italian restaurant, Tuscany, in Connecticut's Mohegan Sun casino.
Meanwhile, Jean-Georges used JoJo as a platform for other ventures. He opened an NYC Asian-Fusion restaurant called Vong in 1993, then another in London in 1995. He waited until 1997 to return to haute gastronomy, with the eponymous Jean Georges restaurant in the Trump International Hotel. It is, to this day, his flagship, and one of the most highly-acclaimed restaurants in America. It won both four stars from the new York Times and the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant just months after opening. In 1998, Jean-Georges also received the Beard Award for Most Outstanding Chef in the Country.
It could be argued, though, that the two chefs' success in the '90s bred a kind of gastronomic hubris. There have been missteps.
Jean-Georges may have started to expand too quickly, as he began opening restaurants and building his empire both inside and outside New York. A few restaurants he'd opened such as Vong's Thai Kitchen in Chicago and New York's 66 and Matsugen closed after just a few years. More stingingly for a chef of such wide acclaim, Frank Bruni stripped stars from Spice Market, Vong and Mercer Kitchen in a blistering series of reviews in the Times.
"You couldn't see his name and say, 'Yep, that'll definitely be a great restaurant,'" Bruni said in an email to The Huffington Post. "You had to be a more informed, discerning diner than that, and to know that some Jean-Georges was 100 percent reliable, some not. ABC Kitchen, one of his newest, can be terrific. But that doesn't mean all of his new restaurants will be."
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