“Too many cooks spoil the broth,” warns the age-old adage. But here, in the melting pot of the United States, the tradition of diversity welcomes all, making it one of the most successful “kitchens” in the world. It is in this culinary petri dish that I decided to arrange the ultimate play-date, as a prelude to the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Being the unrelenting foodie that I am, I agonized over which chefs I would want to bring together until I came up with the ultimate dream trio: Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and Masaharu Morimoto.
In Boulud I saw the endearing perfectionist, a man as involved in every micro aspect of his restaurant empire as he is in a conversation about his beloved Citymeals-on-Wheels charity (one of New York’s most successful initiatives that delivers food to the homebound elderly). In Morimoto I saw the drive, determination, and fervor of a former athlete, and a pride in his Asian heritage that is infectious. In Vongerichten I saw the patience and soft-spoken charm of a true gentleman, and identified with his experiences living in Southeast Asia as a foreigner.
But, as mentioned before, I am an unrelenting foodie, and memories of lavish, infinite-course dinners filled with everything from foie gras to hummus to venison at Daniel, the best steak I’ve ever eaten at Morimoto, and samosas that rival my mother’s own (a near impossible feat) at Spice Market flooded my mind with incredible lucidity. The truth is, as personalities and as incredibly talented culinary masters, these three gentlemen are the countries finest. So, in hopes of fulfilling my ultimate food fantasy, I invited the three of them to speak about everything from fast food joints to embarrassing restaurant moments.
Coming together on that auspicious winter day in New York City seemed almost serendipitous, considering that these three personalities hail from such different backgrounds. Boulud’s story began on a farm outside of Lyon. His star quickly rose from astute apprentice under the likes of Roger Vergé, Georges Blanc, and Michel Guérard to a coveted position as private chef to the European Commission in Washington, D.C. After serving as executive chef at New York’s fine dining institution, Le Cirque, Boulud went on to open his own restaurant, Daniel, in 1993. He is now at the helm of a food and beverage empire that includes nine restaurants around the world, from Beijing to Vancouver, of course with a local outpost at the Brazilian Court in Palm Beach. Also born and raised in France, Vongerichten grew up in the German-influenced Alsace region of the country. When, at the age of 16, Vongerichten was treated to a birthday dinner at Auberge de l’Ile by his parents, he became sure of his future career as a chef. Vongeritchen’s indelible mark can be seen at 22 restaurants around the world, from New York to Hong Kong.
Both chefs’ paths crossed in their native France long before they came to the United States. Boulud explained that, “when Jean-Georges was chef at Lafayette, Pierre Franey invited me to lunch there. It was back in the mid-’80s-so long ago that Jean-Georges still had his little mustache! We had this delicious scrambled eggs with caviar dish. Next, I invited him to brunch at my home with his family, so we could get to know each other better. When I was still chef at Le Cirque, Jean-Georges had already taken the leap and opened his own place, a bistro, Jojo. He made the move first but I was right behind him when I opened Daniel. Then he followed a few years later with Jean Georges.”
Meanwhile in Hiroshima, Japan, Morimoto’s hope of becoming a professional baseball catcher came to a premature end after an arm injury. Fortunately for the culinary world, Morimoto cultivated a career as a sushi chef that led to stints on Iron Chef Japan and USA, winning him international acclaim.
The first topic on all our minds was, of course, a menu. I was keen to know each chef’s ideal menu for the ultimate event. Morimoto spoke of an elaborate seven-course meal, beginning with toro prosciutto and Yubari melon, the sweetest melon in Japan, priced at a cool $300. It would call for a whole 400-pound tuna from Hokkaido, Japan, using only the most delicious parts of the tuna belly and conclude with an elaborate Saga steak. Vongerichten chimed in. “If I could do anything I wanted,” he said, “it would be an outdoor fire pit feast. I’d make whole suckling pigs, whole goats, lambs, half a cow, medieval-style-it would be pretty amazing.” Boulud’s idea of the perfect gathering involves “great chef friends at my side making incredible food, plenty of delicious Burgundy to wash it down, guests who get to wear blue jeans while listening to blues, all coming together for a very important cause.”
As the wine was poured, jokes and interesting anecdotes arose. Suddenly, the fact that between these three men there are eight James Beard awards (the Oscars of the restaurant world), 44 restaurants, a galaxy of Michelin stars, and a Legion of Honor became less intimidating. Morimoto recalled one of the first times he met Vongerichten. “When I was the executive chef at Nobu 10 years ago or so, Jean-Georges came to the restaurant. I felt honored to serve him. But when I made a hot dish called ‘Tobanyaki’ in a sizzling plate, the waitress who was carrying the plate to Jean-Georges dropped it right next to him. As I was watching what happened from the sushi counter nervously, I saw Jean-Georges giving her some caring words and trying to make it seem as if nothing had happened. I thought he was such a gentleman.” Vongerichten immediately followed with a cooking tale of good times spent with Morimoto. “We were cooking for an event for the Dalai Lama and Richard Gere. There were 10 of us preparing the meal that night, and we had a great time,” he said with a smile. Boulud, who was so impressed with Morimoto’s work that he invited him as a guest chef to one of his annual galas, recalled, “I met him for the first time in his restaurant in Philadelphia soon after he opened. He pulled out all the stops with an incredible spread of sushi and sashimi. The taste and presentation were so exciting, it was like a fireworks display!”
Now that I was getting a little more comfortable (as if one wouldn’t be in such charming company), I finally had the courage to ask a lingering question of where these elite members of the culinary cognoscenti go for a quick bite of fast food. Jean-Georges was the first to reply with a chuckle, “In New York, my favorite place for burgers, hot dogs, and shakes is the Shake Shack. Sure, there’s always a line, but it’s worth the wait. When I’m traveling, I love to get the spicy chicken sandwich from Wendy’s. I wish I had come up with that recipe myself-it’s amazing.” Morimoto’s comfort food of choice is the Philly cheese steak (it figures, as he spends so much time in his Philadelphia flagship Morimoto), while Boulud’s junk food favorites were, well, not junky at all. “These may be just a step above true fast food, but I love Via Quadronno on East 74th Street for mortadella and green olive panini and Hale & Hearty for their lentil soup,” he said.
If I were asked to choose which element of the restaurant business I admire the most in my humble outsider’s opinion, it would be the endless cycle of mentoring upon which this industry thrives. And the generations continue. In the past few years, Boulud’s protégé Gavin Kaysen was selected to represent the U.S. in the Bocuse d’Or, the Olympics of the culinary world, and has won the prestigious James Beard award. “[It is] incredibly satisfying to me to nurture young talent and watch it evolve in my own restaurants. In fact, it is the talents in my kitchens that make my restaurants possible. I’d like to think the collaboration is rewarding on both ends,” said Daniel with all the affection of a proud father. Although Vongerichten has been involved in the rearing of his own army of gifted chefs, he humbly admitted, “It’s so hard for me to think of myself as a mentor, because I am still constantly learning and adapting to new experiences. The people who work with me share my curiosity for new flavor combinations, spices, and unique ingredients. When we work together, I see it as an exchange of ideas-I never feel like I’m passing down knowledge to the next generation. Everyone has something to learn, and something to teach.” Both of his compatriots emphatically agreed.
As our dream date ended, I was left with that similar feeling that I have after many evenings at every one of my three dream chefs’ restaurants-a lingering after-taste of all the ingredients that make a lasting culinary memory and every hope that I will be able to re-create these most cherished experiences again soon.