Staff training had ended one night last week when chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten settled into a plush lounge chair to reflect on his latest restaurant, just weeks from its opening atop the Comcast Technology Center, near Logan Square.
Jean-Georges Philadelphia, which occupies not only the skyscraper’s 59th floor but also part of the new Four Seasons Hotel’s 60th-floor reception area, is a testament to glass.
Designer Norman Foster did more than simply sheathe the 59th and 60th floors in 40-foot windows, allowing for views from three sides. He also cleverly created a sense of place by setting up mirrors along the length of the ceiling, angled to reflect people and cars on the street. Look up from your seat, and you can see taxis and pedestrians. It’s as if to suggest: Remember that city life goes on a thousand feet below you. (It’s a fast trip on the elevators, incidentally: 48 seconds from G to 60.)
As Vongerichten reflected, a summer thunderstorm whipped in. He sat in awe amid the lightning and thunder. The restaurant itself may be breathtaking, "but this was so dramatic,” said Vongerichten, a man of 62 with close-cropped hair and restless energy, his face brightening at the memory.
Jean-Georges Philadelphia, opening to Comcast employees on July 22 in its test phase and now taking reservations before the Aug. 12 public opening, happens to be Vongerichten’s tallest restaurant. (Vernick Fish — a seafood restaurant from chef Greg Vernick, who worked for Vongerichten for five years before opening Vernick Food & Drink nearby in 2011 — also will open Aug. 12 on the Four Seasons’ ground floor on the 1800 block of Arch Street. Vernick Coffee Bar opened last fall on the building’s mezzanine.)
Jean-Georges Philadelphia is Vongerichten’s 39th restaurant. He has 15 in New York alone, starting with JoJo (which opened in 1991), and including the flagship Jean-Georges, at Trump International Hotel.
Through management deals and partnerships, he runs one in Westchester, N.Y., two in the Hamptons, two each in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, and three in Miami Beach, plus 13 around the world, including two in Shanghai and Mexico, one in Singapore, and one on St. Barts.
Jean-Georges will be open from breakfast through dinner, with a la carte and tasting menus. Menus were not made available, but Vongerichten said a fixed-price $38 lunch will be available and indicated that dinner entrees would range from $18 to $54. At the start, a six-course tasting menu will be offered for $88. OpenTable is accepting reservations.
JG SkyHigh lounge will serve continental breakfast and light food and snacks through the day. Each floor has a bar.
Thirty percent of the Jean-Georges menu will be made up of dishes from the New York flagship, with the rest overseen by chef Nick Ugliarolo. Given Ugliarolo’s past at Vongerichten’s all-vegan abcV restaurant, the menu will include vegan and vegetarian options. Some items will be changed weekly, while others will be seasonal.
Vongerichten said Brian Roberts, Comcast’s chairman and chief executive officer and a Jean-Georges regular, approached him when the building was “still a hole in the ground” five years ago.
Vongerichten, who describes himself as “a New Yorker with an accent,” arrived in New York in 1986. The son and grandson of coal merchants from Alsace said he got into the restaurant business at age 16 after flaming out in engineering school. His parents had taken him to L’Auberge de L’Ill, a Michelin three-star restaurant, for his birthday.
During dinner, his father was still seething about his quitting school but the son was taking notice of the action. “We never went to a restaurant,” Vongerichten said. “Maybe a bistro, we’d go once a year. But as I saw everything, I said to myself, ‘Oh, my God. This is it. This is what I want to do.’”
He said his father approached chef-owner Paul Haeberlin and said, “This is my son. He’s good for nothing. If you want him to wash dishes, he’ll do that.” Turns out that the restaurant needed an apprentice. At the outset, he was assigned to cook for dogs that rich customers brought in.
After working for chef Paul Bocuse, he joined chef Louis Outhier, who sent him all over Asia, whose cuisines inform most of his menus today. While working in Bangkok at age 23, he was given profit-and-loss statements to expose him to the business side. He learned more at the Drake Hotel in New York because the Swiss owners, he said, demanded that. At age 32, he took a restaurant-business course at Hunter College in New York before opening JoJo with Phil Suarez, who is still his business partner.
He said traveling has always been his inspiration. “I go out and come back with 30 ideas,” he said. “If you stay in one place, you don’t refresh yourself.”
His empire boasts successful alumni. Besides Vernick, Vongerichten’s former staffers in Philadelphia include chef Nick Kennedy, a co-owner of Suraya in Fishtown; My-Le Vuong, an owner of Kalaya in South Philadelphia; Hannah Taylor-Noren, director of operations of Method Hospitality (Wm. Mulherin’s Sons, Hiroki); Daniel Stern, chef-owner of R2L; Sylva Senat, chef at the Pyramid Club; and chocolatier Aurora Wold of Aurora Grace.
At the main kitchen at Jean-Georges in New York, Vongerichten said, he and his chefs try to develop two or three dishes a day for the restaurants. “This is the best job I’ve ever had in my life,” he said. “All I do is create new spaces and new food.”