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All the Way to the Bank

What does it take to get a celebrity chef to put his name on a Houston restaurant?

The rumor making the rounds is that celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten gets a million dollars to show up five days a year at Bank by Jean-Georges, a restaurant in a former bank lobby at the Hotel Icon on Main Street. I track down J-G, as his employees call him, and speak to him over the phone.

"What's the real story?" I ask.

"I wish it were a million a year," Vongerichten says with a laugh. The truth is, his organization gets a percentage of the profits at Bank, he says. And so far they haven't made anything.

Vongerichten is a partner in 15 restaurants worldwide.
Vongerichten is a partner in 15 restaurants worldwide.

J-G was born in Alsace and trained in some of France's top restaurants, but his career was most strongly influenced by his experience in Asia, where he ran restaurants in such famous hotels as the Meridien in Singapore and the Mandarin in Hong Kong. He brought his French-Asian sensibilities to the United States in 1985 and soon set New York buzzing. One success has followed another ever since.

So why did the famous chef decide to get involved in a Houston restaurant?

"The [hotel] owners approached me a year and a half ago and said they wanted to do a new hip restaurant in an old bank building on Main Street in Houston," he says. The deal made sense because he already employed someone who was ready to move up to a chef de cuisine -- or No. 1 -- job. "Bryan Caswell is from Houston, and he wanted to go back," Vongerichten says.

Vongerichten's restaurant group employs a large cadre of young American chefs, and when they're ready, Vongerichten tries to set them up in restaurants of their own. Caswell had worked in Vongerichten's New York restaurants and at Dune, a J-G restaurant in the Bahamas. "He was ready to be a No. 1, so when these people approached me, it was perfect."

How often does Jean-Georges Vongerichten visit Houston? "I have been twice so far," he says. The restaurant has been open for a few months. A chef from Bank goes to New York and Vongerichten comes to Houston on alternate months, he explains. Bank's sous chef is due for his New York training soon. Visiting chefs rotate through the organization's restaurants, which include Jean-Georges, Vong, Jo Jo and Spice Market, to learn "the essence of what we do," Vongerichten says. "It opens up their eyes."

J-G is a partner in a total of 15 restaurants, including Bank, Vong Chicago, Vong Hong Kong, Dune in the Bahamas and Prime Steak House in Las Vegas. "Some people think Jean-Georges is overextended," he says, in the regal third person. "But are they judging me for who I am -- or for how good my restaurants are?"

Sounding a little defensive, Vongerichten explains his dilemma. "My chefs are all young, and they are all pushing to be the next big talent in America -- I don't want them to leave. So I open a restaurant with them rather than lose them," he says.

Jean-Georges Vongerichten has been at the center of two recent food-writing fiascoes. Here are a few choice lines from A.A. Gill's review in Vanity Fair of Vongerichten's New York restaurant 66. "How clever are shrimp-and-foie gras dumplings with grapefruit dipping sauce? What if we called them fishy liver-filled condoms," the review asks. "They were properly vile, with a savor that lingered like a lovelorn drunk and tasted as if your mouth had been used as the swab bin in an animal hospital."

"That was political," Vongerichten bristles. Vanity Fair's editor, Graydon Carter, came to the restaurant one night and had to wait for a table. When he sat down, he lit a cigarette. New York's new smoking law had just gone into effect, and the restaurant's employees had to tell Carter to put his smoke out, Vongerichten explains. The Vanity Fair editor and his party got up and left in a huff.

"Then he flew in Gill to write a bad review -- that's what the guy is known for," says Vongerichten. London restaurant reviewer A.A. Gill is notorious for hilarious over-the-top sarcasm thinly disguised as food criticism. It was a departure for Vanity Fair, which rarely runs restaurant reviews.

"The review was so bad from A to Z, it wasn't credible," Vongerichten says. "No restaurant can be that bad."

Another controversy erupted when temporary New York Times restaurant reviewer Amanda Hesser gave Vongerichten's Spice Market a glowing review and awarded it three stars. The Times subsequently published an editor's note saying Hesser should have disclosed her previous association with the chef. Turns out J-G wrote a gushy blurb for Hesser's book, Cooking for Mr. Latte. Some observers, including Village Voice media critic Cynthia Cotts, called for the restaurant to be stripped of its stars. Questions arose about Hesser's judgment and the restaurant's real worth.

"People said that Spice Garden can't be a three-star because there are no tablecloths, and because it's too loud," Vongerichten says.

Sounds like you can't win lately, I comment.

"I am very exposed," he says. "And success bothers people sometimes."

Vongerichten's next visit to Houston is scheduled for this month. Don't be surprised if you bump into the French chef at a Vietnamese noodle shop or a Tex-Mex taco stand. He loves Houston's mom-and-pop ethnic restaurants.

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