Valerie Phillips: World-famous chef sets up shop in Utah

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 9 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

One of the world's top chefs has opened up shop right here in Utah.

Last Friday, Jean-Georges Vongerichten was in Park City to help cut the ribbon on the St. Regis Deer Crest Resort in Deer Valley, where his J&G Grill is located. Just getting there, on a tramlike vehicle called a funicular that travels up the mountainside, adds to the sense of adventure.

"This is the biggest kitchen I've ever cooked in, and I've been cooking 35 years," Vongerichten said as he beckoned me into the immaculate kitchen on the third floor of the luxury hotel. "It's very nice, don't you think?"

That's saying something, considering that the French-born chef and his business partner, Phil Suarez, are now involved in nearly 30 restaurants located all over the world, including Jean Georges, JoJo, Vong and Spice Market in New York.

In fact, Jean Georges was named Best Restaurant in the 2009 James Beard Awards, considered the Oscars of the food world.

"The kitchens in New York are like a closet, because space is at a premium," he said. "But here in Utah, it's very spacious, and with all the toys that we need."

As one of the cooks pulled some little golden-brown balls from the deep-fryer, Vongerichten garnished each one with an herb sprig before handing me one for a taste test.

It was a fritter, crispy on the outside and full of melted cheddar and jalapeno on the inside. The cheddar comes from Beehive Cheese of Uintah; Vongerichten said local ingredients are a hallmark of each of his restaurants.

The mantra of his restaurant group, Culinary Concepts, is "the first premium culinary brand that is local in content and global in reach."

He pointed out that the dining room's bread plates are made of local cedar, and that the tables are adorned with Utah pine cones.

"People come here from all over the world to spend some quality time here; they don't want to feel like they're in New York," he said.

He showed me how a little lime salt adds a flavor accent to the fritter.

It's just lime juice mixed with sea salt, "so that it's like wet sand, and then you let it dry," he said, spilling a little of the salt on my finger so I could taste it. "I like to put it on fish and meat, it's just delicious."

I found it hard to believe that this amiable chef sharing bites of fritter in his kitchen was the same guy who critics have called, "formidably gifted," and the "enfant terrible of modern French cooking."

Vongerichten was trained in classical French cuisine by three-star Michelin chefs in France, then spent four years working in high-end hotels in Bangkok, Singapore and

Hong Kong. That was where he developed his signature "vibrant cuisine."

"I love to add a little Asian touch to my food," he said. "I want the last bite to be as exciting as the first bite. And I eat my food. A lot of chefs don't eat their own food, they just cook it. I would never put a dish on the menu without eating it."

Vongerichten has also authored several cookbooks, including "Cooking at Home with a Four-Star Chef," which won a James Beard Award for best cookbook.

He said he'll be back in Park City during the Sundance Film Festival, and also bring his family back in March, since they're avid skiers. Matt Harris is chef de cuisine and will oversee the cooking and food quality.

The restaurant was in the works for about a year and a half, he said.

In the meantime, the economy tanked. I asked if he was concerned about opening a high-end restaurant in this uncertain era.

"Yes and no," he said. "Everybody's nervous, but people keep buying, if you do good food, offer a good value, and consistency. People still have to eat, three times a day. In New York, we're known for the best value for the money of all the four-star restaurants."

That's great for vacationers, but what about the locals?

"I think price-wise, we are competitive with what's happening in town," he said. "And we have something for everybody, from a $10 pizza and a $5 soup, to a $48 Porterhouse. I'd love to have locals come and support us and try our food."

e-mail: vphillips@desnews.com