Inteview: Jean-Georges Vongerichten of Mercato on the secrets of his success
25 Jul 2016
There are plenty of Italian restaurants in Hong Kong but only a handful of them can be labelled as ‘star eateries’. The new Mercato at Lan Kwai Fong’s California Tower is already earning this label. This is a swish new space that’s just opened up on the eighth floor, serving up some of the best modern Italian cuisine in the city. And it’s all down to one of the world’s most famous chefs, Jean-Georges Vongerichten. He’s the brains behind the operation and the key to its success.
Vongerichten was born and raised in Alsace, France. He trained in the culinary arts in his native land and then, after being the apprentice of some three Michelin-starred chefs in France, he travelled to Asia to continue his training at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok, the Meridien Hotel in Singapore and the Mandarin Hotel in Hong Kong. In 1997, he began to make a name for himself in the culinary world when he opened Jean-Georges in the Trump International Hotel and Tower New York, earning a four-star review from The New York Times. And it’s been all up for the chef and restaurant owner from there, right up to 2012, when Three on the Bund invited him to together develop a whole new F&B concept, Mercato in Shanghai. This venue has been a huge success, meaning this year is the time to open up the Hong Kong branch of the Italian eatery, Mercato Hong Kong.
Mercato dishes up Italian food with Vongerichten’s classic light cooking styles, using quality ingredients and simple recipes. Much like Mercato Shanghai, heavy meat-stock and cream-based sauces are swapped in favour of vegetable juices, fruit essences, light broths and herbal vinaigrettes. It’s not all about the food here, either. A major feature is The Mercato Bar, which serves cocktails that utilise Italian spirits with fruits and Italian wines. Vongerichten tells us that he’s proud of the bar’s décor. “If you look at the bar,” he says, “you want a Negroni cocktail because the bar is the colour of a Campari. I like the notes of orange in our sunny lighting.”
When Lan Kwai Fong’s Allan Zeman approached Vongerichten’s team during the construction of California Tower, the chef jumped at the chance to return to Hong Kong. “I missed Hong Kong,” he says. “The people here are foodies and you can get any produce you want. Hong Kong living is smaller, though, [than Shanghai] but we like that the restaurant here is more intimate.”
There is a ‘sharing culture’ at Mercato. Vongerichten says: “Sharing portions connect people and diners in Asia are connected to their food.” The chef is also a big fan of the LKF buzz. “LKF was my hangout when I lived here,” he says. “It’s a microcosm, full of cutting-edge bars and restaurants that attract foodies and drinkers alike. Energy attracts energy.”
The Italian classics, along with signature dishes like pizzas and pastas, means there’s something for everyone here. There are light bites and richer offerings. This is an excellent culinary boost to California Tower and LKF. In fact, this is an excellent boost to Hong Kong as a whole.
Jean-Georges on…the inspiration behind his ‘lighter’ cooking methods
When I first arrived in New York some 30 years ago, I was cooking traditional French food with cream and butter. But with dining habits changing and technology improving, people were not just dining out for special occasions. So dishes with heavy meat stock or rich cream might not be suitable or healthy. There’s no need to use heavy sauce to cover the taste of food like people used to do. As a result of the trends, there was a calling for a lighter and healthier culinary style. In addition, my early years in Asia opened up my eyes to spices and herbs. Travelling changed my life, my palate and my understanding of ingredients. Nowadays, I use fresh ingredients that are organic and GMO-free. I’m getting older and I want to live longer. Life is all about balance.
Jean-Georges on…the food at Mercato
Lots of Italian people say my food isn’t Italian, which is fine because I’m French, so I never claim that it is! It’s an interpretation of Italian. It’s what I call ‘sexy Italian’. I use more spices and chillis in my dishes to give them a sexy kick!
Jean-Georges on…his favourite ingredients
Fish, seafood and vegetables. It’s what I like, according to my blood type. I believe that your blood type dictates your preferences. I’m happy to have found great ingredients like white asparagus in Hong Kong! I could never find that in Shanghai.
Mercato 8/F, California Tower, 32 D’Aguilar St, Central, 3706 8567; www.jean-georges.com