Less known, though, is Public Kitchen, Schrager's culinary jewel with 60-year-old master French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
"[Ian Schrager] is bringing a whole new way of how people are going to hotels. It’s like checking in on JetBlue,” said Vongerichten in an interview at the restaurant one morning in June, just days after the hotel and his restaurant opened (which was right after he opened his first-ever L.A. restaurant at the Waldorf Astoria and not long before he opened abcV in NYC). This is not Schrager and Vongerichten’s first outing together—the two paired up at Public Chicago and at Schrager’s Edition in Miami—and the rapport and ease of collaboration between the two is evident.
“The fact that there’s no room service, you have an app for ordering the food, you pick up your bag—it’s a whole new way of thinking," said Vongerichten, who oversees all the food operations.
Since its opening in June, the Public has earned a reputation as a party destination but that notoriety seems more projection than fact. Indeed, the Public's lobby, like the restaurant just past it, reflects the sleek yet basic ethos of today's jet set millennial consumer, and Vongerichten said his mission was to create the same feel with an eclectic global menu that brings diners “back to basics.”
"The way we are eating today is every different," he continued. Vongerichten should know; he opened his first New York restaurant in 1991 and know commands 14 in the city alone. "It’s very simple. Yes, it’s carrots, but where does they come from? People don't want to eat garbage anymore, or things growing in dirty soil. They want grass-fed meat, or wild fish—if it’s not wild they want to know that it’s sustainable. People are very conscious of what's going on in the world and my mission is to bring that to the table."
While the concept of farm-to-table might be newer (‘new’ meaning in the past decade) to many consumers, it’s been a part of his ethos for ages. When the chef founded Mercer Kitchen 18 years ago, the food was organic and farm-to-table. This wasn't necessarily driven by the consumer's demand, but simply because that was the best produce available. With ABC Kitchen, he relied heavily upon the Union Square Farmers Market for his produce, which is situated just a few yards away from the restaurant's location in the Flatiron District of New York. Although the chef and his team were trying to leverage the local fare, they found that these organic products offered a more authentic New York dining experience.
With Public Kitchen, Vongerichten and his team (led by chef Tom McKenna, a longtime collaborator) are taking this concept to a new level. "We're going back in time to use the natural way of cooking," said Vongerichten. "People don't even realize they're buying organic cows, but with olive oil or canola oil if you're extracting with chemicals you're losing the whole thing. From the salt and pepper to the frying oil, we're doing the whole thing."
In keeping with the theme of back to basics, Vongerichten went back in time when creating the flavor palate for the menu. He believes that today's eaters are looking for complex flavors with only simple ingredients, citing tabasco as an example. "Forty years ago all people wanted was Ketchup, which is sweet,” he said. “Today they don't want sweet at all, they want sour and spicy. Tabasco is one of the oldest sauces, and it's chili, water and salt."
Public Kitchen isn't the only new Vongerichten restaurant where he is bringing the mantra of "back to basics" into play. At abcV, the newest entrant in the ABC restaurant series, Vongerichten and his team have embraced the challenge of vegetables, creating a vegetarian menu suitable for even the carnivores of New York City with dishes like the whole roasted cauliflower and avocado lettuce cups.
"Within a food group, you're very limited," Vongerichten mused. "With meat you have beef, lamb, pork, veal, venison and that’s pretty much it. Then you have fish, pretty much the same, not that fancy. But if you look at plants and vegetables, you have hundreds of things—the food is endless. With plants, there is an awareness that people forget about, but if you look back, Americans were eating only plants."
As far as the chef's favorite dishes at Public Kitchen, he highlighted the sweet corn and basil potsticker with garlic and soy, as well as the kale salad from the globally-inspired menu, which draws flavors from the hotel’s surrounding areas like Chinatown and Little Italy. "We tried to reinvest the kale salad," he said. "It's one-third kale, watercress, mint dressing, some sugar snap peas. We tried to take things that people love and change it. It's not just a kale caesar salad."
He’s not just cooking this way for others—Vongerichten, for his part, follows a mostly plant-based diet at this point. “I would say about 80 percent of the time I eat mostly plant-based, but I still like a steak every once in awhile,” he admitted, as he cracked a smile.
As he looked around the restaurant he said, “This year we opened in Singapore, Brazil, L.A. and we did this place and abcV and now London is next and then I’m taking a break.” Vongerichten, once a school dropout and gang leader and now one of the world’s foremost chefs with countless restaurants around the globe, added, “I turned 60 this year and I want to chill.”
With another major project on the horizon—a fish market at South Street Seaport—it doesn't look like he'll be chilling for long.
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