Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten on Market

How do you revamp the menu at Market by Jean-Georges, in the Shangri-la, from 3,000 miles away? I’m in constant communication with my kitchens: weekly conference calls, emails almost daily. I can take a special that we’re running in New York and share it with Vancouver in real time. But you have to trust your chefs.

How much autonomy do your chefs have in bringing new ideas to the table? It depends on the chef. Many of my chefs bring me new ideas all the time and contribute to as much as 60 to 70 percent of their menus. Others are more like foot soldiers. They like to be led-those tend to be the ones who are most consistent, the most precise.

What sort of chef is Market’s chef de cuisine, Karen Gin? Karen has a great palate and her Asian background suits my cooking style very well-the spices, the nuances. She just gets it. She spent a month in New York at Jean-Georges learning our style before taking over the kitchen here.

Vancouver diners seem to have very specific proclivities. How have you succeeded where other newcomers have failed? Vancouver is very proud of their local chefs-it’s difficult to be an outsider in that kind of environment. We’re lucky to be in a hotel. In many cases, the out-of-town guests are more familiar with what I do than the locals. Vancouver is a tough city, possibly the toughest, because everybody is a foodie here. The guests, critics, industry people, are all exceptionally knowledgeable. You have to have the right team. I’m only here three or four times a year-without quality personnel it would be impossible to survive.

What do you say to people who think Market’s dishes are just imported recipes prepared by rote from a three-ring binder? Well, they are right in a sense. It’s my name, my flavour profiles-my interpretation of what tastes good. But the ingredients we use are all local. We prepare them or season them with sauces or condiments or spice combinations that we’ve developed in New York, but once you use the local ingredients they are completely different. When I taste the food at Market, even though they are my recipes, it tastes like Vancouver food to me.

What are your thoughts on the 100-mile-dining concept, versus importing the broadest range? Always local. You want to use the freshest product available, particularly with seafood. That’s why we only deal with day boats.

Day boats? Big, commercial boats will leave on a Monday, come back on Friday, and the fish you buy at the market has already been on ice for a week. Day boats are much smaller operations. They leave at 6 a.m., come back at noon, and the fish that was flopping in the boat that morning is on your plate that night.

What are your own favourite foods? After my training in Asia, I can’t eat food without chilies in it. I crave that heat, that balance. I’m lucky: my wife is half Korean, so there’s always kimchi in my refrigerator. Food has to pop.

How has dining out changed over the years? Food today is very personal. It’s no longer Italian or Chinese or French. You and I could open the same restaurant and use the same recipes, and our restaurants would be totally different. The most compelling food to me is when the chef’s personality is able to come through.

What food trends have been overdone? Truffle oil. I can’t stand that stuff. It smells like ether. Also molecular gastronomy-I think people are getting back to real food. Still, some of the new techniques are fun to use. Giving sauce a little froth with a hand blender to aerate it, using guar gum (a natural polysaccharide) to thicken sauces.

Isn’t it based more on science than cooking? It’s going to change the way the world cooks. It taught me how to make the perfect hamburger. People have been making them the same way for years: they pack together ground meat and grill it. What if you put seasoned meat through the grinder so it comes out in a long cylinder like spaghetti? The meat is all on the same grain with a little air throughout. Roll it in wax paper, chill it, then slice it into discs. When you cook it, the hamburger has the same consistency throughout. Good hamburger meat should be caramelized and a bit crumbly. Most burgers taste like sausage because everything’s just slapped together.

Sounds like a chef never stops learning. I’ve been cooking for 38 years and I feel like I’ve done it all. Then something like this comes along and turns everything upside down.