Interview: Jean-Georges Vongerichten

The famed chef talks about his new Italian venture Mercato

Lobster raviolis, olive oil, lemon and herbs at Mercato
One of the most celebrated chefs alive, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, has just opened Mercato, his second restaurant in Shanghai’s Three on the Bund and sixteenth restaurant in the world. The Alsace-born chef is a master of combining European techniques with flavours from Asia, as well as a shrewd and obsessively detail-oriented businessman. He tells Crystyl Mo why Mercato is 'less rigid' than Jean Georges     

Why did you decide to open a second restaurant in Three on the Bund?   
Actually, Three on the Bund approached me about it. They asked me to bring something in the style of ABC Kitchen [one of Vongerichten’s New York restaurants] here. I remembered the space and I said the marble interior doesn’t work with ABC. I had seen Table No 1 at The Waterhouse by Neri & Hu and I really liked that room, I liked that industrial, understated style.   

Neri & Hu also did the design of Mercato, it looks very different from when it was Laris.   
Yes, the renovation was super easy because basically we just ripped everything out. It’s a little bit refreshing, a little bit different, the floorboards and tables are all reclaimed wood. But I’m a little nervous about how people will react to the interior because last night the PR brought her little daughter in and her daughter looked around the entryway and said ‘I thought you were taking me to a nice restaurant, this is so dirty!’ I think it’s because everyone is used to that super design, over-design style. She didn’t understand the shabby chic. We’ll see what happens. But it’s so gorgeous at night because the view really comes in, it’s pretty amazing.   

How similar is Mercato to ABC Kitchen in New York?   
I wanted to do something similar to ABC but a little more on the Italian side. At ABC we have four pastas, here we’ll have eight. Here we have something more like Amalfi Coast seafood and pasta but really simple, not fine dining. The Chinese invented pasta and I’m bringing it back!   

All of the pizzas at ABC are vegetarian because we find more varieties of vegetables in New York but here we have some meat pizzas. The pizza dough is 30 per cent whole wheat in New York but here we are using 100 per cent white flour. Here we have a clam pie with chilies and fennel, a sausage with kale pizza; we have a mushroom pizza where we crack an egg in the middle. In terms of price, it’s a little cheaper than ABC, about 55USD average check at ABC while here it’s going to be 45USD for food and beverage combined.   

How does Mercato compare to Jean Georges downstairs?   
Downstairs is our flagship, here I like to do a more everyday menu and more casual service. The average check downstairs at Jean Georges is 85USD, here it’s more like 45-50USD for food and beverage. There’s no tasting menu, the prices are half of those at Jean Georges. Yesterday we had some captains from Jean Georges dining at Mercato during training and they commented that the service at Mercato is a little informal and we said, it’s supposed to be. We’re like, ‘c’mon relax!’ They said, why do you put everything in the middle of the table? We said that’s the style. It’s like a European Chinese restaurant, everything is for sharing.   

Tell me about developing the menu for Mercato.   
I developed this pizza dough about 13 years ago when we opened Mercer Kitchen. It was the first time I did pizza in my life. I went to California and I talked to Wolfgang Puck because he was the expert on pizza. Wolfgang helped me to develop this pizza and he actually came for the opening of Mercer Kitchen. The pizza oven is so hot that we only bake the pizzas for 90 seconds.   

For the pasta, we brought the most amazing pasta machine from Italy. We try to be as artisanal as we can be, as sustainable as we can be. Only a few things are imported, like the flour is imported from Italy we have no choice but to bring it in and searching for olive oil here is pretty rough.   

The only luxury product we have on the menu is a lobster, which we cook with oregano, chilies and olive oil right in the pizza oven. It’s a luxury item but we cook it in the most simple way. We also have a pasta with uni in it, but we’re using the local one from Dalian, it’s pretty tasty.   

One of my favourite things on the menu is the homemade ricotta with strawberry jam and toast. We do our own mozzarella. We buy the milk from someone who imports the milk from Germany [Solo Latte, the Korean local fresh mozzarella maker]. We said please let us buy just the milk from you! We do our own crème fraiche, sour cream and ricotta all homemade.   

You have worked with Mercato chef Korean-American Sandy Yoon for several years now.   
Yes, it’s the first time for Sandy to be head chef, she was sous chef for us before. She’s really very disciplined, very focused. I’m going to come to Shanghai more, three to four times a year now, but this place is simple, I think Sandy’s really got it, she’s been training for this for almost a year, she knows every dish by heart.   

I want her to really come out and do her own thing as she finds things in the market. I joked with her, I said two months from now I want to see kimchee on a pizza with pork belly! She laughed too. When you call a restaurant Mercato [‘market’ in Italian], you have to be in sync with the seasons; the menu is less rigid than at a restaurant like Jean Georges.

Mercato is open now at Three on the Bund. See full venue details