Jean-Georges Vongerichten on 20 Years in Shanghai

By Ned Kelly

Shanghai can be a fickle city for restaurateurs. Even more so for those that set up shop on the Bund.

Not so for Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who just celebrated the 20th anniversary of his eponymous fine dining institution in Three on the Bund.

We caught up with the French chef and global superstar who, at 67 years young, is still burning with his trademark energy, enthusiasm and ambition.

On how Jean-Georges Shanghai came to be...

Back in 2000, a diner in my restaurant in New York approached me. They had just taken the Three on the Bund building in Shanghai, and wanted to fill it with F&B.

Wow... Shanghai.

I knew Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore, so I said "Let's go visit Shanghai!"

Jean-Georges Vongerichten outside an empty Three on the Bund in 2000. Photo by Daniel Del Vecchio.

The only thing open at the time was M on the Bund; from there, all the way to the Peace Hotel, there were no other restaurants, just banks, insurance companies, and offices.

The Three on the Bund building was gorgeous, and the fourth floor [where Jean-Georges was slated to be] was huge... but a complete shell.

I thought "How are we going to do this?"

Well, fortunately, Michael Grave was the architect, and he was based in New Jersey – making it easy for us to talk to the guy. So I came back and said, "Let's do it."

On the original Jean-Georges Shanghai look…

We started working with Michael Graves, and the concept was France in the '20s. So the first 10 years the restaurant was a wooden parquet floor, exotic eel skin furniture at the bar, and velvet. A lot of velvet.

Much darker. Very dark.

But it was fantastic. Fun. French old school – like back in the good old days. A crossover with Shanghai in the '20s and all that romance.

And it took off right away.

The original Jean-Georges look. Photo courtesy of Three on the Bund.

On sourcing issues (& solutions)...

The big problem in those early days was a lack of produce. We went to the markets, and there was no parsley, no basil, no rosemary, no thyme… no herbs except cilantro.

So we started to bring in some seeds. We found a farm, and gave the seeds to a farmer to grow our own herbs for us, along with edible flowers, that kind of thing.

Then, little by little, every year, more and more, ingredients slowly became available – a guy would pop up from Yunnan selling morel mushrooms, a new fresh seafood supplier would appear from Dalian.

We were – and are – always looking for the best ingredients. That's what good food is all about.

On the birth of Mercato…

Jean-Georges did so well that, after six years, we decided to do a second restaurant. At the time, ABC Kitchen was just opening in New York, a farm to table restaurant, so we considered that, but in the end decided to do kind of the opposite of Jean-Georges: a trattoria.

So we worked with Lyndon Neri [of Neri&Hu], who was working with Michael Graves at the time, and put in a pizza oven, and used a whole load of reclaimed wood – the floor, the bar, the tables.

Mercato with its reclaimed wood. Photo courtesy of Three on the Bund.

The Mercato dining room. Photo courtesy of Three on the Bund.

At the beginning, it was a difficult sell – you're not Italian. "Well," I told them, "it's New York Italian: we have meat balls, truffle pizza, all that kind of thing."

And it was another instant success.

On changes made over the years…

Ten years ago, we decided Jean-Georges needed a little revamp. It was getting old, the heavy drapery.