The moment I woke up in the morning, I knew what was for lunch. My childhood bedroom was right above my mother’s kitchen. Everything on her stove drifted up through the floorboards like a Chinese steamer.
I grew up in Illkirch-Graffenstaden, France, a suburb 5 miles from the center of Strasbourg in Alsace. Our two-story house dates to the 1780s and overlooks one of the city’s canals. My mother, Jeanine, is 85 and still lives there.
The house is white with timber beams crisscrossing the exterior. It has an orange-tile roof, and geraniums hanging from window boxes. My parents and grandparents lived on the first floor, with the kitchen at the center. On the second floor, my younger brother, Philippe, and I shared a bedroom. My younger sister, Martine, and my youngest brother, Christian, had their own rooms.
The house was also my father George’s workplace. When I was little, he ran a coal-distribution business. My great-grandfather started the company when coal from northern France was delivered to the house on canal barges. Each day, my mother and grandmother cooked lunch for 40—15 family members and about 25 workers.
My mother enforced strict eating times. Lunch was at 12:30 sharp and our family dinner was at 7:30. If you were late, you had a butter sandwich. There were no leftovers. On Sundays, my job in the kitchen was to peel and chop, and get my mother what she needed. Otherwise I was outside playing, often on the mountains of coal by our house.
My parents named me Jean-Georges by hyphenating their first names. But as a child, my nickname was JoJo the Terror. I was constantly making trouble in the neighborhood with my slingshot and potato gun.
In 1972, when I was 15, my parents sent me to a local engineering school. I was the oldest and expected to take over my father’s business. But after six months, my grades were so bad the school threw me out.
Back home, I was put to work by my father carrying pipes. By then, he had converted his coal business to oil. He knew I hated the work.
For my 16th birthday, my parents took my sister and me to Auberge de L’lll, a three-star restaurant 45 minutes from Strasbourg. My family was so large and busy, we never ate out. I couldn’t believe the food, the presentation and the service. I had foie gras, a salmon soufflé and venison.
After dinner, the chef stopped by to ask how everything was. My father told him how much we enjoyed the meal. Then he said, “My son is good for nothing. If you need someone to wash dishes, he seems to have an interest in this business.”
The chef said he was actually looking for an apprentice. I interviewed, but months passed without a call back. Then on July 13, 1973, the restaurant called to offer me a job. I started the next day, on Bastille Day, in the kitchen. My father dropped me off in the morning and picked me up at night. I loved it right away.
One day a week I went to cooking school at Strasbourg’s Lycée Hôtelier. The remaining days I worked at the restaurant. I slept upstairs with the other apprentices.
Starting at a three-star Michelin restaurant changed me. I grew up overnight. In that environment, I was somebody special. I felt valued and saw my future. I peeled, chopped, plucked feathers from chickens and soon learned to butcher when hunters brought animals to the kitchen.
Over the next three years, I worked at four three-star restaurants in Europe. Next, I traveled to Asia and trained at the restaurants of five-star hotels in Bangkok, Singapore and Hong Kong. In 1986, I was asked by chef Louis Outhier to join him at Lafayette in New York’s Drake Hotel. Five years later, I opened my first New York restaurant, JoJo, with my brother, Philippe.
Jean-Georges: Individual Servings
- First hospitality venture: ‘As a kid, I loved pop music with a beat. At 14, in 1971, I turned our cellar into a teen disco. I was the DJ. After a year, it was the hottest local night spot on Saturday nights.’
- Favorite mom’s meal: ‘When I visit my mother in Strasbourg, I stay in my old bedroom. My mother still cooks. I dream of her roast chicken and tarte flambée with fromage blanc and onions.’
- Must-have export: ‘Before I return to New York, I pick up several bottles of Melfor Honey and Herb Vinegar. It’s made in Alsace. The taste and smell remind me of my childhood house.’
- On the kitchen counter: ‘At home in New York, it’s all about convenience and flavor. I love my Microplane zester, my Vitamix Vita-Prep for smoothies and my Instant Pot pressure cooker for fast meals.’
Today, my wife, Marja, and I live with our daughter, Chloe, in a 4,000-square-foot apartment in New York’s West Village. We spend weekends at our country house in Waccabuc, N.Y. It’s an old wooden house but modern inside.
The interior of our New York apartment is an open plan, with glass exterior walls. We have a great view of the Hudson River. Unfortunately, with all of my restaurants, I’m never home early enough to see the sunset.
Our kitchen is simple and slick. It’s very clean. Marja does most of the cooking for Chloe. After work, when I arrive home late, I usually have a little piece of Lindt milk chocolate. It’s simple and relaxes me.
In my kitchen at home, I have my mother’s antique crank grater. I love putting a chunk of cheese in the barrel and turning it over a salad. The cheese always tastes better coming out of there.
House Call appears weekly and features famous people reflecting on their childhood homes and experiences growing up.
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