How did Chefs Club come to be?
Our first location was Aspen, where we opened in 2012. We are in partnership with Food and Wine magazine, serving inventive recipes from its Best New Chefs. We celebrated our first anniversary in New York in November.
How does Chefs Club work?
We select chefs from around the world who do a tasting menu for a small group of people, based on their skills and techniques. The chefs that we select create the menus with their team. We have a culinary director who goes to our different locations on a yearly basis and he will meet the chefs, work with them, get to know their techniques, to put together a menu for our main dining room. We are a platform for chefs. We invite chefs from different parts of the world – Asia and Europe – to come in and do a tasting menu for 24 guests in our studio, mostly in our New York City location. We did it in Aspen as well, but we didn’t create a studio, it was in the main dining room.
In New York City we discovered that people really like the tasting menu, really enjoy experiencing different foods from the chefs coming just to cook for them, so we tried to expand the concept. Originally the chefs we bring in cook a menu for the studio and a small group of people but it’s so popular, we’ve now expanded to the main dining room.
What kind of kitchen do you have that can work for so many styles of cooking, different types of chefs?
In Manhattan we have 4,000 square feet of kitchen on the prep side in the basement. We tried to design it in a way to welcome any type of cooking, from Japanese to Italian chefs, someone cooking fried foods from Puerto Rico. On the ground floor the kitchen is made to be functional but also beautiful because it’s partly open to the dining room so it has a lot of beautiful design elements to it. We have a beautiful pizza oven, a beautiful plancha really the masterpiece of the dining room. We’ve designed it like a stage. The lighting is designed in a way to show the magic of the kitchen, the chef cooking and you can really see the chef cooking at the plancha.
Is the object to bring chefs in from all over the world to experience cooking in New York and preparing for New York or is it for New York chefs to also participate? What is the mix in putting it together?
Chefs ask us, what do people like in New York City? We try to give them guidance about what’s happening in New York, but the whole idea is to bring the uniqueness, the whole experience of the chef from wherever he or she is coming from. People here love to experience different things. When people enter a chef’s study, they need to get something different on their plates. Sometimes it is food that is very time-sensitive, as it’s only one night. So it’s a really exquisite experience. Chefs don’t really change anything, they adapt to the market. Some of the ingredients they cannot get in New York, but they adapt the recipe. The flavors are true to where the chef comes from.
How do you get that done? The Chefs’ Warehouse? Other places?
When we secure a chef, we have the culinary team get in touch with the chef and ask, what do you need to create a menu? If we cannot find that product, maybe we can substitute another. We’re constantly talking to Paris Gourmet, Baldor, Chef’s Warehouse, etc… talking to the best people to provide us with the best ingredients possible.
What about long-term expansion? Will you take Chefs Club to LA? Chicago? What’s the vision?
We’re in the process of extending the brand. We wanted first to really secure New York, be accepted here. That’s why it took a whole year, really focusing on New York. After one year now we would like to expand a little and are looking at different markets. We haven’t secured anything yet but we’re definitely looking at opening other Chefs Clubs. We will open one more in the next two years, and we’re also working on a different concept, fast causal, as well.
Is that why Dana Cowin is joining the team?
She’s creative chief officer, and will take on the brand, all the physical attributes to the brand and participate in collaboration with the team we currently have in bringing chefs from different countries, because it’s been based on my connections and on our own travel, as well, maybe thinking, ‘Oh, that would be interesting to have you cooking.’ When we select the chefs, based on connections, travel, that kind of thing, it’s really a combination when we choose the chefs, very established chefs and also up-and-coming chefs. We get a balance there. We get some interesting chefs, some not-so-famous, and then very famous chefs, like Jowett Yu from Hong Kong, a chef from Rome, Gabriel Bonci who makes amazing pizza. There’s a great balance we try to have.
Have you found that the same customer keeps on coming back? What’s the mix of who comes to support the different chefs?
We looked into that, the mix of people coming to chefs club, who the chefs are, and compared to my previous experience in restaurants, we have a very very strong number of people who came more than 20 times. That’s pretty solid. Most of those people keep coming to the studio and to the visiting chef experience because people like to try new things and they’re so excited about who’s coming next. I get so many phone calls! Who’s going to come next? A lot of people are really interested in getting a look at the tasting menu and then we have a big chunk of people from the industry. When we have the chef, Jowett Yu from Hong Kong taking over the main dining room, we get so much press. People from the back of the house, the front of the house, managers who came from other restaurants just to try it. I think people are really intrigued about the concept because it’s different and also intrigued to try the food from those different chefs. They’re in the industry, they want to try, to Instagram, do the whole thing. They want to say hi, everyone knows everyone, it’s like a big family, we’ve all worked together at other restaurants at some point, it’s a good mix.
What surprised you the most over the year? What popped up that you didn’t expect?
At first I was not expecting that there were that many people willing to pay a little more money to get a tasting menu, that’s why we had 24 people. Every time we have a chef, it’s enough, we thought. Then we realized that even if the chef is doing two seatings a night or cooking two or three nights, 24 people is not enough and that’s why we decided to expand it, and to take over the entire dining room. That’s something that’s really changed. It’s been a learning curve for us as well because it’s something we haven’t done in the past. We realized in about two to three months that we needed to change the business model and expand it, and to do a mix of studio cooking for chefs who are used to cooking for 20-30 guests like French chefs, and for people more comfortable throwing a big party, like having 200 covers, experiencing a different thing. Everyone knows when they come to Chefs Club, they are going to experience that and it’s a very good vibe in the main dining room when we have different chefs that cook.
How did you build the team, when you basically have a different boss every night?
Didier Elena did a really good job putting together the team for the back of the house. The team started to develop in Aspen first. Aspen was like a laboratory. It’s a different market, smaller, seasonal, so we were able to run that concept of rotating chefs. Then we started to have the sous chefs transfer from Aspen to New York. Every chef has been very loyal and they’ve been following the journey and believing in the journey of the Chefs Club. That’s really our strength, in the back of the house. Then we had Matthew Aita, the chef that’s been with us since November and he hired people who are very flexible and passionate about what they’re doing. Obviously, when you have a chef that comes for a week or two days, everything changes, you have to adapt, and it’s very different. That’s our strength, to have someone who can bring the team together and make it really positive because everyone’s learning different techniques, as well. It’s very exciting.
Does the tabletop change with each chef?
In the main dining room, the tabletop remains what we have. In the studio, it’s a little different. We started with the same tabletop but we really now try to replicate the ambiance of the chef back home. When the chef comes, the music is his or her music, the flowers are the ones he or she likes. We change the set-up of the table. Sometimes it’s U-shaped. If a chef wants to have a rectangle, we change it to that. We really try to replicate the environment and ambiance of the chef but we also have what we call a personal cabinet in the studio designed by David Rockwell, who’s the designer behind Chefs Club and in that personal cabinet we ask the chef to bring anything personal he or she would like to showcase. It becomes a talking point, their first spoon, their first knife, pictures of the restaurant, the menu of the restaurant. We want to replicate that ambiance so it becomes really cozy.
Tell me a little about you. How did you get into the industry?
I always knew I liked it. I worked for my dad Jean-Georges Vongerichten for a few years. I was six months a hostess at Mercer Kitchen and six months a runner and waiter. Then I moved up to a management position in my 2nd year and was general manager in my 3rd year. I knew I needed that operational background and because I was always interested in that as well, the whole thing, the interaction with the hotel restaurant and room service and everything that goes with that. Then I wanted to do something different so I went back to France and got my MBA and after that, I worked in Dubai. So I was there for a year, and went to Hong Kong for almost a year. When I decided I wanted to move back to New York, I met Stephane De Baets, president of Chefs Club and he was looking for someone to come to New York. We really understood each other right away. I fell in love with the concept. It was really different, really dynamic. That’s how I came to Chefs Club.
How has the opportunity for women evolved since you’ve been in the industry? Have you seen the growth you wanted to see?
Especially in New York City it’s a place where things like gender and nationality doesn’t make any difference, compared to other countries. I worked in Asia, in Italy where it is totally different. In New York, if you have the talent, you get rewarded for what you do. In New York City more than anywhere else, it’s possible. What I’m doing with Stephane can be more difficult in other countries. That’s the trend, more than ever for sure.
Is it hard to have a famous father?
No. it’s been very rewarding. I’m still young and learning a lot. So all the processes to open this place, which has been challenging and rewarding at the same time, been through a lot of emotion, some negatives and positives, but my father has always been there. No matter how stupid my question can get, based on his experience and as a father, he makes sure that I do the right thing. I couldn’t hope for anything better.
What does the future look like for you?
I see a lot of expansion happening in the next two to three years. I will remain with Chefs Club to help with that expansion. My dream would be to open a hotel.
There have never been as many significant restaurants in hotels as there are now. Will that continue?
Yes, because people need to eat and in New York City, people like to eat out. I talk about this a lot with my dad. People like to go out on average three or four times a week. Myself, I go out 7 times a week! I love experiencing different restaurants, exciting openings. We’re lucky in this industry because, one, we are people who like to eat and two, the pleasure of eating, of sharing good food, with people around the table. I think there will be more and more of that. That’s what makes it challenging, as well, because you need to remain competitive, always be better and improve and make sure that people are not ever disappointed in you.