How do you say no to a man who was just elected President of the United States? Just ask ballsy chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. “Donald Trump’s personal assistant called me a day after he won the elections to say he wanted to book a table at my restaurant [three Michelin star Jean-Georges at Trump International Hotel in New York City] last November. At that point, Trump hadn’t dined at my restaurant in two years — he’s my landlord and I know him, of course. I told his PA: ‘Maybe not so soon? There are journalists standing outside my restaurant now!’" The Frenchman who became a US citizen two years ago and boasts over 30 restaurants worldwide (most of them in the States), grins and adds: “Two weeks later, his PA called again to book a table and I said, ‘Not yet, wait for it [the protests surrounding the election results] to die down’. But soon after that, they called me the third time and said: ‘Mr Trump is going to your restaurant tomorrow with [former Massachusetts governor] Mitt Romney, and this time, you can't say no.’ Trump happened to be standing beside his PA during this call and he asked to speak to me. When he got to the phone, he asked me: 'Are we still friends?'"
We are at the chef’s one-week-old restaurant in Singapore, The Dempsey Cookhouse & Bar at Como Dempsey, his first eatery in Southeast Asia. It’s a far more casual version of his swish three-star outlet the POTUS dined at. Como’s PR rep did not grant us an interview with Jean-Georges, so we hijacked the chef at the end of our incognito dinner last night, after we had paid the bill. Despite our initial apprehension, we are surprised at how candid and accommodating the 59-year-old is with his ready smile, chatting with us animatedly in faintly French-accented English for a good ten minutes.
8 DAYS: Are you and Donald Trump really friends?
JEAN-GEORGES VONGERICHTEN: Oh well, I had to do it [accept his restaurant reservation]. He's my landlord. People asked me if I was going to relocate my restaurant from Trump International Hotel after the elections and I said: ‘No, because he's only president for four years whereas I've got a lease in this building for another 15 years!’
Donald Trump infamously likes his steak well-done, which is sacrilegious to foodies. Did he order his beef the same way during dinner at your three Michelin star restaurant in New York?
Yes! He likes all his food well-done, even his scallops and lamb. He is not a foodie — food is not important to him. He has simple tastes, he prefers meat and potatoes. And he doesn't drink alcohol.
How do you feel about preparing a prime piece of steak well-done instead of the recommended medium-rare?
Well, you know… (shrugs).
But Trump did hire you to cook at his wedding with Melania back in 2005, so he must have some good taste?
Yes, it was in Mar-a-Lago. Though I think the food was more for his guests than for himself, ha ha!
Were you present during his dinner with Mitt Romney and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus at Jean-Georges?
I was there that night. The other restaurant guests applauded when Trump entered the dining room. Americans are still patriotic. Well, 47 per cent of the country did vote for him.
You must be in a difficult position since New Yorkers are mostly liberals, not conservatives. And your flagship restaurant is within Trump’s hotel.
(Wryly) Yes, I'm one of them.
No prizes for guessing whom you voted for, ha ha. Has business been affected at your NYC restaurants, especially the one at Trump’s hotel?
Not at all, because this is New York, and people know that I’m about food, not politics. Okay, enough about Trump! (Laughs)
Sure, let’s talk about your restaurant in Singapore. Prices are pretty affordable at Dempsey Cookhouse & Bar at Como Dempsey — perhaps even more so than your other casual eateries in America.
Actually, many of my restaurants are quite reasonably priced, such as Nougatine. I think Dempsey is a lovely area, but it’s not a place for fine-dining, so I wanted a restaurant that’s more accessible to people. The menu here features the ‘best of’ dishes from most of my other restaurants.
You're leaving Singapore this week. When will you be back?
I’ll be back in April. I have to visit often to make sure kitchen operations here are okay. Also, I love Singapore — I need my laksa often!
You’re known as the guy who created the molten chocolate cake and you’ve been serving it at your restaurants for many years. Do you still eat this dessert or are you bored of it?
Yes, I still eat it once a month. Not for work purposes, but for pleasure, because I love chocolate.
One last question about Trump. You say he likes all his food cooked well-done. Does this include your molten chocolate cake, which he ordered during dinner with Mitt Romney?
No, no, no. And thank god, because I won’t do it! (Guffaws)
Look out for our undercover restaurant review of The Dempsey Cookhouse & Bar soon.