How Louise Vongerichten Is Building Chefs Club Into a Global Brand
William Hereford/Courtesy Chefs Club by Food & Wine
If Louise Vongerichten hadn't pursued working in restaurants, she says, she would have become a ballet dancer. She continued dancing even as she began working at Mercer Kitchen, her family's restaurant (her father is chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten), not leaving the stage until she was 24. "It's really my number one passion," she says.
She still holds herself like a ballerina, with enviable grace and posture, as she glides through Chefs Club by Food & Wine (275 Mulberry Street, 212-941-1100), where, at the ripe old age of 28, she's the brand and business development director, tasked with developing the concept here in New York, in Aspen, and, eventually, in other cities.
Given her upbringing, you might say that restaurants are in Vongerichten's blood — her first job was hostessing at one of her family's places "at an illegal age," she says. "Growing up in the business was very rewarding. I learned naturally, because of the conversation we had at home, about things to do, and things not to do."
She joined the industry officially after she finished her bachelor's degree, starting at Mercer as a hostess and then working her way through the front of the house until she became general manager. The job gave her a strong grasp of operations, which she says are extremely important to a restaurant's success. "Chefs are very generous people," she says. "They like food, and they like pleasing people. I think the business side of it, they miss sometimes. You have to pay attention to food cost, to labor cost. It's challenging for chefs to do both."
Vongerichten left Mercer after four years to move back to Paris, then started working for hotels, which took her to Dubai and Hong Kong. Two years ago, she met a feng shui master who introduced her to one of the investors in Chefs Club, and she was quickly sold on joining the team. "I fell in love with the concept," she says. "It was fascinating, and very dynamic, with so many chefs, and so many personalities."
The idea was to build a gathering spot for chefs, where top toques from around the world could come and showcase their artistry, and where any chef could pop in and cook, contribute, and converse. And diners benefit, of course, because they get to eat the results. "I like the fact that you have one place where you can experience different types of food, and it's well executed," says Vongerichten. "This is really a place I would like to go."
She moved back to New York and began working with president and founder Stephane De Baets, whom she describes as an incredible mentor on the business side of restaurants. Together, the pair developed the New York restaurant from scratch, building on what they learned at the Chefs Club in Aspen. "We opened in Aspen in 2012, and it was like our laboratory," she says. "We learned there what works and what doesn't. Aspen was very different [from New York]. It's a single room of 100 covers. That doesn't work with a visiting chef — you can't ask a fine-dining chef to do so many covers at once."
So in New York, the team built a small studio, where visiting chefs host elaborate tasting affairs, and a large dining room, which offers a menu culled from chefs all over the world by culinary director Didier Elena, who also contributes dishes to the list. The kitchen in that large space is open, she says, so that diners have something to watch and participate in while they're at dinner. "It's like a Broadway show," she says.
The setup means that the focus of the studio is often shifting, making it a special destination. "We have fine dining next week, but then farm-to-table, and then Japanese," she says. "It's eclectic and specific." The main dining room, on the other hand, is "more a place that you want to go every week," she says. It operates as an upscale bistro.
Now that the restaurant is dialed in, Vongerichten and her team are also working to enhance the address's role as a gathering place for chefs. "We'll have our first gathering of chefs next month, and it will be all around pasta," she says. "Different chefs, including my dad, will do different takes on pasta — and that also means dumplings, gnocchi, and ravioli. We want this to be a space where chefs are comfortable and always welcome. They can cook something on the grill at midnight, have a glass of wine, and hang out."
All of that fits well in the New York dining scene, Vongerichten believes, because New Yorkers are constantly looking for surprises and new experiences. "I think people like to try new things," she says. "They like edgy and different. We want to create an experience that people want to replicate and come back for, but New Yorkers like that it's dynamic and changing."
It also makes this city a tough place to succeed — "If we make it here with Chefs Club, we can open more in the future." Vongerichten divulges that the team is looking at Los Angeles and Florida, and abroad in Asia and Europe. Those restaurants, if they come to fruition, might be very different from New York's. "It's about being flexible. You have to adapt yourself to the market where you're working. In Aspen, the best new chefs that we select are very different from the best new chefs we select in New York. The demand is different, and what people want to eat is different. That's what hospitality is all about."
And Vongerichten hopes to be around as Chefs Club expands. "I really believe in this concept," she says.
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