When Jean-Georges Vongerichten was growing up in Alsace, his family didn't own a toaster. But that didn't mean they never had toast. "We ate lots of it," Vongerichten explains. "But we grilled our bread directly over a gas flame at the stove."
Vongerichten, who is now a four-star chef with 16 restaurants around the world, developed something of a toast obsession. He recalls that as a boy he had toast for breakfast and toast topped with chocolate or Nutella every day when he came home from school. His mother sprinkled toast with grated Munster and added it to soup. For holidays, she toasted sourdough bread and served it with foie gras. When an old loaf was almost irredeemably hard and dry, she'd toast it for mendiant, a kind of bread pudding made with dried fruits.
Vongerichten learned that when a loaf of bread is very fresh, it needs to be toasted because it's too soft. When it's two or three days old, it is the perfect texture and doesn't need toasting. After that, it becomes too hard, and toasting is required to soften it.
When Vongerichten arrived in New York City in 1986 and started haunting the flea market on Sixth Avenue and 26th Street, he was drawn to the toasters. Today he has a collection of 20, including a 1937 Merit Made Toaster Flipside and boxy models with Bakelite and chrome walls from the '50s. "This is my first guy," he says, holding up a 1923 nickel-plated Electro Weld. "It still works. They only have value if they work," he explains, plugging the toaster into a socket in his supermodern, all-white kitchen. The element glows red. It's a simple appliance—plug it in and it's on, unplug it and it's off—with two slots for bread and open sides; because there's no timer, you need to carefully monitor the bread as it browns.
His second favorite machine is the Toast-o-lator from the '40s. This one looks like a toaster crossed with a car wash. A slice of bread travels along an escalator-like mechanism with heating elements on either side, passes a round window in the chrome body, then pops out the other end either lightly golden or evenly browned, depending on whether you've set the timer to slow or fast.
Vongerichten still has toast every morning, preferably with Sarabeth's orange-apricot marmalade on top. He also sneaks toast onto the menus of at least a few of his restaurants, prepared as in the recipes here. It appears at 66, his modern Chinese restaurant in Manhattan, in the form of crunchy shrimp toast studded with a tiny dice of water chestnuts. At nearby Mercer Kitchen, he makes a kind of pear tart in the pizza oven using sourdough bread instead of pastry. The baked bread, spread with amaretto-spiked hazelnut cream and topped with thin slices of soft, warm pear, is absolute genius.
Jean-Georges Vongerichten is a contributing editor at F&W. His newest restaurant is Perry Street in Manhattan.