Usually I spend most of my time as Jean-Georges Vongerichten's editor trying to get his attention. After all, he's got 15 restaurants to run, including the new Jean Georges in Shanghai and V Steakhouse in New York City. Yet, as I learned after cooking with him recently in the kitchen at Jean Georges in Manhattan, this maverick entrepreneur has incredible, penetrating, the-rest-of-the-world-does-not-exist focus. When he trains his eye on a project, like giving a master class in winter salads, the result is an exhausting, exhilarating, toss-out-everything-you-thought-you-knew experience.
When I arrive at 9:30 a.m., he's waiting for me with all the ingredients for the first recipecelery root salad with scallops and caviaralready organized in tin containers on the marble counter. As I tie a white apron around my waist, he holds up a gnarly celery root to his nose, like a flower. "Here, smell this," he says. It has a strong, earthy, celery odor. "I love celery remoulade," he says. "Celery root in a mustardy mayonnaise is one of the best salads, I think." He quarters the root so he's working with manageable pieces and thickly peels each with a paring knifenot a vegetable peeler, which removes only a thin layer of skindown to the smooth white flesh; then he juliennes each wedge with an inexpensive plastic Japanese mandoline, not a fancy stainless-steel one. "You can even use a box grater," he tells me. "I suggest you julienne the celery root ahead of time and toss it with lemon juice so it softens. Lemon also makes the celery root very white." He adds the celery shreds to a small stainless steel bowl and squeezes in lemon juice. "Just a few drops."
Next, Vongerichten deals with the scallops, which he'll thinly slice and quickly broil. They are slightly coral colored. "Sometimes they are more orange," he says, "because scallops eat bits of shrimp." Taking a closer look, he says, "You see, those guys are still moving." When he sprinkles a little fine sea salt over them, the flesh is so fresh it actually shrinks.