Jean-Georges Vongerichten is talking to me on his iPhone. He's about to take off for Tokyo or Mexico City, it's not entirely clear which; he's speaking softly and the background noise makes it hard to hear him. But the chef's voice comes through clearly when he gets to the subject of cooking with wine. "I think many chefs today see cooking with wine as old-fashioned; I see them using wine less and less," he says. "It's a shame. I love to cook with it, and I think my recipes are pretty modern. For a marinade, in a braising liquid or to deglaze a pan, wine brings its bouquet to a dish, its flavors and acidity."
From a young age, Vongerichten has been captivated by the ways wine can improve a meal. When he was still too young to drink it, growing up in Alsace, he looked forward to harvesting Riesling, Pinot Gris and Muscat grapes every autumn at his cousin's small vineyard. To celebrate the harvest's end, he and the other young cousins drank vin nouveau, the barely fermented grape juice, along with fresh walnuts, bread and cheese. He remembers the ways his mother cooked with white wines from their cellar. Whether she was poaching trout or braising pork, in nearly every dish, he recalls, "there was always a little bit of wine in there."
"I love long braisings in wine, like baeckoffe, the Alsatian pork stew, and sauerkraut," he says. Drawn to the flavors of the east, the chef, who has cooked in Bangkok and Singapore (and whose book Asian Flavors of Jean-Georges is out this fall), braises short ribs in a red wine sauce infused with Thai and Vietnamese flavors like fish sauce and sesame oil.
Vongerichten is equally fond of quick wine sauces, reducing the liquid over high heat to a rich gloss. For a sauce for ravioli with eggplant, Vongerichten boils down Gewürztraminer and flavors it with basil and bacon. "You can put it anywhere," he says of the versatile concoction. "Ravioli, fish, salad—anything tastes good with bacon, and with wine."
Today, Vongerichten still enjoys his family's Schlumbacher Alsace wines. They produce only 200 cases a year, but they always send a few to the chef. When he learned they may try to sell the vineyard, Vongerichten made plans to visit to see if he might buy it himself. "Who knows," he laughs. "In my retirement, maybe I'll become a chef-viniculteur."