Jean-Georges Vongerichten and two of his most trusted lieutenants are going through the central markets of Papeete like Alaskan bears through a salmon farm. In this capital city of Tahiti, deep in the South Pacific, Vongerichten peels off bills as though he was spending against the clock—which he is: The flight to Bora Bora leaves in a little more than an hour.
Daniel Del Vecchio, Vongerichten’s right-hand man, carries the big, yellow fishing bag first. Then Greg Brainin, director of creative development for Vongerichten’s global empire, takes hold of the sack before they finally drag it around together. If the bag gets any heavier, it’ll take an Alaskan bear to swing it into the taxi.
Vongerichten has jetted into French Polynesia to conjure up fresh recipes for the menus at Lagoon, one of the restaurants in the new St. Regis Resort, Bora Bora, and the 16th of the star chef’s 17 restaurants. Lagoon opened last June, and this is Vongerichten’s first trip back.
Like most of Polynesia, Bora Bora is more than one land mass; the mountainous, jungle-covered, 14-square-mile main island is surrounded by a ring of motus (islets). Breathtaking as the setting is, local agriculture amounts to not much more than coconut palms. With little native produce to draw on, Vongerichten must bring in all he can from Papeete.
Into the fishing bag go clusters of fresh turmeric with roots resembling cooked shrimp; Thai basil and Vietnamese long-leafed cilantro; trays of star fruit and startlingly yellow passion fruit; pineapples; tomatoes; enormous, spongy vanilla pods; and avocados the size of gourds.
Last stop is the coconut stall, where an industrial-size mincer extrudes coconut pulp into a yard-wide wooden bowl. Vongerichten wants the grated coconut as well as some of the coconut cream and fermented milk; not the bottles on the counter but the fresh stuff. In they go. The chef has managed to spend $500 in 20 minutes. Now it’s just a question of sweet-talking customs into letting the bags onto the plane.
Vongerichten is charming—but not that charming; customs refuses to be sweet-talked. All the produce he and his lieutenants have just plundered from the market will have to be quarantined. The herbs, fruits and assorted open containers of coconut products will have to come on a later plane—if they come at all.
Vongerichten takes the setback with good grace—and 15 minutes later, the familiar yellow bag is spotted as it’s lugged back to the terminal, dripping something that looks suspiciously like fermented coconut milk. For all his efforts, it would appear that the master chef is going to land on Bora Bora empty-handed.
The most striking feature of Bora Bora is the turquoise lagoon. Rippling gently between white sand and blue sky, it almost quivers with color. Bounded by extensive coral reefs, it offers some of the best diving in the world. At the St. Regis Bora Bora, the largest resort in the region, 100 thatch-roofed guest villas perch on stilts above the water along a series of timber walkways. Inside the rooms, through glass floor tiles, guests can watch tropical fish swimming in the water below. Across the lagoon, Motu Tapu is available for private day use by guests, with private beaches and sarong-clad cooks who can prepare a Polynesian grilled lobster feast. Another motu is reserved exclusively for the resort’s Spa Miri Miri, which offers yoga classes in an outdoor courtyard and Polynesian-inspired skin treatments like a Tahitian vanilla-and-coconut body scrub. It’s all dreamy, but what really mesmerizes is the turquoise lagoon. Always the turquoise lagoon.
Suspended over the water, Vongerichten’s Lagoon restaurant affords a staggering view of lush green Mount Otemanu through its floor-to-ceiling windows. The cathedral ceiling is lined with hand-woven pandanus, a local reed, and floors are of Malaysian yellow willow wood, offsetting the rich dark wood of the chairs and tables.
In Vongerichten’s absence, the kitchen is being run by French-trained Romuald Feger, whose résumé includes stints at New York’s Le Cirque and Nice’s Palais de la Méditerranée. Feger seems unfazed by the arrival of the New York triumvirate, but the same can’t be said of his staff. "They’re a bit nervous," Feger admits of his crew.
Vongerichten enters the kitchen in a buoyant mood. He has just spent the morning ripping up the lagoon’s normally tranquil surface on a Jet-ski. Brainin has spent the past four hours fine-tuning recipes, and Del Vecchio is outside, hunched over a charcoal barbecue that becomes so hot in the course of the afternoon’s cooking that the steel grill tray wilts like a wet waffle.
While the ingredients for the new menu come from yesterday’s race through the market, the inspiration is pure Vongerichten, with its merging of French techniques and Asian accents. Nothing is immune to a Vongerichten makeover. Loaded up with so much coconut (the yellow bag had finally arrived, as promised), the chef caramelizes some of the milk for a grilled spiced-chicken dish—transforming it into the base for a surprisingly earthy, sophisticated sauce flavored with Thai green chile and Asian fish sauce. "Coconut caramel with chicken is a new chicken," he explains with the conviction of a master chef who still derives his greatest satisfaction from the four to six hours he spends each day in one of his kitchens.
With a surfeit of skilled cooks on the premises, it’s still Vongerichten who insists on crimping the sides of the foil parcel to create a packet of the local moonfish with shiitake and a popcorn-infused ponzu broth, a twist on the classic Japanese citrus-spiked sauce. It is Vongerichten who seizes the tongs as the parcel looks ready to explode. And it’s Vongerichten who eagerly solicits opinions from the onlookers falling on the meaty fish like piranhas. "The last bite must be as exciting as the first," he says emphatically.
Brainin puts it this way: "It’s all about making something delicious. Do you crave another bite or not?" If he’s referring to the bacon-wrapped shrimp with passion fruit mustard atop slices of fresh avocado, the answer from the assembled tasters is "yes yes yes." The tangy-sweet mustard is wonderful with the rich avocado and sweet shrimp, but what really pleases the crowd is the envelope of bacon singed by the fire, crispy and smoky.
Making such nuanced recipes work in a location as remote as Bora Bora taxes the logistical skills of even an outfit as experienced as Vongerichten’s. "If you run out of something in New York, you pick up the phone and it’s delivered in half an hour," says Vongerichten. "Last week we sent over 12 new recipes, but it will take Romuald a fortnight to get the necessary ingredients."
Vongerichten’s deputies have tried encouraging local growers to cultivate ingredients specially for the kitchens at the St. Regis, but so far no one has taken up the invitation. The chef points to another of his new dishes: grilled mahimahi with slow-roasted tomatoes and fresh cherry tomato jus. The juicy, plump tomatoes had to come from Tahiti because no one on Bora Bora will grow them. "We have wonderful growers for Dune and Café Martinique in the Bahamas," he says with a shrug. "But so far here..."
Before flying home, Vongerichten and his crew decide to explore the island. With a choice of taking a 4x4 safari through the bush on Mount Otemanu, spotting leopard rays and reef sharks on a boat ride farther out on the blue lagoon or deep-sea fishing on the darker ocean beyond the island’s motus, the chefs surrender to the pull of the water. On Bora Bora, it’s impossible to stay away from it for long—the sea draws you in like some mystical spell. For a day of deep-sea fishing, the chefs charter the Taravana, helmed by Captain Richard, an American expatriate who’s sailed French Polynesia for more than 35 years. The three New Yorkers are determined to bring back a Hemingway-esque marlin at least. Perhaps Vongerichten did catch one—in his dreams. He returns rested, having slept the entire morning.
Back at Lagoon, one of the chef’s dreams may be coming true. Late in the day, two men appear on the shore with an impressively robust yellowfin tuna. No amateurs, these fishermen have stored their catch well. Vongerichten likes the look of it; a deal is done and the fishermen depart happy. It’s not quite homegrown tomatoes, but one thing’s for certain: Lagoon won’t run out of sashimi tomorrow.
Tom Gilling is the author of The Sooterkin and The Adventures of Miles and Isabel. His third novel is due out this fall.