Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten was the food celebrity in his family until his wife, Marja, became a cookbook author and TV star with The Kimchi Chronicles. Together, they host a holiday dinner with his-and-hers courses and one magnificent pork shoulder.
A peek inside Jean-Georges and Marja Vongerichten's refrigerator says a lot about who they are. Containers of her homemade kimchi ferment alongside beautiful French cheeses he brings home from his Manhattan restaurants. Containers of Korean hallabong juice (which tastes like extreme tangerines) are lined up next to bottles of rosé and sake. Gochujang, the red chile paste that adds fire to just about every Korean dish, is right next to Jean-Georges's chocolate stash.
The contents of the Vongerichtens' fridge grow exponentially before Christmas, when the couple prepares one of the best and most eclectic holiday dinners I've ever been to. Marja and Jean-Georges have been sharing a kitchen since they were married in 2004, and their holiday table always has a mix of Korean, French and American food—"our UN meal," Marja calls it. Dinner starts with a quiche-like bacon-and-cheddar tart, almost a meal on its own. The tart is a spin on Alsatian tarte flambé, a dish that Jean-Georges helped popularize years ago at Mercer Kitchen, one of his many New York City restaurants. The next course, a Korean seafood stew packed with lobster, clams and red chile, is a complete contrast, and directly influenced by Marja's Korean heritage.
I've come to know a lot about Marja's Korean background, and it's the reason I can find my way around the Vongerichtens' kitchen. Last year, I traveled with them and a small production crew to make public television's Kimchi Chronicles, a documentary series about Korean cooking and culture shown from Marja's perspective. Shooting took us everywhere, from the night markets in Seoul (where Marja turned us all on to bindaetteok, crispy mung bean pancakes that are her favorite Korean street food) to hyper-beautiful Jeju Island, Korea's go-to honeymoon spot. The trip was the basis for The Kimchi Chronicles, the companion cookbook that Marja and I co-authored. To make all of the recipes as accessible and authentic as possible, we tested them in Marja and Jean-Georges's apartment. Which, incidentally, meant cheeseburgers from Perry Street, yet another Jean-Georges restaurant, during our lunch breaks.
Marja's extraordinary life story began in Uijeongbu, Korea, where she was born to a young Korean woman, Yong Ye Bae. Her biological father, an African-American serviceman, abandoned Bae when she was seven months pregnant. On her own with a mixed-race child and no money, Bae decided to put her three-year-old in an orphanage.
Marja was adopted by an American couple and raised in northern Virginia, but she tracked down Bae when she was 19, and the two had an emotional reunion. "The first thing she did was feed me," Marja says, "like any good Korean mother." Bae had already relocated to Brooklyn (where she currently lives) after marrying an American army officer from Crown Heights; Marja soon moved in with her. "Right away we started cooking together," Marja says. "It was a way for us to bond and she would explain different ingredients. She'd say anchovies have lots of calcium and you should have doenjang [soybean paste] because it's good for your intestines." They would go to Manhattan's Koreatown on 32nd Street to shop for ingredients to make traditional dishes at home. To this day, they spend every Monday night together singing karaoke in Koreatown.
Marja met Jean-Georges through a mutual friend soon after settling in New York. When they began living together, she brought her kimchi with her. "I opened the fridge and thought something had died," Jean-Georges recalls. Even so, the relationship progressed. Their wedding, held at his pan-Asian restaurant Spice Market in Manhattan, included a Korean ceremony during which they exchanged wooden ducks to signify a lifelong commitment. They also have a daughter, Chloe.
In contrast to Marja's background, Jean-Georges's childhood was rooted in French tradition. He grew up in Alsace, his bedroom located right above the family kitchen where his mother and grandmother cooked for the Vongerichtens' coal-company employees every day. Despite his classic French culinary training, Jean-Georges became known for the sophisticated and pioneering use of the Asian flavors he began adding to his food in the early '90s. The chef's turning point came when he was 23 and left home for Bangkok to take a cooking job at a big hotel. On his way from the airport, he stopped for soup on the road and watched the cook combine shrimp and lemongrass with water in a pot set on a portable burner to make a nearly instant, flavor-packed broth. No long, slow hours of braising. "It went against everything I had learned," Jean-Georges says.
Despite the diverse Asian influences in Jean-Georges's cooking, Korean food had rarely, if ever, factored into his repertoire before Marja. His marriage has been a crash course in Korean cooking and culture, including trips to visit Marja's family there and to the best Korean restaurants in Manhattan. Interestingly, the more Jean-Georges has gotten to know about Korean food, the more parallels he finds it has with Alsatian cooking. "They're both all about pork and cabbage," he says, even comparing kimchi to sauerkraut. And, he adds, both cuisines are based on inexpensive ingredients and preservation.
The bold flavors of Korean food—the raw garlic punch, the assertive heat in all the red pepper, the buzz in the fermented condiments—are an excellent complement to Jean-Georges's more multicultural dishes, like the pineapple-topped sweet-and-sour roasted pork shoulder that's the centerpiece of the Vongerichtens' holiday meal. Served with bowls of rice and lettuce for wrapping, the roast pork becomes a hands-on part of the meal. Alongside are his-and-hers kimchi—his made quickly in a sauté pan and served warm, her more traditional version slowly fermented with salt. "No matter what," Marja says, "we'll always have a side of kimchi somewhere on the table. Always."
The Vongerichtens' passion for Korean food and culture, and the ease with which they incorporate what they learn into their lives, lends Kimchi Chronicles an intimate feel. Marja took advantage of all the markets and all the meals she could sample in Korea and didn't turn down any opportunity to try something new, no matter how adventurous. Her dedication to understanding her native food—to understanding herself, really—prevailed even when tasting what she calls "Fear Factor Foods": ingredients like silkworm larvae and raw sea squirt (sac-like sea animals that live at the bottom of the ocean). She sees it all as part of her mission to popularize Korean food.
No matter how much Marja's fan base grows from the Kimchi Chronicles series, Jean-Georges remains her biggest supporter. After he envelops the sweet-and-sour pork in lettuce to form a bundle called a ssam, he eats it in one large bite, as per Korean custom. He reaches for another, grins big, and proudly says, "Marja taught me the real way."
Julia Turshen, an NYC-based food writer, collaborated with Gwyneth Paltrow on her cookbook, My Father's Daughter.