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The Chef, The Pig And The Perfect Summer Party

Roasting a whole suckling pig on an open fire is no job for slackers, but the results are totally worth it, as global superchef Jean-Georges Vongerichten proves at a party at his new weekend house outside Manhattan.

What is the first thing you do if the weekend house you just bought comes with an 18-foot-wide fire pit? If you’re superchef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, you call Sylvia and Steve Pryzant at Four Story Hill Farm in Pennsylvania. The Pryzants raise poultry and heirloom pigs for some of the country’s most elite restaurants.

“I told Sylvia, ‘I want to do a pig roast,’” Vongerichten recalled.

Some backstory: Though he has lived and cooked in Manhattan for more than 20 years, Jean-Georges and his wife, Marja, bought their first weekend house fairly recently. With his restaurant empire now up to 18 locations around the globe, and at least a dozen more on the way, a retreat where they could unwind seemed to be in order. “I didn’t want to be in the Hamptons,” Marja said. “But he’s a beach person, so we compromised.” The house she found, in Westchester, New York (the first one she looked at), is brand-new, off a winding country road and by a secluded lake surrounded by woods. “We thought we wouldn’t know anybody,” Marja said. “But in the end, we know a lot of people here.” The Vongerichtens invited a mix of new neighbors and old friends to their early summer pig roast, including Jean-Georges’s brother Philippe (the general manager of the chef’s flagship Manhattan restaurant Jean Georges), the Lever House restaurant co-owner John McDonald and boutique-wine importer Serge Doré.

Preparations began a month before the party. The Pryzants started raising two Berkshire suckling pigs specifically for the chef. Meanwhile, Jean-Georges began looking for a rotisserie. His right-hand man, Daniel Del Vecchio, went online to help with the hunt. After lots of Googling, he discovered SpitJack.com. Its slogan: “For Men Who Cook…Tools for Food & Fire.”

Del Vecchio liked the SpitJack P80 Whole Hog Rotisserie. Its five-foot stainless steel spit, powered by an electric motor, could handle a small pig of up to 85 pounds (or a lamb or a goat). It looked simple enough to put together and take apart. Jean-Georges bought two.

With a few weeks to go, Jean-Georges still needed a grill for the side dishes he planned to serve with the pork, including an asparagus–and–grilled shiitake salad. Del Vecchio found the Viking Charcoal Ceramic Cooking Capsule, a stainless steel cooker similar to the Big Green Egg. The elliptical grill’s 315-square-inch surface was perfect for cooking loads of vegetables. The grill’s porcelain coating would also keep foods from sticking.

The day before the party, Steve Pryzant delivered two suckling pigs, each about 20 pounds, to the restaurant Jean Georges, where Del Vecchio and the chef’s son, Cedric, who also cooks at the restaurant, rigged the pigs onto the spits before stuffing them with crushed garlic and branches of fresh rosemary and thyme, then sewing them up.

At 10 a.m. on the day of the pig roast, Jean-Georges got the fire going in the pit using fallen branches he had collected around the property. To build a slow-burning fire, he piled on hardwood charcoal. Once the coals were hot, he and Del Vecchio set up the rotisseries on either side, brushed the pigs with olive oil and left them to turn on the spits. Aside from replenishing the charcoal, the pigs needed little tending; as they slowly rotated, they basted themselves.

Back in the house, at one end of a kitchen island, Marja prepared macaroni and cheese. “There’s not too much measuring involved,” she said, grating equal piles of Monterey Jack, extra-sharp and sharp cheddars. She blended the cheeses with cream, half-and-half, milk and eggs, then folded in cooked macaroni. After spreading the mixture into a large baking dish, she dropped dollops of cream cheese on top and slid it into the oven. “It’s really creamy,” she said.

“Wait till you taste it,” Jean-Georges said admiringly. “Marja’s macaroni and cheese is the best.”

The chef was at work on a salad of charred fava beans, garlic chips, diced Parmigiano-Reggiano and tarragon. Faced with a mountain of blanched but unpeeled favas, he called out, “Everybody, fava beans!”

Philippe mixed a pitcher of kumquat mojitos. Then he started on an early-summer version of Bellinis made with Champagne, sour cherries and yuzu, the Japanese citrus fruit that looks like a small grapefruit and tastes like a lemon crossed with a mandarin orange.

With so many cooks in the kitchen, the scene seemed a little chaotic. “It looks like we don’t know what we’re doing,” Jean-Georges said, grinning. “But we do.”

Soon the guests started arriving. Bellinis and mojitos in hand, they wandered from the kitchen to the lake, where they were blasted by the heat of the fire pit. “I just lost three pounds,” Jean-Georges laughed, sweating as he slid the pigs off the spit and onto sheet pans. “Sorry, we have to do a little surgery here,” he said as he did the carving.

Some of the kids egged him on, chanting, “Cut off the head!” He sliced off a morsel of meat from behind the ear and tasted it. “It’s good,” he declared.

The Vongerichtens had set a long teak table, topped with bouquets of white hydrangeas, by the lake. Parents and children found seats under a wide market umbrella, protecting them from the sun. Doré stood to offer a toast to Jean-Georges, but the chef deflected the honor. “It’s all Marja,” he said. “She found the house. She spent the money.”

Guests heaped their plates with sweet-tangy carrots flavored with pink peppercorns and a silken pea puree sparked with jalapeños, but the spit-roasted meat was the standout. The pork was only slightly smoky. The ribs were especially succulent, the meat tender and delicately infused with the flavors of rosemary and garlic. “Whatever you cook on the bone always stays nice,” Jean-Georges said.

The consummate restaurateur, Jean-Georges refilled glasses with Domaines Ott rosé. For dessert, he brought out small bowls of the first sweet summer strawberries, mixed with melting strawberry–red wine sorbet and crunchy crushed meringue. But when the children finished eating and set off to explore the lake, Jean-Georges abandoned himself to play. Finally, the long white apron came off. The chef started helping his seven-year-old daughter, Chloe, prepare a rod and tackle to fish in the lake. Then he tossed a baseball around with Cedric. “He’s so happy here,” Marja said. “We all are.”

Jane Sigal, an F&W contributing editor, also writes for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Time Out New York.

Published June 2008
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