Jean-Georges is always around.
That’s what you hear when you wander through the Tin Building, the chef’s shiny new hive of restaurants and shops at the south end of Manhattan, next to the lavender underside of the F.D.R. Drive. He’s here all the time! You just missed him.
There doesn’t seem to be a rational explanation for that, because at any given moment the chef could also be passing through Singapore, or London, or São Paulo. Jean-Georges Vongerichten has so many restaurant properties around the world (about a dozen in Manhattan, and 49 total globally, but those numbers are probably in flux as I write this) that I imagine someone on his team is tasked with constantly updating his Web site so that nobody forgets one. And unless someone else on his team has been tasked with mastering the science of holography, it seems slightly crazy to pretend that his presence is a weekly occurrence in any one kitchen.
Nevertheless, that’s what people say, in tones of reassurance and astonishment—No, it’s true. Jean-Georges is here!—and in a way they’re not wrong. The man’s imprint is everywhere in the Tin Building’s 53,000 square feet of gourmet fantasy, which opened last month. It’s there on a seafood menu on which yuzu shichimi might stand in for Old Bay, and it’s there as you approach the expanse of what used to be the Fulton Fish Market and see the bright-green posters for the project, which inform you that Jean-Georges’s team is hiring (the Tin Building will create more than 700 jobs) and that you can feast “from breakfast through dinner” at 12 restaurants, four bars, and an array of gourmet groceries.
Twelve restaurants? How’s that possible? Stroll two floors of the Tin Building and you’ll see a vegetarian-and-vegan one (Seeds & Weeds—fun name, that), a Mexican one (Taquito), a sushi bar (Shikku), a breakfast stand (Double Yolk), a bustling Gallic pizza spot (the Frenchman’s Dough), and—if you pass through a hidden curtain at the back of a shop—a Chinese one called House of the Red Pearl. There’s not enough space in this article to list them all.
What’s notable about the Tin Building—as opposed to, say, Urban Hawker, the new Midtown emporium of Singaporean-themed street eats that the late Anthony Bourdain had long lobbied to bring to New York City—is that it’s not a showcase for heralding the cooking of next-generation chefs from around the city or the rest of the world. It’s a showcase for the 66-year-old man whose name is on the building.
The implication, you might notice, is that Jean-Georges can cook anything.
(And, who knows, maybe he can, although I can’t be alone in thinking that the salsa you get on top of a beef taco shouldn’t taste like something you’d smear on top of focaccia.) Food writers promulgated that viewpoint back in the early 1990s, when Vongerichten spots such as JoJo and Vong represented peak cool in Manhattan. Vong was a French-Thai fusion restaurant, and a few lines from 1993’s three-star review of Vong in The New York Times should show you how far we’ve voyaged in three decades. (Sample: “Upon entering, you pass a long table holding a show-and-tell assortment of Oriental spices.”)
There’s no question that Vongerichten has a Mozartean gift when it comes to the interplay of flavors, and it has been my experience that standards remain high—somehow—at Vongerichten World restaurants such as abcV and the Inn at Pound Ridge. That said, the whole idea of “tonight a man from France will juggle every cuisine on Earth” runs counter to the prevailing currents of American gastronomy in 2022. Asian-American chefs such as Calvin Eng (at Bonnie’s, in Brooklyn), Katianna and John Hong (at Yangban Society, in Los Angeles), Simone Tong (at Silver Apricot, in Manhattan), Kay Hyun (at Mokyo, in Manhattan), and Silver Iocovozzi (at Neng Jr.’s, in Asheville, North Carolina) are forging their own definition of fusion—one that requires no intervention from European dudes who elbow in and explain stuff.
The man’s imprint is everywhere in the Tin Building’s 53,000 square feet of gourmet fantasy, which opened last month.
Building “empires” has fallen out of favor, too, which hasn’t stopped Vongerichten from expanding his. (Just as it hasn’t dissuaded Major Food Group—the Carbone guys—from conquering Miami and Dallas.) Apparently immune to any thought of leaving the stage, J.G.V. keeps flying around the world and opening places in a way that calls to mind Ronald Reagan pretending not to hear (or simply not hearing) questions during press scrums in the 1980s. During a panel discussion at the Philly Chef Conference in 2020 (mere days before the pandemic shut everything down), I asked Vongerichten how he felt when he first visited Thailand back in the day. He answered that he felt like Christopher Columbus. The chef subsequently apologized for that, but what surprised me at the time was that one of the most influential chefs on the planet wasn’t aware that you’re not supposed to say that.
But, hey, everybody’s different. Some restaurateurs keep on producing new offspring: Peter Chang; Michael Mina; or, lately, Roni Mazumdar and Chintan Pandya from the Unapologetic Foods juggernaut, which has blessed New York with hot spots such as Dhamaka and Semma and Rowdy Rooster. Others, like Eric Ripert, of Le Bernardin, prefer a steady focus on one central place. No one who ambles around the Tin Building, which took about a decade to come together, will say that it has been phoned in. Clean and bright and buzzy, with light glowing from globed lamps and a gleam coming off of well-scrubbed tiles, the Tin Building (as a building) is an impressive achievement, especially when you factor in the years of fires and floods that had turned the previous structure on Pier 17 into a hulking wreck.
Is the Tin Building somehow too much? Will it oversaturate a downtown neighborhood that’s already got a bumper crop of new restaurants—including, yes, a different Jean-Georges restaurant called the Fulton that’s about a minute away on foot? New York City has such a riot of food halls these days that it’s hard to keep track of them, too. No longer the zombie province of airport terminals and suburban shopping malls, food courts foster a sort of bougie comfort zone: they tend to function as crafty anchors for real-estate developers who want to assure high-paying renters and buyers that they won’t have to hike 20 blocks for Blue Bottle Coffee and $20 breakfast tacos.
Sure, I understand convenience, but what I understand more is the delight of walking a few blocks east and north for Chinese food in our actual, beautiful Chinatown—or a plateau de fruits de mer from the Ignacio Mattos crew at Corner Bar, on Canal Street. I had a decent lunch at the Tin Building’s Fulton Fish Co., one that began with some good, briny raw oysters on ice, but I couldn’t help but notice with a touch of sadness that my counter-mates and I had landed somewhere light-years away from Sloppy Louie’s, the funky, fish-gutsy haunt that market bard Joseph Mitchell used to rhapsodize about. The refurbished Tin Building occupies a portion of old New York, yet it expresses very little about that fact, aside from some quotes from Herman Melville inscribed on the walls. The history itself feels like an afterthought.
During my own stroll through the space, I paused in a spare room off to the side that was full of photos paying tribute to the grimy, gritty Fulton Fish Market of yore, which used to occupy this same patch of an ever changing island. On a digital screen, nostalgic quotes from the old days kept floating into view before fading away. I saw a good quote from a former harbormaster named Larry Lombardi, and I snapped a picture of it while I could. It said this: “The market is paved with gold. The smart ones know how to pick it up.”
Jeff Gordinier is the author of two books of nonfiction, X Saves the World and Hungry: Eating, Road-Tripping, and Risking It All with the Greatest Chef in the World, about his time with René Redzepi, of Noma