Story and gallery by REGINALD HODNETT
After three days with very little sleep, Rachel Wiener tasted the elusive umami flavor found in haute cuisine. She put her pan down. All the cutting and prepping with different ingredient combinations had finally come together. It was delicious.
“When I get in the kitchen, it is like this huge build up and a release, this is what I like,” Wiener said.
Wiener is the executive sous and chef de cuisine at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s J&G Grill St. Regis Deer Valley. Wiener was tasked with a Dec. 1, 2018, soft opening. She is leading the rebranding effort for the St. Regis restaurant that renowned chef and restaurateur Vongerichten opened in 2009.
Wiener said she’d never say a bad thing about Jean-Georges, the man’s a genius. However, his concept of cooked meats on plates with a la carte sides and sauces had become stale. Wiener wanted to get away from that style of food presentation so she started writing a concept menu seven months ago.
She has taken inspiration from what’s available in Utah. Wiener said she has worked hard to find amazing products for her organic and fluid menu, from finding great farms, the right cattle ranchers and the best cheeses that will be available in season and at its peak.
Wiener said with all these beautiful ingredients there’s no need to hide them under a complex sauce.
Chip McMullin, executive chef at the St. Regis, said he was not on board with the J&G overhaul at first because things had been working great for so long. The food was trendy, it was good for what it was supposed to be. However, the dishes did not change; the creativity came to a standstill. Jean-Georges and his partners were scrambling to open new restaurants using the same tired old model.
So, the chefs said they had reached a point where they felt, “We’re done with this old model. Give us something new or we’re changing it!”
Wiener said everything with the new concept revolves around building a story to create a conversation. Food is supposed to connect people. “The whole reason we get into this is to create experiences with people,” she said. “I want to start the conversation again.”
She added, “So there’s a lot of shared dishes, you are not just sitting there eating off your own plate. So even if the conversations are like, ‘Can you pass that or you should try this, it is great,’ at least guests are talking to one another.”
Wiener said she is still working on the descriptions for the new menu. However, it is going to be “vegetable-forward, seasonally driven and regionally inspired.” She said, “You can make these amazing vegetable dishes where you’d never miss having meat, so I think it is super important to highlight the veggies.”
McMullin calls the menu “contemporary industrial,” which consist of tapas-style small plates and large plates along with a signature table-side carving cart service with food that’s made from scratch and is chef-driven. “It is what Rachel does so well. She blends the cultures, the spices, the ingredients from multiple cultures into this new American cuisine,” McMullin said.
Andres Jiménez is the culinary director for Pure Grey, a New York-based consulting group that focuses on hospitality, specifically luxury brands like the St. Regis and Ritz Carlton. Pure Grey offers bespoke concepts for restaurants/hotels based upon the specific needs and locations of each property.
Jiménez said he does not encounter obstacles when taking on a new project. It is about having a clear understanding of what the needs are because it is easy to throw ideas into the air. However, the magic lies in observing and asking questions to see where the needs are, where he and his team can have the most significant impact. For instance, he said he asks questions such as, What are the needs of the business? Who are the clients and what are their expectations? What are the food trends going to be in the coming years?
Jiménez described the process for selecting new floral designs, votive candle holders, flatware, glassware, silverware, hand-made china, uniforms and menu covers. “We looked at what’s the concept of the restaurant, what do we want to do, what is the physical space?” he said.
It is like a puzzle trying to come up with something different than what’s currently out there, and that people have not seen before, he said. All the right pieces have to fit together.
Once Wiener got close to deciding on food and design elements, Jiménez traveled back to Deer Valley and served as a sounding board, helping her flesh out her ideas. For example, they discussed a winter dish consisting of a stuffed kabocha squash. “Sometimes you’re too close to a project. So when I put so much into it I need that outside objectivity,” Wiener said.
“Dining has become a lost art,” she said. The whole idea of the new concept is to have it center around the food. And, the complete dining room experience needs to complement the food.
Wiener is proud of the new menu that she has spent seven months on. “So, if you don’t like it don’t tell me,” she said. “This menu is literally my heart and soul on a plate.”