Jean-Georges executive chef Mark Lapico speaking to Johnson & Wales culinary students / The light-filled Jean-Georges dining room
“I came to see [JWU’s] campus because so many Johnson & Wales interns are best in class.” Jean-Georges executive chef Mark Lapico is telling a rapt room full of culinary students — and hopeful Jean-Georges interns — about his own inspiring career path, as well as what it’s like to work for world-renowned chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
Chef Lapico and Director of Human Resources Michael Ammiano outlined the core philosophy + working environment of Jean-Georges, the Alsatian chef’s flagship restaurant in Manhattan’s Columbus Circle.
“We do everything from Michelin stars to fast-casual,” said Michael. “With 27 restaurants worldwide — the newest project being a vegetarian, vegan and raw focused concept — there is room for everyone.”
We’re looking for people who can become the best. It’s not just your talent, but how you manage the talent.” - MARK LAPICO
Ammiano turned the floor over to Lapico, who spoke of being stopped in his tracks by the simple complexity of the tomato-basil tower on the cover of “Jean-Georges: Cooking at Home with a Four-Star Chef” (1999).
“It all started with a tomato taken to its essence,” he recalled. “Something so simple, but it gave me avenues to explore. It stayed with me.”
When a friend invited him on a tasting weekend to New York City, he leapt at the opportunity. (He was working in his native Canada at the time.)
“We ordered the classic tasting menu at Jean-Georges.” The effect was life-changing: “I immediately quit my job in Canada and moved to NY.”
Executive Chef Mark Lapico (top) and HR Director Michael Ammiano of Jean-Georges in New York City.
New York City was reeling from 9/11, and was essentially at a standstill. Mark had no visa, and no job. But he had the name of Gabriel Kreuther, Jean-Georges’ executive chef at the time. (Kreuther is close to opening Restaurant Gabriel, his first solo restaurant.)
“I kept calling + emailing Gabi, but he didn’t have anything. He pawned me off on Greg [Brainin, Director of Culinary Development]. And I was so naïve that I thought I was at Jean-Georges!”
Working in that small kitchen was revelatory: “I’d never worked in a place with such intensity. People were focused, but warm + proud. It felt like home.”
Fast-forward to 2015, and Lapico oversees the very kitchen he dreamed about. He calls his kitchen a “lab” where individual creativity is fostered. “It’s not like ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ with pepper grinders flying,” he laughed. “[At Jean-Georges] we’re more likely to go play kickball in Central Park. We have ‘Top Chef’-style quickfire challenges to keep ideas percolating.”
Both he and Ammiano painted a picture of an environment that cultivates potential — and sets people up for success.
“We’re always looking for students, especially JWU students, because of the skills you learn here,” Lapico said. “We’re looking for people who can become the best. It’s not just your talent, but how you manage the talent.”
The interior of Jean-Georges in Manhattan’s Columbus Circle | Photo: Francesco Tonelli
During the Q-and-A, they talked about their expectations of interns — and what Jean-Georges gives in return.
“I want you to come in and taste everything,” said Lapico. “I want to know your goals. Don’t be shy about them — you can’t achieve your goals if someone isn’t mentoring you. But first I need to know what it is you’re looking to accomplish.”
Lapico emphasized how important it is for interns to show both their passion for the profession and their personal integrity as chefs.
“I ask every stage to bring a uniform, an ID and a knife they’ve sharpened themselves,” he noted. “You’d be amazed at how many people don’t follow the last part of that request.”
He continued: “Integrity is hard to quantify but it’s your passion. Everybody makes errors. If you’re on your station and mess up the fish and raise your hand to say, ‘Chef, I need 3 minutes to recook this fish,’ you’ll have my loyalty and trust. You clearly understand that every dish tests [Jean-George’s] reputation.”
Generally, people who are successful like what they’re doing. Set your own priorities and go for them.” - MARK
A student in the audience asked Lapico how he avoids burnout.
“Tough question, because this job requires endurance,” he replied. “Think ‘holy $#@*, I get to do this super cool thing every day!’
“To stay excited, do something not directly related to your job every single day. Explore a new cuisine, stay open. Because you have your whole life to learn.
“We schedule 40 hours/week, not 75 hours. We try to give people a life outside of work — we understand and respect that you need a life, and an exhausted employee is not an engaged employee.
“Generally, people who are successful like what they’re doing. Set your own priorities and go for them.”
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Yellowfin Tuna Ribbons, Avocado, Spicy Radish and Ginger Marinade | Photo: Francesco Tonelli