THE TEAM BEHIND NOLITA’S WAYAN BRING US MA-DÉ
We catch up with restaurateurs Cédric and Ochi Vongerichten, the driving force behind the Indonesian cuisine wave downtown.
A restaurant that could easily be located at a sunkissed Bali beach resort is only a stroll, subway, or car ride away thanks to restaurateurs Cédric and Ochi Latjuba Vongerichten.
The French-blooded, Bangkok-born, and NYC-raised son and sometimes partner of fellow chef Jean-Georges—notably at the West Village’s Perry Street, where he serves as executive chef—and his Indonesian wife, respectively, the power couple opened the cozy yet bright, Bali-via-French-technique restaurant Ma-dé in Nolita on Spring Street this past April with business partner and friend Ezra J. William. Decked out in materials and decor sourced from Bali’s beaches and markets (and designed by Linda Daniels of LCD), it serves up fusion-driven, locavore spins on Balinese fare with an emphasis on flavorful seafood (with optional decadent “treat yo’ self” supplements like truffle, Petrossian caviar, and uni), refreshing savory ingredient-driven cocktails, and a tightly curated wine and beer list.
Conveniently, Ma-dé (Balinese for “second-born,” pronounced mah-day) is situated just next door to its older, significantly larger sibling, Wayan (“firstborn,” pronounced way-anne), a two-room, cinematic space which opened in 2019, and offers a broad survey of regional Indonesian flavors and staple dishes—e.g. satay, gado-gado, Lombok, and rendang—yet again with Vongerichten’s inventive French flair and seasonal produce.
During a Zoom call, the couple discussed their venues and cuisine (Indonesian celebrities and politicians can often be spotted indulging their cravings), Indonesia itself (Vongerichten and his father are behind two East-meets-West venues in Jakarta, Vong Kitchen and Le Burger, with a third “secret steakhouse” concept opening in Jakarta’s financial district later this year), how they inspire each other, and the local spots where they and their two foodie children love to dine.
Manhattan has seen a lot of Thai, Filipino, Singaporean and Malaysian venues open in recent years. However, not so much Indonesian before Wayan, correct?
Cédric Vongerichten: I think in Manhattan it was unknown. Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese— people go for those on a weekly basis, but you don’t really hear, ‘Let’s get Indonesian cuisine.’ It’s not as common or popular or on everyone’s mind, so it was interesting to us. Prior to opening Wayan, I traveled to Indonesia for twelve years, trying the cuisine and visiting different villages and areas. We thought, we should do something Indonesian here in NYC. Also because when people travel to Indonesia, they come back and can’t find that experience. In the beginning, I was maybe a little shy or scared about some of the ingredients and flavors I wanted to put on my menu, which over time changed completely. Some are very authentic and mostly based on the ingredients I found in Indonesia, but they don’t have soft shell crabs or ramps there. So when ramp season is in, I do a ramp sambal with soft-shell crab. The technique is Indonesian but with a local, seasonal twist.
Why did you decide to open in Nolita?
CV: The energy and crowd we like are definitely downtown. We wanted to be in a nice neighborhood and there were already some great restaurants [nearby]. Mothers Ruin has been established as a neighborhood spot, Peasant which is half a block from here. We enjoy this neighborhood, and when we saw the old bakery [the location Wayan took up residency in], Ochi and I fell in love with it. The rest is history.
What are some of your personal favorites on the Ma-dé menu?
CV: The thinly sliced scallop. We receive the scallops every day alive in the shell and then slice them, add some micro-diced rhubarb, rhubarb gel, jalapeno, and a little vinaigrette—and the scallop is very sweet and firm. On the vegetable side, my favorite changes every month because we work with what’s fresh at the market. White asparagus was my favorite but it’s gone away, so now we’re working on baby artichokes with a black olive and black vinegar aioli and lemon zest, so very clean but high-impact flavors.
If you decide to create a whole NYC Indonesian culinary wave and open another devoted to a single region or cuisine, would you like to do a Padang-style concept with a ton of saucy dishes brought to your table, like a buffet in reverse?
CV: The concept is insane! It’s crazy when you sit down and have all this food coming to you, it’s almost overwhelming. Here it would be a little difficult because in Indonesia the food is probably sitting in the window for some time, you can take half and the rest will be reused and sent to another table. It would be a tough sell in the US, so we have to tweak it a little bit. Maybe dim sum style.
Ochi Vongerichten: It’s the best! We do some Padang-style dishes at Wayan.
What about ingredients you’re obsessed with and incorporate frequently? I noticed a whole display of herbs and spices and chilis in Wayan between the two dining areas.
OV: We don’t like sweet cocktails, so at Ma-dé we focus more on savory cocktails. We use kelp, egg white, and a herb from India that has a minty flavor.
CV: Makrut lime. We dry out the leaves and make a powder from them. I love the aromatics of it. I love it in drinks, a makrut lime gimlet. I would finish every dish with a dash of it, so I have to stop myself! And we both love chilis. We’re going to France this summer, and [the food isn’t] too spicy there, so Ochi will take some packages along in her bag.
What is the process of coming up with dishes like?
OV: Cedric experimenting usually starts with what I want to eat. ‘I want to eat this!’ OK, let me create something.
CV: Definitely a bunch of dishes were created like that, and Ochi is the first to taste all the dishes. At Wayan in the beginning she said, ‘You should try making a chicken Lombok,’ and before I created that recipe I never went to Lombok. We eventually went last year and I discovered my chicken is pretty spot on! At the moment we do an escargot rendang instead of beef. It’s definitely a French play on Indonesian, and I wasn’t sure how people would respond to escargot, but it’s becoming one of the top three sellers. People love it and it comes with toast fingers so you can soak up some of the garlic butter and rendang sauce left in the bottom of the dish.
If someone hasn’t yet been to Wayan or Ma-dé yet, which should they try first?
OV: I think Wayan first.
CV: Both! Start at Ma-dé with a cocktail, a razor clam, and a couple of crudo, then go to Wayan for satay and lobster black pepper noodles, which are a little earthier. But if you only can choose one? Ma-dé would be great for a date. It’s a little brighter, less rushed and crazy. Wayan is better with a group of friends as everything is family-style, so you can have a large assortment of dishes and flavors to share.
Does Jean-Georges ever sneak in and tease you by sending something back to the kitchen?
CV: No, but he was part of the opening and is always very supportive. I know at Wayan he was coming back a lot because he had that chicken satay craving. He’s a very busy man, but very supportive and when needed gives me constructive feedback.
What’s the best advice he’s given you over the years?
CV: ‘Don’t open a restaurant.’ (Laughs) For me, it was to taste the food: you need to taste your whole dish and make sure it’s well balanced, and play with acidity and a hint of chili. That stuck with me. He taught me to go to the market and see what’s happening for myself. You can’t just sit there ordering by computer from purveyors. The farmers are the ones who will let you know what’s coming and what they have at the moment.
CV: Yes. He said he would prefer to open 30 restaurants than maintain just one. Opening is always very exciting, but making sure it stays consistent over time, five, 10 or 20 years, is even harder.
For decades, the borough of Queens has represented a Southeast Asian mecca with large immigrant communities and their cuisines, including Indonesian. I used to go out there regularly for Thai food before we saw the likes of Somtum Der, Fish Cheeks and Uncle Boon’s. Any recommendations?
OV: Yeah, it’s very good, they’re very authentic. The Indonesian spots I always order from are Sky Cafe and Awang Kitchen in Elmhurst.
Does being based in NYC inspire you both? And what are some of your local go-tos?
CV: We travel everywhere and have been to over 30 countries with our kids, but you miss [New York]… We love the diversity here.
OV: I love NYC! For sushi the kids and I love Nami Nori, Blue Ribbon, Sushi Seki. It’s the first thing they ask for when we get back from traveling. I like Greenwich Village. Walking through Washington Square Park where I can see people express their creativity! It’s fun to see. No judgment, who cares attitude, that’s what I like.
CV: I love the West Village. When I go to Perry Street and there are so many little restaurants around, I feel the heart of NYC and it’s such a beautiful neighborhood. I get inspired, and you’ll find a ten-seater spot that serves amazing cocktails. On some late nights, Ochi and I will go to the bar at Estella and have a little drink and some snacks. Sunday is our family night and we might do Nobu or go to an Italian restaurant.
You’re lucky to have kids who have international palates and don’t just want french fries and chicken fingers.
CV: True, but we went to Japan and it gets expensive when your kids like toro and uni. We’re like, ‘No no no, just salmon rolls, that’s it!’
What does NYC do better than anyplace else food-wise?
OV: The babka from Breads. I tried other babkas and didn’t like them. In Montauk, we go to a place called Duryea and all I want is their clam bake. We eat that every Sunday during summer.
WORDS Lawrence Ferber
PHOTOGRAPHY Courtesy of Ma-dé