Four years later, the chef from West Virginia was heading across the Atlantic to take over the London kitchens.
A college dropout whose first experience of restaurants was washing dishes, Tolley spent two years studying cookery at the Culinary Institute of America before finding work at the Mark hotel in New York City.
He confesses to having had doubts about one of the first dishes he tried after moving to Vong; it involved a combination of capers pickled in vinegar and raisins. He says: "The first lesson that Jean-Georges taught me was that it was all a question of balance." Contrasting tastes, like contrasting colours, will work, as long as a chef gets the dosage right.
Since Tolley moved to London, "baby Vongs" have opened in Chicago and Hong Kong.
Tolley claims that he's his own man. He plans his own menus and introduces his own dishes. Most of the starters have originated in New York, where there's a recipe database, but the main courses and side orders are mainly his own, reflecting the British palate and available produce.
He organises his 21 staff along US lines, and says: "No one works more than a 48-hour week - except me." Training them to prepare the recipes is easy. What's harder - and more important, he claims - is teaching them how to taste.