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Lunch With
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Lunch With Éric Ripert

30 August 2017

It’s a rainy Thursday afternoon when I meet Éric Ripert for lunch. Not that this matters to the diners around me, of course. Here to experience his three- Michelin-starred restaurant, Le Bernardin, reservations will have been made a month prior – a process mandated by the restaurant and orchestrated by a well-organised full-time staff of five. It’s hardly surprising; this is a fine dining establishment that consistently places on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, has a loyal Zagat following and five four-star New York Times reviews, held ever since the restaurant opened in 1986 – three of which earned under the care of Ripert.

“The New York Times is a very well respected institution,” says Ripert, as we settle into the lounge area adjoining the main dining room, now filling up with guests. “When that paper gives you a four-star rating, it’s an immediate, long-lasting success. We receive thousands of calls a week.”

Ripert is the executive chef and co-owner of this impressive French seafood restaurant that makes “fish the star of the show” per Michelin Guide 2017. Located in Midtown Manhattan on West 51st Street, it commands prime real estate from a street-level corner of The Equitable Building, not far from the Museum of Modern Art. For all its sophistication, the serene space is a convivial one, warm for its high teak ceiling, ambient lighting, leather banquettes, and custom-designed millwork.

In person, Ripert is as charmingly reserved as he appears on TV, best known as the side kick to long-time friend Anthony Bourdain, the former chef now famous intrepid host of CNN’s Parts Unknown, who uncovers lesser-known and remote places around the world. Except for their perfectly groomed silver-fox hair, the two couldn’t be more different – the Good + Evil chocolate bar they collaborated on with Williams-Sonoma alludes to this dichotomy – yet theirs is a dynamic that works. Viewers can’t get enough of this bromance, well documented in episodes set in Marseille, France, all the way to Sichuan, China, where Bourdain took particular glee in watching his friend sweat through a peppercorn- and chili-riddled Sichuanese banquet. “We have a good exchange,” Ripert says. “People enjoy our relationship.” A friendship that is still intact even after Bourdain further coaxed his buddy into an unsuccessful public ear cleaning on a park bench in China.

But Ripert holds his own as a TV host too, as evidenced over three seasons of Avec Eric (two made with PBS, one with Netflix, all available on Amazon), an Emmy-winning series that whisks viewers on a culinary journey with the chef. “I go to the source of inspiration, interact with local people who are farming, foraging, hunting, fishing, wine making. Bringing the viewer with me on my journey of discovery and coming back inspired – that was the idea.” Each episode ends with Ripert in a gleaming white studio kitchen, making a dish in homage to the trip.

At this point wine director Aldo Sohm arrives at our table to present chef a bottle of Puligny Montrachet, Jean Chartron, Burgundy, France 2014. “He went with me to South Australia for seven days and came back so happy. He was drunk the entire time,” Ripert quips. The two had a rollicking good time making season three’s “Off the Vine” episode – exploring Penfolds winery and indulging in fantastic food on Kangaroo Island. Ripert has a stake in Aldo Sohm Wine Bar, which opened around the corner in 2014.

Our first course arrives, filet mignon and kampachi tartare topped with Osetra caviar and set upon a lightly smoked dashi gelée. This dish speaks to the visual impact of Ripert’s culinary constructs that have drawn parallels to art by Pablo Picasso. “Well, the food has to taste good first. However, because the first contact with the food is your eyes, the food has to look appealing,” he tells me.

A discerning clientele paying top dollar expects a gold-class fine dining experience. Meaning dishes must be made with the best ingredients. Le Bernardin deals with fishermen directly, from Canada to the Carolinas to the South – for snapper. “Ninety-nine percent of the fish we use is American. Fishing here is very sustainable and they [fisherman] are very conscious of making sure the fish is well preserved and the stock doesn’t decline. We support those ideas of course.” One percent of the seafood comes from abroad: kampachi from Japan, farm-raised caviar from China (it’s illegal to import caviar from Russia and Iran given that sturgeon is endangered), and Dover sole from Europe. And in line with the tasting menu’s categories – Almost Raw, Barely Touched, and Lightly Cooked – the kitchen never marinates anything. “We do everything at the last minute, to give the flavor of spice, the aromatics, and the flavor of the fish. That’s the style of Le Bernardin,” Ripert explains as a second course of barely cooked Maine scallop with roasted bone marrow, and baby turnips in calamansi-butter sauce is placed before us.

Only when a photographer comes in to take shots of the restaurant and dishes does Ripert know for certain that a Michelin inspector or The New York Times has paid them a visit, which in turn lends a certain anxiety in the lead up to the published review. The Times’ restaurant critic Pete Wells – not unrecognisable to those who have done their homework ¬– bestowed praise on Le Bernardin most recently in 2012. But it’s not just the critics Ripert is aiming to impress. “The Zagat Guide is very important in New York,” he says. “It’s our clients who are voting for the restaurant. And in Zagat, we are number one in New York.” These are all different ways of rating a restaurant: Michelin is an international guide, Zagat American, and The New York Times local. Ever since Le Bernardin opened in New York City, having relocated from Paris in 1986 by French chef Gilbert Le Coze and his sister Maguy, The New York Times has confirmed its four stars. Ripert, who joined the restaurant as chef de cuisine in 1991, took over the role of head chef upon Le Coze’s passing in 1994.

Growing up, Ripert was exposed to both his grandmothers’ provincial cooking and his mother’s Michelin-worthy homemade fare. “In my memoir 32 Yolks, I pay homage to my mother’s cooking; I thought every child in the world was eating like me, but it’s not true.” With taste buds influenced by two cuisines – that of Antibes, France, where he was born, and to Andorra, a small country just over the Spanish border where he moved as a young child – at 15 he left home to attend culinary school in Perpignan. He cooked at Paris’ legendary La Tour D’Argent before taking a position at the Michelin three-starred Jamin, where, after fulfilling his military service, he returned as chef poissonier under renowned chef Joël Robuchon.

When Ripert was recruited as chef for Le Bernardin in 1991, he took to the role with passion. “I wanted to be the chef that I am today, in a beautiful restaurant with a big kitchen, working with beautiful products like caviar and truffles,” he tells me over our third course of poached halibut coloured by a kaleidoscope of asparagus, spring peas, fava beans, and morels. “I wanted to have this opportunity to express myself and have the team to help me to create a special experience for clients.” His team includes 65 cooks and eight sous chefs. Two research and development chefs experiment in a test kitchen and constantly present ideas to evolve a menu that is never static.

But does he feel the weight of being a top chef? “I don’t feel the pressure. I don’t think about the stars. Not like it’s not important, but if you think about stars, then it becomes an obsession, then you become stressed, then you’re not creative, then you think about the stars again. I make this analogy: It’s like an actor who’s thinking about winning an Oscar. He’s thinking so much about the Oscar that he forgets about playing [the movie role], and then he’ll never get the award. For us, it’s very much the same. We think about cooking and serving and making sure people have a good time, and then potentially the star comes, and then you celebrate.”

Losing a star – or a couple as chef Thomas Keller had when Pete Wells decreased Per Se’s from four to two – is not for the fainthearted. Although Ripert doesn't spread himself thin (the other property he oversees is Blue by Eric Ripert in Grand Cayman), how does he keep the industry quandaries in check? “We have been doing this for many, many years, " he replies thoughtfully. “It’s our lifestyle. Every day we are observed by official food critics, by people who are going to write letters and go online. And the only thing we can do is be very sincere, honest, and generous, have the mentality of hospitality, and do the best we can. That’s it. There’s nothing anyone can do, so why worry? I try to teach my team that mentality.”

Ripert has practiced Tibetan Buddhism since the mid-nineties. “Do not harm or hurt people, do the right thing – this is something that all major religions share. In Buddhism, one god isn’t responsible for everything. It’s all about yourself, and every action you take has consequences, so therefore if you do something good, you have good consequences; something bad, then bad consequences. It’s basically karma," he explains. In the restaurant world where hard work and hostile conditions are a given, it makes sense how a philosophy that aims to cease suffering and achieve spiritual enlightenment might resonate. Each morning he makes time for meditation and Buddhist rituals.

Adhering to Buddhist teachings has served him well. “I used to have a temper. I was a very driven young chef and I think over the years I learned how to be more compassionate. Our kitchen is very peaceful. It was not like that 20 years ago, it has been a progression, an evolution. We try to be as civilised as we can in a difficult environment. We have strong discipline and structure in the kitchen, but at the same time we do not allow abuse. I try not to influence the team with my own spirituality but I try to find a way to apply the principles of Buddhism in a secular non-religious way. It’s very important not to impose on people because as a young man, I didn’t like to have people imposing on me.” Ultimately, for him it all comes down to the right motivations: “Mentoring is important. Communicating the cooking wisdom – any wisdom – that accumulates over the years should be shared.”

Plates cleaned of pan-roasted monkfish and squid ink pasta are whisked away and replaced with a dessert so architectural, it looks too special to eat—a white orb that, when cracked, reveals a bouquet of blueberry sorbet spiked with mezcal, accompanied by corn custard. It reminds me of a dish Ripert fawned over while filming Avec Eric in Sydney’s Sepia restaurant. And yes, Ripert agrees, perhaps this dessert was somehow inspired by that experience. The “Farm to Sydney” episode is part of the series’ third season. Later this fall, the chef will again join Anthony Bourdain on Parts Unknown. And although Ripert has no plans to write a follow-up memoir to 32 Yolks– he says his professional life in America has been documented enough – he’d be partial to Richard Gere playing his part if ever there were to be a 32 Yolks adaptation. Mastering that thirty-two egg yolk hollandaise sauce a la Ripert would certainly make for an Oscar-worthy performance.

Words: Marina Kay / Images: Thomas Mester