4-stars and counting: A conversation with Chef Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin

There is an adage in the sports world when a team gets to the playoffs or a championship game: Act like you’ve been there before. In other words, act like it’s just another game. Don’t let the spectacle and the glitz blind you, distract you from what you need to do. Do. Your. Job. It’s great advice.

Unfortunately for me, I’m on the eleventh re-write of this open, so that advice made its way to the trash bin, along with the first 10 pieces of copy, some time ago.

Truth be told, I am star struck. Eric Ripert is one of the world’s greatest chefs. He, along with his restaurants, have won award after award. Just the chance to eat at Le Bernardin (reservations are booked for June!) makes me feel like I’m a goofy 12-year old headed to his favorite ball park. But, to have had the opportunity for a back-and-forth with someone I have a sincere admiration for… I really don’t think there is much I can say. So rather than keep trying, I’ll let Chef Eric do the talking.

Eric Ripert – Photo by Nigel Parry

Foodie Journalist: First of all, congratulations on yet another 4-star New York Times review. Does it ever just become part of the routine, or are you just as proud of it this time around as you were the first time?
Eric Ripert: As you know getting 4-stars from the New York Times is a big deal. When we are under the New York Times scrutiny, we basically lose sleep over it and stress until it comes out. It’s a big relief and a great source of excitement. We have been lucky to always have gotten 4-stars since our opening and I am usually the first one to find out. I love going in the offices and the kitchen and the dining room and sharing the great news with our staff.  4-stars pays homage to the hard work of our Le Bernardin family

FJ: You head up one of the world’s greatest restaurants. You’ve had four stars from the NY Times longer than anyone else. Le Bernardin is one of only a handful of three-star Michelin restaurants in the United States, and is consistently ranked amongst the top 20 restaurants on planet Earth. But when you talk about food and cooking you highlight the love and passion for cooking and the food experience. What is it that really drives you to be one of the world’s best chefs?
ER: Since I was very young I wanted to be a chef and this was driven by the very simple fact that I loved to eat. I had this idea that if I worked in a kitchen I would get to eat all the time. At the time I had no idea of the grueling hard work and what is actually means to be a chef. For me and for my team, the awards are a great reward and a wonderful recognition of our hard work, but it’s not what drives us. My love of food and our desire to create an experience for our guests is absolutely what continues to drive me to this day.

FJ: Considering all the experience you have and everything you’ve seen and done, what is it that still excites you about cooking? Are you still as excited about cooking as you were when you first stepped in to a kitchen?
ER: Absolutely – maybe even more so now.  When I was young, especially when I was starting out I had no idea how to cook! Now years later I can enjoy my craft more.  And now I like to focus on mentoring and sharing knowledge.

FJ: Touching on the food experience, which you mention in Avec Eric: Chef Rick Bayless said,  “I always say to chefs don’t assume Americans don’t know what good food is. They know more than you think.” That may be more true now than ever considering savvy diners have become. What type of impact do more knowledgeable diners have on chefs? Do you have to work harder because people walk in to restaurants with higher expectations and a better understanding of what to expect?
ER: It is exciting and inspiring to me to see how much tastes have changed in the U.S. and  recently to see an almost relentless interest in food and chefs and restaurants and growers. It think it absolutely keeps us chefs on our toes as diners are more and more knowledgeable and well traveled – and they demand more complexity and more excitement in the experience.

FJ: You can spend anywhere between 10 – 14 hours (if not more) working with food, day in and day out. At the end of the day, you go home. What’s for dinner?
ER: Since I work with fish all day at Le Bernardin – when I am home I crave meat. One of the things I cook most often at home is steak – especially when I can do it on the grill along with some grilled vegetables.

FJ: It’s clear how much food means to you. Is there a particular food related memory or experience that really stands out in your mind that you’d like to share? One that, for you, really epitomizes the fact that food really isn’t “just food”?
ER: Memories of food are really infused throughout my entire childhood. But I especially cherish the memories I have of going to the market with my grandmother – when I visited her in Provence. She would give me my own basket and let me select things – and I will always remember the intoxicating smell of basil. And I just remember feeling so important and special by her side. And then it would continue – she would let me join her in the kitchen and have me “help”. I’m sure I didn’t help much – but it really solidified my love of food and cooking.

Le Bernardin is offering their City Harvest lunch menu. It is $45/person, $5 of which goes to support City Harvest, one of Le Bernardin’s ongoing charitable partners. This special offering is the latest testament to the restaurant’s long-standing commitment to City Harvest, which they first began supporting more than fifteen years ago. At the height of the recession, in 2009, the restaurant donated $1 of every meal served at Le Bernardin to City Harvest raising nearly $100,000. On a daily basis, Le Bernardin donates fresh vegetables, fish and other unused food towards the charity’s cause. 

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