You may know Eric Ripert as executive chef of Le Bernardin, one of the few restaurants in New York City to have garnered a four-star rating from the New York Times.
You also may know him from his stints as a guest judge on Bravo TV’s “Top Chef.” You probably recognize him, too, from his appearances on the Travel Channel’s “No Reservations,” with his buddy, the irrepressible Anthony Bourdain.
What you may not know is that this suave, 43-year-old Frenchman has a wicked sense of humor that easily catches you off guard, and that he carries a most interesting collection of items in his pockets every day.
Born in Antibes, France and reared in Andorra, a small country between France and Spain, Ripert left home at age 15 to attend culinary school. Two years later, he moved to Paris to cook at the famed La Tour d’Argent. That was followed by stints with Joel Robuchon in Paris, then Jean-Louis Palladin at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., before he moved to New York to work as sous-chef to David Bouley.
Not long after, he became chef de cuisine at Le Bernardin. When the restaurant’s founding chef died unexpectedly, Ripert took over the helm at the tender age of 29. He’s been there ever since, upholding the same high standards.
Ripert’s newest book, “On the Line” (Artisan), is not your standard cookbook. Written with Christine Muhlke, a New York Times editor, it tells the behind-the-scenes story of the restaurant, through evocative text, glorious photos, and signature recipes. It’s a fascinating read.
It explains in detail how the kitchen at this venerable restaurant works, who the players are, and what their tasks are. It’s filled with intriguing facts and lists, including what the employees eat for staff meals (burgers and fries to lobster pasta); the number of pounds of fresh black truffles the restaurant uses each week when in season (6); the average number of minutes it takes to cook a dish (5); and the restaurant’s monthly flower bill ($12,000).
Throughout 2009, Le Bernardin will be helping to alleviate hunger by working with City Harvest, an organization dedicated to feeding New York City’s hungry, and which Ripert sits on the board of. During this year, City Harvest will receive $1 for every guest that dines at Le Bernardin. An additional $1 donation will be given to the organization for every guest who buys a copy of “On the Line” at the restaurant.
I had the fun experience of judging cookies galore with Ripert in December at the annual Gene Burns’ Holiday Cookie Exchange contest. A few weeks ago, he graciously made the time to chat by phone while on his book tour.
Q: Of course, one of my first thoughts after reading ‘On the Line’ was that I have to eat at Le Bernardin one day! But I know you had other reasons for wanting to do this book. What were they?
A: I have written two cookbooks before. I didn’t want to do another recipe book. I wanted to do an inspirational book, a documentary on the life of our team. To me, it’s fascinating what a restaurant has to go through in a day in order to deliver excellence.
Q: I often hear people griping when they start seeing $30 entrees on menus. Do you think that most diners are unaware of all that goes into making a dish?
A: I think the clientele is more and more aware. People spend money now without thinking, ‘Oh, I can do that at home for five bucks,’ which of course, is not true. You can’t.
In general in the restaurant industry, the high-end market works with low margins. The profits are very narrow. When you go to luxurious restaurant, it’s a good value.
Q: Compared to going to McDonald’s?