The Zen chef

Le Bernardin’s seafood master Eric Ripert charts his own course as a celebrity chef

Chef Eric Ripert was photographed in the kitchen at Le Bernardin in late March.

Inspiration comes every day for chef Eric Ripert, 52, the mild-mannered mastermind behind Le Bernardin, one of  New York City’s longest-running three-Michelin-starred restaurants. On the day LLNYC visited, Ripert is inspired by a shipment of wild morels from the Himalayas.

“It’s the first time I have seen morels with such amazing flavor and texture. I am all about morels in my mind. Such a beautiful mushroom, very refined,” Ripert says, letting a rare glimmer of excitement shake his otherwise even disposition. He’s a tall, striking man with large features and a thick French accent, despite having lived in the U.S. since 1989.

“Inspiration” is a word Ripert uses again and again during our conversations in the bunker below his restaurant at 155 West 51st Street in Manhattan. He uses it almost as a loose synonym for personal happiness — something that has eluded Ripert in the past. Luckily, Ripert’s life today affords plenty of opportunities for spotting the blue bird or conjuring up creativity. He travels two and a half months out of the year, often to fittingly exotic locations (Japan, Australia and Korea are favorites) for television appearances, research and pleasure. And while many chefs consider television a necessary evil to grow their brands, Ripert thinks of it as a means for projecting Eureka! moments to the masses.

“TV, it’s fun. It allows you to communicate what you find inspiring to people. I think it’s a good thing, because it has a purpose,” Ripert says of his appearances on shows like “Top Chef” and “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.” His own show, “Avec Eric,” has filmed three seasons. “The purpose is to be inspirational and approachable: approachable, because people like to know what chefs are doing, inspirational, because I want to inspire people with the lifestyle. I want people to go with me to discover new cultures.”

He says the goal of his memoir, “32 Yolks,” a New York Times best seller last year, now in paperback, is similar.

“It’s more than a chef’s story. It’s my life in my early years with all the challenges of a young teenager, finding my passion and learning craftsmanship from my mentors in France,” he says. “You don’t have to know how to filet a fish or make a sauce to appreciate the story of someone who is a chef.”

“32 Yolks” is a familiar story for any child whose parents have divorced. It recollects pain, anger and how a child can be forgotten during an emotional tempest. But it’s also a story of overcoming, of hope and, of course, food.

“It took me eight years to be convinced that I had a story that was interesting or potentially inspirational. It was a long process for a small book. The idea was to write something that would help people,” Ripert says. “Divorce has consequences for children. I want people to look at it and go, ‘Wow, maybe before I divorce I should think twice.’ But it’s one little aspect of the book.”

All of this may sound very run-of-the-mill for a chef of certain stature, about whom critics and the customers are in basic agreement — Le Bernardin has held a four-star rating from the New York Times since 1986, longer than any other restaurant in the city. But it is actually what sets him apart.

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Chefs are a type of entrepreneur. Think about your favorite TV chef. Think about their clothes, the lifestyle they are selling and the language they use. Are they devil-may-care cool like Anthony Bourdain, comically tyrannical like Gordon Ramsey, or an RV-park glutton like Guy Fieri? These personas help chefs to become household names, as do cranking out books, living in front of a camera and slapping their name on food halls, restaurants, even airline meals. If they have restaurants, they aren’t likely to be found inside them with any frequency.

“The biggest waste of my time is to cook in my own restaurants,” restaurateur and frequent “Iron Chef” judge Geoffrey Zakarian told LLNYC in 2015. “The best use of my time is to teach my chefs and imbue into them what I know.”

And, to be fair, one of the hallmarks of a great kitchen is that it operates perfectly without its figurehead. Nevertheless, Ripert has often eschewed the spotlight and turned his back on franchise opportunities. He prefers to cook in his kitchen and on his own terms. His white double-breasted jacket is not affectation — although I never spied a toque blanche.

“I love the fact that he is not one of these super-multitasking, franchising French chefs,” says writer and regular Le Bernardin customer Jay McInerney. “Eric is very likely to be in the kitchen when you have dinner at Le Bernardin. I’m going to lose a lot of my other chef friends now, but I love that he isn’t all over the place. I just think it really shows in the absolute consistency [of the food there]. I have never ever had a bad meal there. I think it is the best restaurant in New York.”

Ripert explains that it isn’t so much that he is afraid of overextending himself, or that his kitchen could not function without him — of course, it often must. But Ripert says that he has satisfaction, balance and happiness, things that he says, risking a cliché, money cannot buy — although there are dividends.

“I am very happy with the balance that I have created in my life. I spend time with the restaurant, my family and with myself, which is very important for me,” he says. “The money aspect doesn’t have an impact on me […] I’m not a chef for the money. I do not cook for the money. I don’t write books for the money. I don’t go on TV for money. Now, money comes, because it’s business, but it’s not my motivation.”

Chef Ripert does not abuse his brigade
like so many chefs. No pots are hurled
and no profanity bellowed.

Ripert also values privacy—with an fervor unusual in an age when the “secret lives” of notable figures are on constant display.

“My private life, I do not share that with the press. No photos of my son, and no one has access to my house or my apartment,” he says, noting that he has lost major publicity for refusing to open up his home. “My family life is not to be shared with people. I feel there is a danger if you let the media come in […] suddenly you are selling yourself. It’s just a principle. It’s my little secret garden.”

If all this sounds vaguely spiritual, it’s because it is. Ripert is a devout Buddhist. He has a special meditation room in his home and says cooking for the Dalai Lama was one of the most remarkable moments of his life.

“I take Buddhism very seriously,” Ripert says. “A lot of people ask me about Buddhism, but it’s very personal. It’s a way to become a better person, but there are many ways to be a good person. I have friends who don’t believe in anything and are very good people, like Anthony Bourdain. He is a declared atheist and a good guy with tremendous principles.”

But Ripert insists that Buddhism has no overt place in the kitchen, that he always translates his beliefs into a secular message in a professional environment. For example, he does not abuse his brigade like so many chefs. No pots are hurled and no profanity bellowed. It’s not Buddhism, but you can see the ripple effects.

“In life there is no such thing as Superman. We all have strengths and vulnerabilities. We are emotional,” he says. “Nobody is born with knife skills. Nobody is born with leadership skills. You learn and make mistakes. If you have a cook who is shaking because he is so scared of you, he is not going to do a better job than the cook who is focused and inspired.”

He takes a similar low-key approach to politics, which he says are also not allowed in the kitchen, and has an equitable stance on big-name politicians du jour. “If Trump comes to the restaurant, we will cook for Trump, just like we would cook for Clinton,” he says. “Are we star-struck by our guests? No.”

However, outside of the restaurant, his own culinary celebrity has allowed him to move in the same circles as his idols.

McInerney, who is occasionally visited  by Ripert at his home in the Hamptons, recalls one night where Roger Waters of Pink Floyd was among his dinner guests.

“I had no idea the Eric was an insane Pink Floyd fan, nor that Roger was a huge Le Bernardin fan,” McInerney chuckles. “I ended up facilitating this bromance. It was this serendipitous encounter, and they’ve since become good buddies.”

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On a recent visit to Le Bernardin,
Luanne Rice, the New York Times best-selling author of 32 novels, sat alone toward the back of the restaurant, enjoying a tasting menu. At the end of her meal she called for the sommelier and ordered a glass of Calvados Christian Drouin 1984. She was there to celebrate a personal anniversary and to remember the old friends with whom she used to frequent the restaurant’s original Paris location near the Arc de Triomphe.

“The painting is of Maguy and her late brother Gilbert’s grandfather [Pierre Durand],” she says, pointing to a portrait that guards the restaurant’s bar, just visible from her table. Chef Gilbert Le Coze and his sister Maguy moved their fish-focused restaurant to New York in 1986. But in 1994, Gilbert died suddenly of a heart attack at age 49. Maguy continues to own and operate her family’s restaurant with Chef Ripert.

“[The portrait] hung in the Paris restaurant, and I remember going there with good friends. We’d always toast le père before dinner,” Rice says. “To me, the painting captures Le Coze family’s closeness and their grandfather’s passion for the sea.”

Le Coze’s death came just three years into Ripert’s tenure at Le Bernardin, but it was a torch he was prepared to carry.

Ripert had paid his dues at other restaurants working the fish station (and eventually all the stations) under sadomasochistic chefs like Joël Robuchon — known for forcing his team to cook his dog’s dinner each night and punishing them if his dog did not finish the meal. In 1991, Ripert moved to New York City to work for David Bouley. But he quickly caught the eye of Chef Le Coze and moved to Le Bernardin.

“[Le Coze’s] major influence as a chef may have been his technique of treating fish the way one treats meat — that is, basing cooking times on a particular fish’s texture and character, not according to a fixed formula. His presentations, too, sometimes reminiscent of Japanese simplicity, influenced chefs from coast to coast,” the New York Times wrote in Le Coze’s obituary.

Proof of Ripert and Le Coze’s likemindedness: The Times’ description of Le Coze’s culinary techniques more than 20 years ago could as easily have been written about Ripert today. You hear echoes when he speaks.

“We all have strengths and vulnerabilities.
Nobody is born with knife skills.
Nobody is born with leadership skills.
You learn and make mistakes.”

“I think it is very fascinating to cook fish, because it is very delicate in texture and flavor,” Ripert says. “You have to be very cautious not to overwhelm the flavor. You have to be a technician, because 15 seconds may make a tremendous difference. It’s not like cooking meat. Every fish we serve at Le Bernardin requires a different technique to elevate its qualities. I really enjoy cooking fish — thank God because otherwise I would have been in the wrong place for a long time. You have to cook it with your soul.”

But what does soul taste like? Ripert cannot say if experiencing the eight-course tasting at Le Bernardin is “spiritual” in any way.

“It’s so subjective,” he says. “As a client, you know if it’s a spiritual experience or not.”

In the minimalist dining room dominated by a 24-foot seascape painting, each mouthful of almost raw fish, swimming in the most delicate consummé, feels privileged and sublime. In “Civilization and Its Discontents,” Sigmund Freud called “that feeling of oneness with the universe” an “oceanic feeling.” That’s about as close to a description of eating the seared langoustine with fennel mousseline and spiced-citrus sambal sauce as you can get.