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Four-Star Chef

Le Bernardin's Eric Ripert has been garnering great reviews and accolades for 20 years. And he loves his cigars
Mervyn Rothstein
From the Print Edition:
William Shatner, Sept/Oct 2006

It's 6:15 p.m. on a rainy late spring Wednesday, and chef Eric Ripert is making the rounds in the shining, spotless and very active kitchen at Le Bernardin, his renowned four-star fish and seafood restaurant on West 51st Street in Manhattan. With a white plastic teaspoon in his hand, Ripert advises the more than 20 assistants around him who are preparing the evening meals for the first of the expected guests in the 110-seat, 30-table dining room.

Ripert glances at a plate of marinated Kumamoto oysters in shiso-lemon extra virgin olive oil that sits, briefly, on a stainless-steel counter. He looks beside it, at a serving of thinly pounded yellowfin tuna, foie gras and toasted baguette, all in layers. Ripert smiles as the plates are whisked away to be served to a customer. Three feet away, an assistant is putting the finishing touches on poached lobster in a lemon miso broth, with shiso and hon shimeji mushrooms.

Nearby, an aide calls out an order, in kitchen shorthand: "One tuna; one soft-shell." Ripert eyes a pan, dips the spoon in the broth and puts it to his mouth. He pauses, then beckons to his saucier, Jenny Carroll, whispering in her ear. She nods, turns and sets to work. A few seconds later, Ripert tells a visitor that the gingered-shiitake broth in the pan is good but lacks richness. Carroll will prepare another broth, he says, also with a chicken-stock base, and then reduce it and add to it the first broth to adjust the flavor. "A broth is very difficult," he says. "It's like tea. It's easy for a tea not to be infused enough, or to be too infused. Tonight what is in the pan is not intense enough, not round enough. It needs to be fuller."

Such attention to detail is one reason Le Bernardin is among the world's top restaurants, and Ripert one of the finest chefs on the globe. The imagination he pours into his dishes, the quality of his ingredients, the quintessential correctness and yet friendliness of the service, continue to put Le Bernardin at the top of the list of the best restaurants in New York, a city where the competition to be No. 1 in anything, but especially in the business of restaurants, is fierce.

In a field in which the vagaries of the moment often consign this year's success to next year's five minutes ago, Le Bernardin has remained at the summit for what counts as forever. Imported to the United States by the highly successful Parisian brother-and-sister team of Maguy and Gilbert Le Coze in 1986, Le Bernardin almost immediately earned the highest rating, four stars, from The New York Times. It has retained those stars for 20 years, more than twice as long as any other current four-star restaurant in New York City (its closest competitor is Jean-Georges, which first got the premier rating in 1997). Thanks to Ripert, Le Bernardin held on to those stars after Gilbert Le Coze, its original chef, unexpectedly died in 1994 and Ripert, then the chef de cuisine, had to suddenly take over.

"Now as before, it is a high church of reverently prepared fish," The Times said last year, in its most recent four-star review, citing the "exquisite balance of colors, shapes and flavors" and service that is "expert but unintrusive."

Le Bernardin is rated No. 1 for food in New York City by the popular Zagat survey, and by New York magazine as well. "The city is full of ornate restaurants," New York said, "but none of them manages to exude the glamour and class of Manhattan the way this one does, without any overweening glitz."

So how does Ripert do it year after year?

"Obviously, it's the search for perfection," Ripert, 41, says in his French-accented English as he sits in his conference room, one floor below the restaurant. "At least, you try to get close to perfection." His hair has made the bulk of life's journey toward gray, but he still looks eager and youthful—trim, vibrant, attractive—even after years of the constant pressure of trying to remain the best. "You never achieve perfection. Perfection probably is boring. But you want to search—the search is what's exciting."

The goal, he says, is to "make people happy. To pamper them. To make sure they have had a good time." It's a simple goal, he says, although hard to achieve, even for someone as dedicated and hardworking as he is.

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