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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

(continued from page 1)

His workdays, five of them a week—"for 13 years, I did six days a week; not anymore"—begin with a walk to Le Bernardin through Central Park, after spending the early mornings at home on the Upper East Side with his wife, Sandra, and their son, Adrien, who is almost three.

He arrives at the office around 11 a.m. And he is there, most often, until about 11 p.m., dealing with his staff of 120 (40 or so of whom work in the kitchen, 50 in the dining room, the rest around the office), ordering food, changing the menu, creating new dishes, planning for the future. Unlike many celebrity chefs, Ripert prefers not to behave like a celebrity, live like a celebrity or hang around with celebrities. He spends a lot of his time in his kitchen. "I have very little interaction with the outside world," he says. "The foodies, the gossipy world of what's going on in the industry, I am very remote from that. And it is very peaceful to be remote from that. It allows me to really focus on what I have to do."

The simplicity of his lifestyle also defines his culinary philosophy. "It's a straightforward approach," he says. "Fish is so delicate, and the approach complements the fish. The less you bring to the plate, the better. It's a little bit like the Japanese mentality. You don't put 10,000 things on the plate. I don't care about colors. I don't care about presentation. I don't care about the countless little vegetables. What I care about is the fish being elevated to the next level.

"Whatever goes on the plate has to have a function in the dish. Everything has to have a reason for being there. Nothing is there just because it looks good. And then, we deal with the presentation. So it's all about the fish."

As with many top chefs these days, Ripert has been influenced and impressed by the flavors of Asia; the current menu includes ingredients such as shiso, miso, ginger-coriander emulsion, wasabi and hijiki. But they are all applied in the Ripert way, metamorphosed so the dishes aren't really Asian but presented through the Le Bernardin filter.

The creativity he brings to his dishes can come at any time, he says. "It's impossible to say you are going to create from 8 to 9 on a Monday, or tomorrow from 10 to 11. It doesn't work like that. Or at least for me it doesn't work like that. It's totally uncontrollable. Inspiration comes whenever it wants to. I can't push a button. I let it happen very naturally. I don't force things.

"For example, if it's March 21, the first day of spring, but in my head I don't feel it's spring yet, I will wait before I create new dishes for spring. And then, when inspiration comes, I take notes. A lot of notes. It can happen in the middle of the night, or when I'm on a plane 30,000 feet in the air. That's OK with me."

Why, then, has he decided to focus almost exclusively on fish and seafood? "I like to work with something so delicate," he says. "When you create a sauce for fish, you have to be extremely careful not to overpower the fish. If you use spices you must make sure you are enhancing the quality, not destroying the quality. It's subtle, and I like that. And it's precise, and I like that, too. A piece of fish can be perfectly cooked right now, and in 10 seconds it can be overcooked. It's a connection for me, it's a way of grounding myself. Cooking meat is more sensual. With fish you have to be a really good technician, you have to be totally focused. And I like being a really good technician." And besides, he says, when he first began working in kitchens, "I always ended up in the fish station. I was a poissonier. And I liked it."

Ripert was introduced to the kitchen at a very early age. Born in Antibes, in the south of France, he moved with his parents to Andorra, a small country between France and Spain, when he was nine. He began culinary school in Perpignan, in southern France, when he was 15.

"I always had a passion for food," Ripert says. "Not necessarily for work. I was a bad student. But I was extremely happy to be a bad student, because I knew that at one point I would be forced to stop my schooling and would have to go to a professional college. And I knew I would choose culinary school."

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