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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 2)

His passion for food, he says, came from his mother. "She was an excellent cook. My grandmothers were excellent cooks, too. My mother was a very refined cook—every day there would be a white tablecloth, silver, china, crystal glasses, a good bottle of Bordeaux, an appetizer, a main course, a dessert. I learned the refinement from my mother. My grandmothers made more earthy country and comfort food. And I learned that from them. I was always hanging around the kitchen. It was fun. I didn't know you had to work hard in a professional kitchen. I had no idea about that."

In culinary school he discovered that he needed discipline, he says. "I surprised myself by accepting all the painful aspects of the industry—the hours, the heat of the kitchen. I said I would do it, even though my favorite part of the day wasn't when I had to empty the guts of a chicken or a fish or scale a fish. But I accepted that it was part of the deal. I was doing it because I wanted to be a chef and to be able to do what I do today, to be able to create my own dream and to live in it."

When he graduated from culinary school, he opened a copy of the Michelin Guide and sent a letter to all the top-rated three-star restaurants. "Nobody answered. Except Maxim's, which said they had no position."

But one day he received a call from renowned restaurant La Tour d'Argent in Paris, which offered him a job as a cook. It was 1982. Two days later, he was on a plane bound for Paris to start a career that would take him to other notable restaurants and to celebrated chefs who would influence and help cultivate his culinary genius.

In 1984, he went to work for Joël Robuchon at the three-star Jamin in Paris, where he wound up in charge of the fish station. His first job in the United States, in 1989, was as sous chef with Jean-Louis Palladin at the Watergate Hotel in Washington. In 1991, he came to New York, where he worked briefly for David Bouley. And next came Le Bernardin.

Three years later, Gilbert Le Coze died of a heart attack at age 49 while working out at a health club. Ripert, at the No. 2 position, stepped in. "Emotionally, it was very difficult for me, because we had developed a friendship. I enjoyed him as a man. Our relationship was not boss-employee. It was friend to friend. I missed him a lot. I still miss him."

The food world wondered: would Ripert be the equal of his mentor? "I didn't feel the pressure," Ripert recalls. "I knew there was pressure in the air, but, perhaps naïvely, I had no idea that we were really in danger. I was just focusing on what I had to do."

The next year, The Times returned—and the four stars remained.

In 1996, Maguy Le Coze made Ripert a co-owner. In 2003, the James Beard Foundation named him the best chef in the United States. But he doesn't let the accolades go to his head.

"You don't wake up and think about the stars and the awards," Ripert says. "At least I don't. I can't spend my days worrying about the ratings. I'd be distracted from doing what I'm supposed to be doing in the kitchen. Of course, I'm aware of the awards, and I don't take them for granted. We're very proud of them. But we don't bring them into the work life."

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