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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
By Mervyn Rothstein | From William Shatner, Sept/Oct 2006
Four-Star Chef

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.

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."

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."

Something else he doesn't bring into his work life is his home life, and vice versa. "When I go home, we don't talk about business, except if my wife wants to know something," he says. "I separate my private life completely. I also don't allow any press in my private life. I don't know if I'm right or wrong. But it works for me."

He spends many weekends of that private life with his family in his house in Sag Harbor, New York, in the Hamptons. He often enjoys a good cigar while on those weekend getaways.

He has been smoking cigars since he was a teenager. "I was selective about my cigars even then, but I couldn't afford to buy many. I was in Paris. I was smoking Partagas and Montecristos. I would go to the lobby of a fancy hotel or to a piano bar and I would light up."

These days, he smokes a cigar maybe two or three nights during the week and limits his weekend intake to three. His favorites include Trinidad Fundadores (what Fidel Castro smoked prior to quitting), Montecristo No. 2 torpedos and Cohiba Double Coronas.

"I especially like the flavor of the Trinidad. But the problem is they have a tendency to sometimes stop in the middle. You have to be careful. I don't know if it's a problem with the wrapper. But I like the way they burn, so I'm very loyal to that cigar."

He doesn't like to go to cigar dinners, he says, because he doesn't want to share the experience with a roomful of people. "Cigars are something I like to share intimately with a couple of friends, or, very selfishly, by myself. It's all about taking the time and slowing the pace. I like the ritual. You go to your humidor and open it, you check the humidity, you find a cutter. And then I light the cigar."

These days, Ripert is branching out. He is a consultant for two restaurants at the Ritz-Carlton in Grand Cayman, called Blue and Periwinkle, which he describes as Le Bernardin in the Caribbean, "much more casual, with the same spirit and approach as Le Bernardin," but with a Caribbean flair at Blue and a touch of the Mediterranean at Periwinkle. And he and restaurateur Stephen Hanson are partners in Barca 18, a Spanish/tapas restaurant at Park Avenue South and East 18th Street in Manhattan.

Ripert has also recently signed a contract with PBS for a television series called "Harvest," for which he will be traveling around the United States and heading to Puerto Rico, Argentina, Italy and Morocco, among other places. "I will be in contact with and inspired by people who are cultivating the land—growing, hunting, fishing. And we will be heavily promoting organic food and sustainability. I will hook up with farmers and chefs, visit with them to establish a connection with what they do, and then go somewhere and cook, sometimes with them and sometimes just me." Ripert has accomplished a great deal in his 41 years. But, he says, he never looks back. "I never think too much about the past, really," he says. "I don't even take pictures and look at them. Thank God my wife does that, so we have pictures of our vacations. I don't mean I'm not happy to see them a few years later. But I really prefer to live in the present, to focus on what's happening at this moment. It's a very zen approach. And it makes sense to me."

Ripert rises from the conference table to see what is happening in his kitchen and restaurant. He takes an elevator to the main floor. At Le Bernardin, it's hard not to focus on the golden walls with their paintings that illustrate the multiple aspects of the sea, and the tropical hanging heliconia (also called, appropriately, lobster claw) that emerge from giant vases and hint at the exotic yet subtle flavors to come.

But one's eyes ultimately turn to the staff. The maitre d', waiters, sommelier and busboys all glide along on a sea of near-perfection, performing their twice-a-day ballet. It's a scene that has been going on for two decades. And that is likely to continue for a long time.

Mervyn Rothstein is an editor at The New York Times.