They are names any food lover will instantly recognize: José Andrés of Jaleo in Washington, D.C. Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin in New York City. Emeril Lagasse of Emeril's in New Orleans. Thomas Keller of The French Laundry in Yountville, California. Charlie Palmer of Aureole in Manhattan. Marc Vetri of Vetri Ristorante in Philadelphia. Michael Cimarusti of Providence in Los Angeles. Geoffrey Zakarian of The Lambs Club in New York. Each of these star chefs shares more than the acclaim of critics, fame and success in the tough world of the restaurant business. Each of them has a passion for enjoying handmade, premium cigars.
Cigar Aficionado reached out to this group of star chefs to share their stories and find out why they love cigars.
Chef José Andrés is in perpetual motion, a blur of hands as he speaks with talk show host Ellen Degeneres. "Caipirinha is lime juice, freshly squeezed, with cachaça," Andrés says of the Brazilian cocktail. "It's a liquor," which comes out as "li-KWOR" in his clear, strong Spanish accent. Andrés tells the TV host they're going to make a frozen caipirinha. But there's no blender on stage, no tub of ice.
"Why do we have goggles?" Degeneres asks. The studio audience is laughing. A bit nervously. "Oh, yeah, put on the goggles. I forgot," Andrés says, still moving. "We're using liquid nitrogen." He lifts a canister, holding it as if it were a weapon. "Liquid nitrogen!" he repeats.
Degeneres gulps audibly. "OK," she says.
Chef and host pour the caipirinha mixture into bowls, then add the 300°-below-zero liquid. Fog billows as they whisk.
"Can you see anything?" Andrés asks. "I cannot see anything!" Degeneres screams.
Finally, Andrés spoons a bit of the frozen concoction into Degeneres's mouth. All she can say is: "Wow!"
This is simple stuff for Andrés, who dropped out of high school to study with Ferran Adrià, the Spanish master of molecular gastronomy. Andrés, 47, taught culinary physics at Harvard and has menus full of creative dishes like a "liquid olive," and cotton candy around eel.
"Cotton candy is the most amazing form of caramelization ever invented by man," Andrés exclaims in a whisper, an illusionist seducing his audience. Most chefs build dishes ingredient by ingredient; Andrés takes them apart, deconstructing to create food that sometimes floats at you and sometimes explodes.
"Eating has to be fun," Andrés believes. At the same time, he says, a chef can "put a lot of thought behind what the food means to you." Take the spoon of his caramelized popcorn that was "cooked" in liquid nitrogen. Put it in your mouth. Fog comes out your nose as you swallow.
Andrés is certainly having fun. And he considers himself "selfish" when he cooks. He has to please himself. If he doesn't, he says, "it's impossible I will be able to please you."
Andrés is also pleased when he can enjoy cigars, particularly Cohiba Behikes and Fuente Fuente OpusX. "I like to smoke cigars after a big meal," Andrés explains. "Usually I will skip dessert for a cigar. I mainly enjoy them in summer- time, and I love them when it is raining. When it rains, I go outside my home, in the porch, and I love to light one as I watch the beautiful rain come down."
Andrés is credited with propelling tapas, small-plates dining, in the United States when he opened Jaleo in Washington, D.C., in 1993. His ThinkFoodGroup owns such renowned dining concepts as Zaytinya, minibar by José Andrés, barmini, Oyamel, China Chilcano, Pepe, Beefsteak and America Eats Tavern in the Washington, D.C., area; The Bazaar by José Andrés, SAAM, Tres and Bar Blanca in Los Angeles; The Bazaar in Miami Beach; plus é by José Andrés, China Poblano, Bazaar Meat (which has a cigar menu) and Jaleo in Las Vegas. He has even more restaurants outside the United States.
The chef took note after Donald Trump made his famous comments about Mexican immigrants—who make up the staff in many restaurants. Andrés canceled his deal with Trump to open a restaurant. Trump sued, and Andrés countersued. The suits are unresolved.
Though Spanish born, Andrés is now a U.S. citizen, and says he feels like an American who studied cooking in Spain. He even served as the U.S. culinary ambassador during President Obama's trip to Cuba in March.
"I had to have a cigar," he admitted. "The best place was La Floridita [in Havana]. Their daiquiris are to die for.... La Floridita is the place, to me, that if you are lucky enough to have a cigar there, you should."
Eric Ripert is getting his feet wet. The chef-owner of Le Bernardin, the acclaimed seafood restaurant in New York that is ranked among the world's finest, is wearing a T-shirt and shorts on a beach in the Cayman Islands, exchanging deep thoughts about cooking with Chef José Andrés as they smoke cigars and drink wine. Later, the chef whom the New York Times bestowed four stars for running "a high church of reverently prepared fish" is enthusing about a dish that's a polar opposite to what he serves nightly at Le Bernardin—country ham with red-eye gravy.
It's a scene from "Avec Eric," Ripert's TV show, part of his personal exploration, his journey, with chef friends as guests in which he lets his well-coiffed gray hair down.
"We totally ignore the cameras and have the same fun that we do in real life, indulging and feeding our curiosity about discovering other cultures and adventures," he says with an easy laugh, his perfect English layered with a thick French accent.
Ripert's blue eyes betray mischief, but he's a practicing Buddhist with a soulful side. "I like to feel what I do," he wrote in his cookbook. "When I cook a carrot, I become that carrot. If I don't feel the food, I will only be a great technician, never a great chef."
The four-course $147 prix fixe menu at Le Bernardin is divided into three sections. The first, starters, is "almost raw" and offers oysters, caviar and salmon, as well as unique creations such as "geoduck sashimi," made from a very large clam and seasoned elegantly. "Barely touched" is followed by "lightly cooked" main courses. Small but decadent desserts round out the menu. "Obviously, it's the search for perfection," Ripert says.
Part of that search is tasting, and Ripert tastes perhaps 20 sauces daily. He calls it the most important part of running the restaurant. Ripert bites a cube of Swiss cheese before dipping a small spoon into each sauce. "This way, I know what I am tasting," he recently told a reporter. "The cheese is always the same, but if it feels salty or bland, I know my palate is off."
Unlike many celebrity chefs, Ripert has purposely avoided becoming a brand. A chef in New York, he explains, cannot check the sauces in Los Angeles every day. Ripert's "empire" includes a small wine bar in New York in the courtyard across from Le Bernardin. There's also a restaurant, Blue, in the Cayman Islands at the Ritz-Carlton resort.
"I decided my journey would be in three parts," Ripert says. "It would be one-third for myself, one-third for my family, and one-third for my business."
Every afternoon, Ripert sits down to a meal with his sous chefs. They all wear kitchen whites and usually eat something not on the menu.
"I like to share with sous chefs the importance of yesterday's wisdom," Ripert says.
Ripert could play the movie role of the successful French chef he is in real life, with cigar in hand.
"When I was in culinary school, we were allowed to smoke outside," Ripert recalls. "Once a week, we'd have cigar evening on the patio. I was actually the one to purchase the cigars—from my home in Andorra where they were less expensive—and distribute them to my classmates."
Ripert enjoys his cigars "on vacations and on weekends, one in the morning and one in the evening," loves Cubans such as the Cohiba Esplendido and Montecristo No. 2, as well as "any of the Padrón cigars" from Nicaragua.
"Sometimes I will share cigars with friends," Ripert says, "but mostly I prefer to enjoy them alone. It is a very selfish time of mine to have personal moments of reflection with a cigar, so nothing exciting usually happens."
Emeril Lagasse is on the move, getting onto a plane, heading back home to New Orleans. "I'm opening a new restaurant," he says in that familiar, unhurried, calming voice, the one that charmed millions and made Lagasse one of the best-known chefs in the world.
America has been on a first-name basis with Emeril for more than 20 years. The man who made garlic cool ("Garlic is awesome") and brought the catchphrase "Bam!" into the kitchen has loved cigars for more than half of his 57-year life.
"I love the smell of them," he says. "There's something about the aroma, the perfume. I smoke them to enjoy them." He lit his first cigar more than 30 years ago and has loved them ever since. He's particularly fond of Dominicans, and has a soft spot in his heart for watching cigars as they are rolled, which he views on his frequent trips to Miami and Tampa, Florida. "I love the experience," he says. The long journey from tobacco seed to cigar is one he also admires, and he draws parallels between the world of cigars and food.
"Young kids—not my kids—think orange juice comes from a carton," he says. "It's the same thing with cigars. People don't understand all that goes into growing it, aging it, enjoying it. I get excited about that."
Emeril grew up around food. Raised in Fall River, Massachusetts, he watched his mother cook and saw his father and uncle raise pigs on a farm. Meat was seen in its natural form, not shrink wrapped in a butcher's case. He learned how to make bread as a teenager at a nearby bakery, and then studied culinary arts at Johnson and Wales University. He honed his craft at various restaurants in France, New York, Boston and Philadelphia, then took the helm of the Brennan family's New Orleans masterpiece, Commander's Palace, in 1982. In 1990, he forged out on his own, opening Emeril's in the French Quarter of his adopted city of New Orleans. Three years later, the Food Network came calling. Everything changed.
Working 12-hour shifts in the windowless kitchen of his restaurant, Emeril became a star. Bellowing "Let's kick it up a notch," as he made dish after dish for the cameras, the audience swallowed it up eagerly, and the chef hosted more than 2,000 episodes on the Food Network.
Today he has a dozen restaurants, counting the one he was opening as this issue went to press. Called Meril (Emeril without the "E"), named after his 11-year-old daughter, it's his fourth in New Orleans. He has another four restaurants in Las Vegas (including Delmonico Steakhouse, holder of Wine Spectator's highest honor, the Grand Award), two in Orlando and three in Pennsylvania.
His newest show, "Eat the World," is on Amazon, and a recent episode was shot in Cuba. "I smoked the hell out of cigars there," he says, specifying Montecristo No. 2s. The final stop on his journey took him to a pig farm in the country, where he was served a roast pig, brought to the table with a cigar clamped in its jaws.
"I really haven't had a tastier pig ever in my life," said Lagasse on the broadcast as he chewed on a slice of the freshly roasted pork. His eyes welled up. "When I was a boy, my uncle and my dad had a pig farm," he said, his eyes reddening, his voice slowing. "Coming back here today brought back a lot of those memories."
The right arm moves constantly, forcefully stirring the mixture—water, butter and flour. To the right sit white bowls of minced herbs. It's a French version of herb gnocchi, very light, very simple. But in the hands of Chef Thomas Keller, it becomes something special.
"Get that nice four-pinch in there," says Keller, tall and lean in chef whites, as he explains that a pinch can be one to four fingers. Next, the eggs. "You can see each time I'm working it, how the egg is becoming incorporated into the mixture." Now cheese. "Looking beautiful," he says as he stirs. "I just love the smell of Gruyere cheese."
Keller, who started cooking in his native Florida, is now the American chef who inspires and intimidates. Many have called him a perfectionist. Keller disagrees—to a point.
"Perfection is something that you never actually attain," says the 60-year-old. "It's only something that you search for."
Keller's flagship, The French Laundry in Yountville, California, is generally regarded as one of the best restaurants in the world. Some diners get a view of Keller, working to decorate a plate, as he puts a touch on one of nine courses that will reach the table as part of his tasting menu. Each dot of sauce gets bigger or smaller. The composition seems perfect. Keller has what he calls "an emotional contact, an emotional experience" with The French Laundry, which he purchased in 1994. Wine Spectator calls it a "Bucket List" restaurant, and has given it its top award for its extensive list of wines.
Keller's Restaurant Group includes a host of other restaurants, including several under the Bouchon name in Las Vegas, California and New York, but no other rivals the French Laundry except perhaps Per Se in Manhattan, which Keller opened in 2004. Many saw it as an East Coast French Laundry. Each restaurant's kitchen has in it a monitor with a live feed of the other kitchen, "to maintain a connection."
In 2011, then New York Times restaurant critic Sam Sifton gave Per Se four stars. In January, the Times removed two of them. Keller apologized to his guests in an open letter.
"We consider it our professional responsibility to ensure that every one of you feels special and cared for," Keller wrote. "We pride ourselves on maintaining the highest standards, but we make mistakes along the way. We are sorry we let you down."
Keller knows the ups and downs. When he moved to Los Angeles in 1990, he tried the corporate chef route, but the artist in him rebelled. "By then I had very clear ideas about how a restaurant should be operated," Keller told Cigar Aficionado in 2002. He clashed with "the suits," who sent the artistic chef packing. Keller tried selling olive oil, but always kept his focus. Today, he has few peers who can rival his culinary success.
He began smoking cigars in 1992. It's no surprise that Keller smokes a cigar in style, and with a grand pairing. "Personally, I enjoy the Fuente Fuente OpusX Maduro Belicoso with a glass of Macallan's 57-year-old Scotch," he says. Since 2013, diners at The French Laundry have been able to indulge in post-dinner cigars in the garden, which has a pricey, premium selection of handmade cigars organized by country in humidors custom made by Elie Bleu of France, each box wearing its national flag.
While Keller is quietly intense and serious, he also has a playful side. When the chain-smoking Anthony Bourdain shot a TV show at The French Laundry, Keller served Bourdain his nicotine fix in a coffee custard infused with Marlboro tobacco, topped with foie gras mousse.
Charlie Palmer's large hands move expertly, deftly, scoring the thick skin of a fat duck breast. He lays it in a pan skin side down, over a medium flame, and renders the skin until it's as crispy as a cracker.
Palmer loves duck, loves the way it pairs with a handmade cigar. "A lot of things about duck speak to a cigar and smokiness," he says, pouring off some of the melted fat, a bit of which he'll use to enrich the walnut fried rice that will complete the dish.
If any chef has blended cigars into his world, it's Palmer, a 56-year-old with 14 restaurants in his group. The flagship, Aureole, in New York City, opened in 1988 and showcases Palmer's signature progressive American cuisine. The Las Vegas version—complete with a four-story-tall wine tower attended by black-clad "angels" who zip through the tower on wires to fetch bottles, is a Wine Spectator Grand Award winner. In Manhattan, the former high school linebacker, who has traded pigskin for Duroc pork chops, now tackles cabs to visit his five locations in the city. His Harvest Inn in St. Helena, California, hosts monthly dinners meant to complement cigars.
"It's always a great meal with cigars before, during and after," says Palmer. "And of course with great wine."
Palmer began smoking cigars in the 1980s when his mentor, a Belgian chef, ushered him into the world of cigars after a memorable meal in Brussels. "After a great lunch they brought this chic humidor to the table and started this whole presentation of not only choosing the cigar, but clipping, lighting, rolling it in a touch of Armagnac," he explains.
Today, Palmer favors wines over spirits when he's enjoying a cigar, particularly Chateauneuf-du-Pape. "The complexity in that wine has a kind of smokiness and richness that goes great with a cigar," he says. His primary cigar brand is La Gloria Cubana. He tends to prefer smaller cigars, and he almost always smokes after dark, about 10 times a month.
Some of those cigars are smoked outdoors, such as when Palmer relaxes with a cigar after shooting birds at his club in Sonoma. "A lot of guys will stroll through a pheasant field smoking a cigar," Palmer laughs, "but I like to focus on the shot."
At St. Cloud, the bar atop Manhattan's Knickerbocker Hotel where one can light up while enjoying superb views of Times Square, Palmer unwinds his big frame and relaxes, ordering a "Cuban Cigar" from the small menu. Out comes a cigar-shaped Cuban sandwich, complete with an "ash" constructed of herbs. The sandwich is served on a silver ashtray.
"I've met a lot of people that I respect and like and like to spend time with over a cigar," he says. "There's something calming about it too. In this day and age and in our world, that's kind of unique."
Dressed in a gray hoodie and knit cap that covers his bald pate, Philadelphia's Marc Vetri walks into the restaurant that bears his name on a snowy winter night. He's not here to cook—he's come to kidnap his chef de cuisine. He finds his target and stuffs his captive into the back of a white limo, along with a group of friends, and they head out on a mission to dine. First stop, the sushi bar at Morimoto, a 10-minute-drive away.
"Holy shit!" Vetri exclaims after taking a bite of Japanese snapper. "Nobody talks about the rice when they eat sushi, but this is the perfect texture." After that meal, the party grows, and now Morimoto's head sushi chef is among the hostages. Next stop, Kanella, a Cypriot restaurant. Vetri uncorks another joy-laden expletive as he tucks into a spicy lamb dumpling.
Despite having worked in restaurants since he was a teenager, the 49-year-old Vetri still speaks with the unbridled enthusiasm of a foodie. He learned to smoke cigars during his time in California, a four-year period when he worked at Wolfgang Puck's now-closed Granita restaurant. "And when I smoked my first Fuente Hemingway, that was it," he says. He opened Vetri Ristorante in 1998, today one of six restaurants he owns in his native Philadelphia, plus Pizzeria Vetris in Austin and Washington, D.C.
There's no time for a cigar tonight but Vetri puffs them frequently. "I like a smaller cigar," he explains. "I generally can't finish a big one."
The evening ends back at his restaurant. Vetri throws together a tagliatelle in pistachio pesto for the crowd. "Rob Levin from Holt's was at Vetri one night eating with another cigarmaker," Vetri says. "Rob is always generous about bringing me cigars, but this night the other cigarmaker gave me a cigar from his private stock. It was not available for sale anywhere in the world. I remember sitting at Vetri that night, lighting up in the restaurant. I opened a Barolo and had that cigar. Still to this day, the best I ever had."
The large serrated knife saws slowly through the skull of the striped bass. Chef Michael Cimarusti holds up the decapitated head of the fish to the camera and ventriloquizes, "Tell me, what do you think of my restaurant?"
A few more cuts with the knife. "You don't want to have it on the grill looking at you like that the whole time," Cimarusti says with a chuckle. He trims some more, this time swapping the blade for a pair of sharp scissors, then lays the big fish on a blazing hot Japanese binchotan grill.
Since 2005, Cimarusti (who has a thick beard worthy of a hipster) has owned and cooked at Providence, in Los Angeles. He has also added another restaurant and a seafood store. On the drive home from Providence, he lights up a Padrón Serie 1926 No. 35, "My go-to cigar."
Cimarusti, 46, began to smoke seriously when he had "one of the quintessential cigar moments" of his life in 1995 when he was a young chef at Le Cirque in New York City. Four of the world's greatest French chefs—Alain Ducasse, Paul Bocuse, Roger Vergé, and Gérard Boyer—cooked with a veritable army of chefs for a meal dubbed "Dinner of the Millennium." Co-host Marvin R. Shanken, editor & publisher of Cigar Aficionado magazine, gave out cigars at the after party. Cimarusti received a Partagás Serie D No. 4.
"That was my first Cuban cigar," he says. "To this day it's absolutely one of my favorites."
Geoffrey Zakarian is tucked next to a Kentia palm plant, sitting in a leather, semicircle booth at The National, a restaurant he opened more than a year ago in tony Greenwich, Connecticut. He's sipping a sangria from a metal cup shaped like an owl that matches the warm intensity of its holder. It's a fitting vessel for Zakarian, who has amassed quite a bit of food wisdom in his 34-year career and never shies from voicing his opinion.
"I love sangria, but I never like to see what the hell is in it," he says, adjusting the thick, black frames that seem to magnify his dark, piercing eyes. "At most joints, a bartender takes all the old fruit and leftover wine from the night and he throws it in there. But we don't do that here. We don't do wine gumbo."
An honest approach to food and direct diction have helped catapult Zakarian from a line chef at Le Cirque to a restaurateur who currently owns six establishments in New York, Los Angeles, New Jersey and Connecticut, including The Lambs Club. He's often seen opining on Food Network shows such as "Chopped" and "Iron Chef: America."
An impeccable dresser when not in his chef's coat, the 57-year-old is also a shameless lover of cigars, often starting his day with a cigar paired with a double espresso.
"I'm very interested in the mechanics of a cigar," he says, his fingers running over the wrapper of a cigar. "That tells you if it's been made with care. I'm a touch-and-feel person, and I love the feel of the cigar in my hands."
Zakarian's love affair with cigars started as a teenager. His father smoked them, as did the golfers on the course where he played as a youth. "For me," he says, "even today, the sport of golf immediately elicits a desire to smoke a cigar."
The chef's schedule is packed ("even Saturdays and Sundays," he says) but he still finds time to enjoy a cigar in between tapings or at his Zakarian Hospitality corporate office, which has a cigar-friendly outdoor garden. There's even a hidden terrace on the second floor of The Lambs Club where he (or guests) can escape to smoke.
When he's on vacation, the cigar smoking is amplified. "I'll start smoking at 8 a.m.," he says, "and won't stop."