Chef Eric Ripert of New York restaurant Le Bernardin. Photo: Avec Eric
Compared to his peers, chef Eric Ripert is a minimalist. He has four restaurants, four books, and hasn’t launched his own line of spices, pots, or knives. The bio on his website is called “A Short Biography.” And it is. It skims over his career, skirting past the myriad stars—both Michelin and The New York Times—bestowed upon his New York restaurant Le Bernardin, and the Emmy and James Beard awards given to his television show Avec Eric. It buries his Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest honor. But humility is Ripert’s game. As are his charming Franglais speak, perma-tanned good looks, self-deprecation, and uncanny ability to stay calm and kind in any situation (he’s a long-time Buddhist). Which is probably why so many fellow chefs and fans love him.
Every January for seven years, Ripert has been inviting best friend Anthony Bourdain and a handful of other chef friends to the Cayman Cookout at the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman, where the Ripert has his Blue restaurant. The event is a small, intimate affair where the food-obsessed get up close and personal with their favorite chefs and cooks for demonstrations and tastings. How close? At one of this year’s events, chefs José Andrés, Marcus Samuelsson, Bourdain, and Ripert were cooking, plating, and serving the hungry masses themselves. Ask any chef why they like to participate in this particular fest and they’ll tell you it’s because Ripert asked them.
We sat down with the chef for a quick Q&A. Here’s what we learned about the much-loved Ripert.
Eric Ripert, José Andres, and Anthony Bourdain at the Cayman Cookout. Photo: Eric Ripert / Facebook
Yahoo Food: How and why did you start the Cayman Cookout?
Eric Ripert: Nine years ago, we wanted to have something fun after the holidays. And we started the cookout with only the local chefs competing, and it was so much fun we decided to make it international and bring my good friends. It’s great because it’s small. It’s great talent. The public likes it. We as chefs like it because we have intimacy amongst ourselves, and we have intimacy with the public.
YF: Do you just call up your friends and say, “What are you doing in January?”
ER: Yeah. Anthony and José have been seven times. And then we call friends and chefs who we like. The idea is to bring their children and stay a while. It’s very easy when it’s 19 in Chicago or minus 5 in Toronto. You don’t make the call in July. You make the call in January.
YF: What’s your favorite ingredient on the island?
ER: The fish — so much delicious fish: the conch, the spiny lobster, the snapper, the wahoo. We try to use local fish at Blue, so when the weather is good we go to all the local fisherman.
Eric Ripert seasoning fresh seafood. Photo: The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman
YF: What’s the word or phrase most often heard in your kitchen?
ER: “Yes, chef!”
YF: What’s the mantra of your kitchen?
ER: We have a motto and a mantra. The mantra is, “The fish is the star of the plate.” That guides all of our efforts. Whatever goes on the plate, our mission is to elevate the fish to the next level. We don’t care about color, presentation, starch. It’s the taste and making the fish the star. After then comes presentation and the rest.
YF: And the motto?
ER: The motto is “Be yourself.” If you be yourself and if you are a good person, we will teach you and share with you our knowledge and make you a good cook.
YF: So you like a kind kitchen? Not the stereotypical combat kitchen.
ER: I think mean kitchens are totally wrong. To be kind and to teach people how to cook without scaring them is a good thing because I don’t think a cook who is shaking will ever do a better job than one who is relaxed and focused on his craft.
Chefs working their magic in the kitchen at Le Bernardin. Photo: Eric Ripert / Facebook
YF: Did you always believe this?
ER: No. I did not. I had a big temper when I was young. But I was miserable, and my cooks were miserable. So one day I woke up, and I started to think about why I was miserable, and I realized it was me.
YF: And did you get the Michelin star after that?
ER: Oh, way after that.
YF: So it paid off having a happy kitchen.
ER: Yes, I think so.
YF: What was your first food memory?
ER: Normally you don’t remember when you’re three, but I remember using my spoon as a catapult to throw brain through the kitchen because I hated it. In France, they thought that feeding brain to kids would make you smarter. And I hated it.
YF: Do you like brain now?
ER: I can’t eat brain. But I remember the apple tart of my grandmother. I was spoiled by my family. Both my grandmother and mother were amazing cooks.
YF: What’s your favorite fish to eat?
ER: I don’t like to have a favorite because then you cook more of your favorite. I try not to think like that. But I find the halibut from the Atlantic side magnificent.
YF: Do you like to eat as much as you like to cook?
ER: Oh yeah. Not a problem.
YF: What about for your son? He must have an amazing palate.
ER: He’s 11. I cook for him a lot. He has a very good palate. He’s lucky because I cook at home on Sunday nights. On Saturday we go to a restaurant. During the week he’ll go with his mum to a restaurant. So he has a good mix of home food and restaurant experience.
YF: What are his favorite dishes of yours?
ER: Everything he likes of mine except my pastries. I’m a lousy baker.
YF: Describe your kitchen at home. Is it a palace?
ER: Palace? No. Doesn’t need to be a palace. It’s a very clean space—spacious, but not too big, very functional, very clean. I have good pans, good German knives, and I have a secret stash of Japanese knives—a lot of different brands. Because my wife uses the knives and she’s not very good at sharpening, we use the German ones—they last longer.
YF: This is going to be in print…
ER: It’s OK. She knows.
YF: What are the things you always have stocked in your kitchen?
ER: Salt, pepper, olive oil. The rest is pretty fresh. I don’t like to keep anything too long.
YF: If we opened up your fridge today…
ER: You’d probably find nothing. Maybe a yogurt and some kind of soda.
YF: I read your New Year’s resolution was to cut down on soda…
ER: I said only two per day! I committed to two per day. One in the morning. One in the afternoon.
YF: What pot do you use the most at home?
ER: A saucepan that’s about as high as a soda can and 8 inches wide. Then a sauté pan and a big pot to boil water. Maybe five or six pans. I don’t need a lot.
YF: What’s the best advice someone has given to you?
ER: To stay humble. It was one of my mentors, Gilbert Le Coze [the founder of Le Bernardin], who said, “I think you’re going to make it. In the case that you’re going to make it, stay humble.” It stuck in my mind.
Wooden ceilings above set tables in Le Bernardin Restaurant, New York City. Photo: Hueber/Archphoto: Eduard
YF: What’s happening right now that you are excited about?
ER: I’m excited but at the same time I don’t want to be excited … and I will tell you why. It’s the sea urchins. I love sea urchins. For a long, long time, they were very esoteric, and now it looks like they are the next trend. And there may not be enough for everyone. It’s not like it’s pork belly. And I hope it’s not going to pick up more wind because we’re going to have a hard time to get them. But I really love sea urchin.
YF: So food trends … they’re real?
ER: It’s strange because every year media or chefs are thinking what’s the next trend and everybody is always wrong. I don’t know.
YF: Is cauliflower really the new kale?
ER: Actually, it is. If you go to New York, it’s on every menu.
YF: Do you guys talk to each other about it?
ER: No. I don’t know. I always thought that the designers in fashion would talk to each other and say, “Hey guys, next year let’s do that.” When you see a fashion show, you see everybody is going in the same direction. And for the chefs, it’s not like we plan to do something in the same style.
YF: Or maybe it’s a reaction to what just happened?
ER: Sometimes it’s a reaction. I call it collective consciousness.
YF: What’s a food or restaurant that you think is under appreciated?
ER: I think a lot of people are making fun of vegans. I like [vegans]. I like protein and fish and meat, but when you eat pasta with tomato sauce, it’s vegan. If you don’t add the Parmesan, it’s vegan.
YF: What’s the first cookbook you ever bought?
ER: Paul Bocuse’s La Cuisine du Marché. I was maybe 13 or 14. I was passionate about cooking. I didn’t know I wanted to be a chef necessarily.
YF: When did you know you wanted to be a chef?
ER: It was the meeting with my mom in the principal’s office saying, “Your son cannot stay in this school any longer.” I was in 9th grade. I was not a good student and definitely liked to … cause trouble here and there.
Enjoy this clip from the latest episode of Avec Eric, which airs Saturday at 9:30 a.m. EST on the Cooking Channel.
Clips from his show Avec Eric: