Standing in the newly renovated Astor Center, I met Chef Eric Ripert of Le Bernadin. I was nervous, this being my first official interview, but as soon as the Chef, smiling, relaxed in jeans and a green button-down shirt, walked in looking for me, I was put at ease, in that oh-my-god-I’m-interviewing-Eric-Ripert kind of way. Additionally, he was so comfortable in the rhythym of an interview that I could have been Elvis or the Dalai Lama and his answers would flow just as easily, and authentically.
Chef Eric looked around and nostalgized aloud about the “great parties” thrown at Serafina, the restaurant which inhabited the space some years before. I immediately thought that I’d like to hang out with him and drink but, the consummate professional, I passed on the offer of wine from Le Bernadin’s cellar, until after the interview was over. First though, we took a tour of the Astor Center, the second-floor educational facility owned and operated by Astor Wines, which is located on the ground floor. The tasting room was being set for the evening’s Wine 101 course and volunteers dressed in black, filled glasses seemingly unimpressed with Eric’s presence. As if Anthony Bordain or James Beard himself had just left.
Eric was at the Astor Center to promote his new book, On the Line, a detailed account of life in the kitchen of the 3-Michelin starred Le Bernadin. As we made our way though the back halls, Christine Muhlke, author behind the birth of the book arrived, tired and asked for a Campari & soda. She was young and pretty and as a food editor for the NY Times, looked, in equal parts, very busy and very important. We were escorted back into the room where their stage conversation would take place before an audience of eighty or so New York foodies. I had gotten notice of the event through the Village Voice Bites email newsletter. I thought then that lots of people would be there but it turns out that cult foodies who will shell out seventy five bucks to hear a chef talk on a Monday night are actually a rare breed.
But Eric Ripert isn’t an ordinary chef. He’s not the guy peeling carrots advising me to rethink my career choice. (“There’s still time to be a banker,” I was told while trailing at a restaurant of Le Bernadin caliber, by a 25-year-old sous chef. Apparently he doesn’t watch the news.) Chef Eric is an insipration. He’s normal. Well, kind of normal. I tried to get him to admit that he had some guilty food pleasure, like Doritoes or Mountain Dew and he curled up his plump lips and said “Zeez tings do not apeel to me.” Black truffles and dark chocolate have his heart, though he feels no guilt about any food indulgence and doesn’t understand why anyone else would either. “Or a really good caviar.” What’s there to feel guilty about?
Growing up in Andorra and France, Eric recalls his first food memory to me: rolling dough for breadsticks. As he talks, he stares at the floor, smiling. His palms come together and he slides them back and forth as though Mama’s or Granmama’s pate is still there. So how does a kid from the seaside town of Antibes in France achieve such great heights? “I was a terrible student. When I was 15 the Headmaster of my school had a meeting with my parents and he told them ‘he needs to find a profession.’” At this, the young Eric chose culinary school, thus setting in motion a future of truffles and dark chocolate.
On the Line is a detailed account of life at Le Bernadin. From a minute-by-minute account of a typical day, to a glossary of kitchen slang, it is a touching love story, between people, a place and the food that is created there every night, 150,000 plates per year. Christine noted in our conversation that every single one of the 120 employees is valuable and necessary and the place would not run if any one of them was absent. Eric is surprised to hear that this is unique in a workplace. I resist the temptation to regale him with stories of all-to-common office drama and apathy, and instead listen as he speaks so lovingly of the team he has built. He has studied Buddhism for twenty years and Christine credits that, at least partially, with Eric’s ability to lead, without an ego. At this, he bursts a gaffaw laugh and says “Oh, no! I have an ego!” and trails off, neglecting to elaborate.
Eric’s history is one of never-give-up integrity and passion and that unfolds beautifully on every page of On the Line, and his ability to tell a story (cutting his finger on the first day at La Tour d’Argent) to me and also to an audience who filled the room. For an hour or so he and Christine recount the writing of the book, while also filling in gaps that were left “for the sequel.” Christine jokes, but there’s a distinct air of vision in Eric’s talking. He talks openly about anticipating the downturn in the economy several years ago and at that time, decided to broaden his enterprise, write a book for example, and appear as guest on Bravo’s Top Chef, thus exposing Le Bernadin to an audience for whom it may never hit their radar. He’s a brilliant business man in this way. Does he expect the lowly food blogger to have a weekly reservation at Le Bernadin? Of course not. But graduation, anniversary, special occasion? Yes. Through his marketing efforts, an entire audience of aspiring foodies and gourmet junkies have his name permanently engraved in their pop culture memory.
All this, and he’s basically unchanged by the fame his public life has brought him. Christine asks how he feels about the Chef-As-Sex-Symbol status the media attention has brought some. He is suddenly, adorably uncomfortable and humbly pulls his shoulders up to his ears and looks to her for help. “How about Chef-As-Rockstar?” “Look, there is no line of groupies outside of the restaurant when I am leaving at 11pm. No one tries to hug me in Central Park.” He then turns the conversation to his clients, those who come to dine at the restaurant. He posits that going to a restaurant is better than going to a movie, because in a restuarant, you are part of the movie. Advising the culinary students in the audience, he points out the dilemma in seeking fame in the kitchen. “For every one who becomes famous, 100,000 are in the back peeling carrots.”
Chef Eric & I share the opinion that the role of culinary school should not be a launching pad for stardom, and gradation does not equal chefdom, fame and fortune. Eric liberally uses analogies to illustrate his meaning. If someone wants to become an actor to be famous, he says, he will always suck. Its the person who gets on stage and performs beautifully every night, that brings something beautiful to this world that matters, even if fame passes them by.
I asked Eric what he would have been, had he not become a chef and without hesitation says, “a forest ranger.” The love of nature, fishing, hiking, of growing up in the woods; he says “I thought if I could not live passion #1, it would be cool to be paid for passion #2.” Certainly there is no fame or glamour in forestry. “There is no glamour in having your hands in the guts of a fish, either.”