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An Epicurean Inquisition with Eric Ripert

In the eyes of critics and colleagues alike, Eric Ripert can do no wrong.

As the executive chef at Le Bernardin in midtown Manhattan, Ripert is something of an accidental celebrity chef. His drive for an outstanding dining experience – from food to service to the table itself – draws worldwide acclaim; the other stuff – books, TV appearances – came later.

Case in point: Last fall, the restaurant closed for a month for a wall to wall, table to chair renovation, leaving nothing but the ceiling. At this year’s James Beard Awards, the architecture firm behind the design, Bentel & Bentel, was awarded “Outstanding Restaurant Design” for the best restaurant design or renovation in the country this year.

For every action, there is an equal and positive reaction when you’re Eric Ripert. Just last week, Pete Wells, the New York Times food critic, rewarded (more accurately, re-awarded) the restaurant with four stars. Overnight, Le Bernardin became the longest-standing four-star restaurant in history, bestowed that high rating five times.

This record-breaking streak is an honor, but the most important four-star award may have been its second, back in 1995. As the story goes, Ripert’s boss, proprietor and executive chef Gilbert Le Coze, died of a heart attack in 1994. The very next day, Ripert was thrust into the limelight as the new head chef, and hung on to the 4-star rating when the New York Times passed through one year later.

When I called him to chat about the restaurant, his family and his best friend Anthony Bourdain, I was nervous. But not for long. Ripert’s calm, his kindness, his joie de vivre is welcoming and wonderful. He takes a sensible approach to life, eating and drinking and all.

After a long day at Le Bernardin, what’s your favorite meal to eat when you get home?

When I go home, I’m not hungry. I eat all day long, and taste a lot of food. However! Every night, when I get home, I pour a nice shot of tequila or Scotch. I take my time to sip it for a half hour to decompress. There is no food involved. Just pure alcohol.

You must get home late!

Well, it depends how busy the restaurant is, and if I know the clients. Generally, I come back around midnight.

When you make it into your own kitchen, does your son join you?

I cook on my night off, on Sunday, and sometimes he joins me. He’s full of good intentions, but after three minutes, he gets bored. But he comes back when it’s cooked!

Is he an adventurous eater?

He’s very adventurous. Most surprisingly for a young kid, he loves seafood. Since he was 3 or 4, he has liked to eat raw oysters. It’s very rare for someone his age.

What’s the one kitchen tool you can’t live without?

My knives. They are essential for cooking. You can’t cook well without the right knife. I’m always surrounded by my knives.

I have two types of knives. There are the knives for the family kitchen, and they are German. And then I have Japanese knives that I hide somewhere in the house, that are only mine to use.

What would be the biggest surprise to find in your fridge?

Our fridge is pretty empty – in fact, that might be the surprise!

We don’t have much in it because we live in New York where it’s easy to find fresh food. During the week, I don’t cook at home, and when my wife cooks, she cooks for that day so there isn’t much food left.

So you spend an enormous amount of time at Le Bernardin. Tell me your craziest diner story – there must be have been a few over-served, ill-behaved dinner guests over the years.

We have a good friend who likes to celebrate his birthday at Le Bernardin in the private room. He’s 6’4” and probably 300 pounds, a gentle giant. (laughs)

For his birthday, I gave him a chef’s jacket with his name and Le Bernardin on it. And then he drank quite a lot. He decided to go down to the main dining room and walk from table to table, asking guests if they liked their meal. If they said yes, he’d stop, and say, “Champagne for you!” or “Caviar for you!” And it went like that, from table to table.

It took us 15 minutes to stop him giving out caviar and Dom Perignon.

Sounds like a memorable night in the dining room. Have you ever been starstruck in your own restaurant?

It’s not my style to be starstruck. Although, one or two years ago, we closed the restaurant and cooked for the Dalai Lama. That might count.

What’s your worst food critic moment?

Luckily, nothing awful has ever happened. We have never had a catastrophe when a critic was in the restaurant, at least to my knowledge. Over the years, we get better and better feedback!

There seem to be a lot of cameras on the dining table in this age of tweeting and Foodspotting. Should a camera be part of the meal?

I’m very tolerant of cameras. Some people have saved their money for a very long time, or come from far away to experience a great dinner here. They are very passionate about food! I would prefer if they just ate and enjoyed it, but if they have the temptation to use their camera, I’m not mad. I won’t judge them badly.

The food is certainly worth celebrating! You’ve been on the World’s Best Restaurant list for 7 years – does it ever get old?  What was the first award like?

I never get bored! Compliments are always something to celebrate. When we get awards, we celebrate very seriously. We don’t overlook them.

The first award was the New York Times review of Le Bernardin [four stars, in 1995] – it’s a very big deal when you get something like that. It’s overwhelming. You are very happy for the team, for yourself, for your clients, for the entire galaxy!

How do you celebrate?

You celebrate in style! Now that means a lot, and means very little.

Speaking of awards, what’s all the buzz about Noma – is it worth the trip to Copenhagen?

I actually went to Noma when it just opened, before it was Noma [listed first on the San Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurants List]. The neighborhood wasn’t even developed yet. It had only been open for three weeks, but I remember having a very good meal there.

Rene Redezepi remembers me because I was one of his first clients. He always reminds me that after I ate, I peeked into the kitchen and gave the whole staff a big smile!

Your own restaurant is revered for its fish preparations. What’s the most obscure sea creature you’ve served?

The most interesting preparation, both visually and in terms of texture and flavor, is the Geoduck (gwee-duck). Some people believe it’s very phallic, but it’s all a matter of interpretation.

What does it taste like?

(laughs) It tastes like geoduck! It’s a bit briny, with some sweetness, some flavors of the ocean. Its texture is similar to abalone, and I like it very much.

There are some other very sexy dishes on the menu, like wagyu tartar with caviar, butter-poached lobster – what’s your most inspired dish? 

The most inspired dish is always the next one!

We try not to have signature dishes and we try to change the menu as much as we can. If you look at the menu after a year, you’ll realize that 90 percent of it has changed. I always like to evolve with the seasons as well as put to use the discoveries we make – whether it’s traveling, studying new techniques, eating and so on.

There’s always reason to come back!

Actually, yes!

Tell me about your Bordeaux fetish. I understand you drink red Bordeaux with everything down to oysters – what happened to food and wine pairings?

Food and wine pairings are smart when they are well done. We have a great sommelier here who puts a lot of passion and knowledge into wine pairings, and they work perfectly.

However, when it comes to wine, I’m the stubborn Antichrist of the sommelier!

What does Aldo Sohm do?

He shakes his head and feels sorry for me.

I know you pal around with Anthony Bourdain. What’s the craziest thing that he’s ever done?

I have never seen him doing anything really crazy. Despite what people believe, he’s in control and very disciplined.

Maybe once, we went out, we had a bit too much tequila, and I had to put him in a cab. We had been eating at an Italian restaurant, and the following morning, he called to tell me he didn’t know how he’d gotten home, and asked the name of the Colombian restaurant where we went. I explained how he’d gotten home before I told him the restaurant was actually Italian.

Le Bernardin is closed on Sunday – what’s your ideal way to spend the free day?

I love to cook at home on Sunday night with the family, with my son, my wife and sometimes friends. Very often, we open a restaurant. My son designs the menu, he is the maitre d’ and the waiter. I am the chef. My wife always starts as the client, but she’ll end up being the dishwasher.

We have different themes: one week is French, Italian, Spanish, and so on. I really enjoy it – it’s playful, we eat well, it’s interactive, and I am with my family.