We know he’s an icon, but is it also OK to say that we have a huge crush on Eric Ripert here at The New Potato (or this week should I say, The New, New Potato?). To us, Ripert is what we are all about – food as an experience, and Ripert’s Le Bernardin has been bringing the absolute best food experience to New Yorkers for almost three decades now. The chef himself is the epitome of that perfect balance between flawless traditional technique and sexy, innovative food. Have we mentioned we’re also nominating Ripert for People Magazine’s next Sexiest Man Alive? We hung out in the Le Bernardin dining room chatting, shooting photos, and watching Chef Ripert taking Instagrams – chefs, they’re just like us!
What would be your ideal food day?
Well, I’d like to start in Paris for breakfast because (especially in Saint-Germain-des-Prés) they have some great cafés. I’m a café au lait guy, croissants, pain au chocolat – all those things. So we’ll start there.
Then for lunch I’d go to Thailand. I would be in Thailand in the streets by the market. They have a fantastic market in Bangkok; I would be there for lunch.
Tea time in London; why not? In the Mayfair area, maybe at Harrods, because Harrods is a fantastic store and the food is amazing.
For dinner I would be in Tokyo at Sukiyabashi Jiro having sushi. I ate there it was amazing. That would be one of my ideal days.
What do you attribute Le Bernardin’s timelessness and longevity to?
New York inspires us a lot so it’s a normal process. We are creative and if you are creative your environment influences you. The city constantly renews itself and reinvents itself and therefore we do the same. We constantly reinvent ourselves in subtle ways. We have a clientele that has its usual habits and so on; we have a new clientele that comes all the time, and then we have tourists.
However the service, the style of the service, the food, the experience with the wine and the experience as a whole has changed over the years. I was not even here in 1986 but back then Le Bernardin was a very formal place with very formal service. Today it’s a much more friendly place; it’s much more relaxed.
A couple of years ago we were like, ‘Wow, we have changed so much over the years, and our food has evolved so much as well. But we still have this décor that is from the 80’s.’ It was still very formal in a sense. We didn’t have a lounge; instead it was just a waiting area. So we wanted to have the décor following what we had done with the service and the food. We wanted to have harmony between the three components that create the experience. The décor, the service and wine combined together.
When you did that redesign how did you make sure to keep with the legacy of the restaurant?
The legacy is important for us obviously. So Grandpa (points to painting above bar) was here before. He’s in the same spot. He’s keeping an eye on the entrance and the bar. Grandpa was a fisherman. He’s not my Grandpa; he’s Maguy Le Coze’s Grandpa in Brittany [France]. We kept him and for us he’s very iconic in a sense. This ceiling – obviously when renovating we cleaned it and so on – was the ceiling from the original opening. So the entire ceiling hasn’t changed at all. So I think that creates the bridge between the past and the present.
Then we went to see the architects and we gave them a couple of words that would dictate the design. “Comfortable” is an obvious one, “luxury”… Then we added one word that we never thought an upscale restaurant would call for if you’d asked us 15 or 20 years ago. We said, “We want the restaurant to be sexy.” I think today – and obviously again I’m biased – but I think we have that sexy element here. Because of the way it’s designed but also because of the lighting and all of the elements working together.
When we interviewed Curtis Stone, he mentioned that French cuisine could sometimes be held back because it’s so steeped in Old World tradition. Do you agree with that?
It depends what your definition of French cuisine is. For me, French cuisine is obviously very traditional and it’s a cuisine with radiance. It can be very different regionally – from the Mediterranean, to Alsace, to the Pyrenees, to Paris to Brittany and so on. People are cooking food that is traditional to that region. So therefore, it has a sense of place.
In New York it’s not the same because we are influenced by all the ethnicities living in New York. However, it’s the same exercise, because we have a sense of place. It’s a New York restaurant. What’s interesting about French cuisine is that the French codify (very well) the techniques that are universal in cooking. They are based on logic. So French cuisine to me is about technique. Then if you live in Japan and you are using shiso or wasabi, I don’t think you lose the soul of French cooking. It’s just integrated into those techniques and into what you have learned.
French cuisine can evolve or not evolve. However now, the young generation in France is consciously (or unconsciously) integrating restaurant ingredients they never would have had twenty years ago – especially Asian ingredients. They’re not Chinese restaurants; they’re not Vietnamese or Japanese restaurants; they’re French restaurants. But they use some of those ingredients.
Is there a difference (opportunity wise) opening a restaurant in New York versus opening a restaurant in Paris? Is there a big difference between those two experiences?
I’ve never opened in Paris so it would be difficult for me to say. However, I think it’s probably easier in New York, but at the same time challenging because you have to understand New York inside and out. If you’re French, to open in New York is probably not that easy if you haven’t lived here. Paris, on the other hand, doesn’t have big restaurants like this [Le Bernardin]. It doesn’t exist. They’re all much smaller. This is very unique to New York, to have a big place like this.
The other difference is, the French are very attached to their food and the quality of their food and wine. That’s why in France you have all those regulations – appellation controlee – for wine and so on. In France the rules are very tough on the winemakers. For instance, if you live in the countryside with a lot of sunlight you’re not allowed to put sugar in the wine. Here, nobody cares – you can put as much sugar in wine as you want. In France, they like to keep the standards very high. If it was the French system here, and on your menu you wrote ‘Maine Scallops” and they weren’t from Maine, you would potentially have a fine. They’re very particular about it.
What’s new and going on in the food industry that you really like? And what’s something new you don’t like?
I like the fact that molecular cuisine, at this moment, is being integrated into a more classical way of cooking. That allows the chefs to cook with the same power in terms of flavors but with more lightness in their food.
I also like what’s going on in New York and in Brooklyn – and everywhere – which is young chefs opening their places and cooking great food not necessarily in luxurious surroundings. I think it’s great because it reminds me of the seventies in France. Maguy Le Coze and Gilbert Le Coze started Le Bernardin with twenty seats. He was by himself in the kitchen; she was by herself in the dining room. I see this cycle coming back and I love it because twenty years from now we are going to see a lot of places like this one!
What I dislike…it’s not that I dislike it but I don’t really follow trends. Sometimes something like bacon can get very trendy and everyone’s obsessed with bacon. Bacon’s everywhere and if you don’t put bacon in you’re dishes, you’re a loser and so on. I’m not into following those trends – although I love bacon!
In your experience as a consistent judge on Top Chef, did you find there to be common mistakes among the competitors? What were they, and what advice would you give them?
The common mistake they all make (well almost all) is not being confident enough. They need to be able to say, ‘Well this is a beautiful ingredient and I don’t need to put ten other ingredients around it to make this ingredient shine.’ They complicate too much. Sometimes it’s a good display of techniques and ingredients on the plate, but it’s not necessarily cohesive or harmonious. So my advice to them would be to be confident if you’re good. If you’ve mastered the techniques, be confident that simplicity is a beautiful thing.
What advice would you give to young chefs coming out of culinary school? Would you tell them to aim for TV?
You don’t become a chef to become rich and famous. You come into our industry because you have a love of cooking and because you love to eat. That has to be very clear. Then you have to make sure that you can handle working in the kitchen, because it’s a tough environment. As soon as the door opens and you’re in the kitchen, there’s no glamour any longer. It’s tough physically because of the heat, because of the humidity, because of moving pots and pans, because of standing on your legs for long hours, and because of the stress of lunch service, then dinner service and so on. So this is the life of the chef.
In terms of television, for the thousands of chefs that work in America, you see twenty chefs on TV. They are all the same. They pick twenty chefs out of thousands of them. So the chance that you are going to become the next famous one on TV is 0.0001%. It’s like winning the lottery. And on top of that, what I’ve noticed today is that most of the people in the food world on television – these chefs or so-called chefs – are mostly entertainers, not necessarily chefs. When the Food Network started, they had real chefs cooking. And then sometimes the problem was that the food [being cooked] was too complicated for the home cook. Today, it’s overly simplified for the home cook, and is about entertaining. So, this is what I see.
Do you think there are two schools of thought now? There’s the Food Network approach and the Anthony Bourdain approach. What do you think about the contrast between the two?
Well, what do you think Anthony has done?
I’m curious how you would define what Anthony has done…
Let’s go back to the Food Network. They’ve made food accessible on television to people all over the country. For instance, fennel – before the Food Network – to many people was a mystery. They didn’t know if it was a bulb or a vegetable. Now you go to the supermarket and you see fennel everywhere.
I do think the Food Network somewhat alienates our industry in many ways because it makes it look like a TV show when it’s not. On the other hand, it’s brought a lot of attention to the industry and brought interesting food to people. Today, people watch TV and I believe they not only watch TV, but also cook at home. We see more and more stores opening around the country – Trader Joes, Whole Foods, even Walmart. Walmart has aisles of fresh and organic vegetables. They don’t do it for the fun; they do it because people are buying it and cooking with it. It’s creating an interest so that’s the positive part.
What Anthony [Bourdain] has done is very different. Anthony has been very respectful of the food world because he comes from a kitchen that was not necessarily trendy and was more hardcore. He shows a different aspect of the industry, which is more realistic. It’s not a documentary, it’s an approach to it and it’s very respectful of the culture of where he goes. It’s not necessarily showcasing the entire spectrum of the industry – from the sandwich place to the upscale restaurant. Instead, he has the tendency to like what is affordable for people, and show that. It’s very different. Although he’s on TV, I don’t think Anthony’s an entertainer. He likes to show what he believes is meaningful and real and has value for people watching – and it’s cultural as well. The Food Network, on the other hand, is all about entertainment.
What about Bravo and Top Chef?
Top Chef was interesting when it started because it was a reality show. And reality shows are (I don’t want to be critical of them) not my taste necessarily. They are highly manipulated in production. But Top Chef was very refreshing because it was young chefs being judged by people with credibility. Padma Lakshmi, although she used to be a supermodel, has a great food culture. Gail Simmons worked in the kitchen at Daniel before going to Food & Wine Magazine. Tom Colicchio is an icon in our industry. And then the guest judges are ones that have knowledge and are recognized by the industry as good cooks or chefs. So the show was interesting in the sense that, yes they compete, but ultimately the judging is right and the winner is the right one. So it made it interesting.
Do you like, in general, where food TV is headed?
I don’t watch that much food TV because I am surrounded by food all day long, so it reminds me of a day at the office. However, I watch Anthony’s shows because I like the fact that he travels and he interacts with the local people. I like the cultural aspect of it – food-wise, music-wise and so on. So I watch his shows and that’s it. I’m not knowledgeable about other shows. I watch Top Chef as well from time to time.
When you’re on it!
Yes, of course; when I’m on it I look at myself! (Laughs)
Do you find yourself drawing inspiration from other industries?
The fashion industry is definitely a great inspiration for me. There are a lot of similarities between the two industries. Like us, they move with the seasons; they move with new technologies that create new fabrics that give you new possibilities and so on. We have new ingredients; they have new fabrics. We have new technologies as well. Like us, on the outside it’s glamorous while the inside is sewing – it’s a craft just like ours. The biggest influence for me comes from the fashion industry. Like us, they’re very much in the present.
If you’re going to eat in New York besides here what are some of your favorite spots?
I go everywhere. I go to traditional places and I go to new places all the time to make sure that I see what’s going on. Three weeks ago I was with Anthony Bourdain at La Grenouille, and then I ended up the other day at Roberta’s in Brooklyn. I go everywhere.
Do you have two or three absolute favorites?
The one I wish I could go to the most would be Masa. But the problem with Masa is the price. So I don’t go that often, but I love what Masa does. Yakitori Totto is very affordable and very good. I love Balthazar; I go as much as I can. There are a lot of places that I like.
What do you think Le Bernardin will be in fifty years?
In fifty years, I won’t be here. I can guarantee you that. I don’t know what it will be – maybe a restaurant, maybe not. If it is a restaurant, I think Le Bernardin will be relevant: It will not be a museum of 2013 or 1986. We have never wanted to be a museum or to stay static. Hopefully, Le Bernardin will be the restaurant of its time.
If you could host a dinner party with any five people, living or dead, who would be there and what would you cook?
I would cook whatever is seasonal and whatever was the freshest that I found. What I would cook today would not be what I’d cook in three weeks or a month. I would love to have my son, my wife, my parents, and the fifth one would be the Dalai Lama.
*Eric Ripert, photographed at Le Bernardin by Danielle Kosann
*To view Eric’s recipe for Salmon Rilettes, Click Here