It’s fair to say that Eric Ripert is one of the most famous chefs in the world. He has been the executive chef at Le Bernardin in New York City since 1994, began writing books in 1998 and has evolved over the years into a star of television and now stage (along with Anthony Bourdain). Television has brought him great recognition, but the hub of his empire is still Le Bernardin, which is where we sat down for this interview.
Do you cook to music?
What kind of stuff?
For a long time, I used to put on techno music. House music, techno, and it would give me the rhythm and energy. And then I change, and very often now I listen to jazz and blues. Lately – I don’t know why – I’m into Pink Floyd. I’m like blasting Pink Floyd. I’m an audiophile.
Is it the lyrics or the rhythms you find yourself falling in with?
Because I’m French, obviously, I grew up listening to The Beatles, listening to the Stones and listening to Pink Floyd and so on without necessarily understanding what they were saying. So it was mostly the melodies, and I could be repeating the songs without understanding. I grew up like that until I came to America and I started to learn English in the kitchens. So then, the songs became something different. But still, today, the rhythms are very important, the melodies are very important, and then obviously the lyrics are important to me, but the first thing I’m into is listening to the rhythm, and the composition.
Actually, I have a funny story. I was doing one of my cookbooks, A Return To Cooking, which was exploring the four seasons with a painter, photographer and writer, renting different houses, different seasons in different locations, and the book was based on improvisation. One day we were in Vermont in the fall, and I was in that house and I was cooking and some people came to visit the house. This was a rental, so people would come and they came to visit the house with an agent. They came, they spend time in the kitchen, and they watch me. I never saw them, and suddenly I heard a car outside and I said, “Guys, I think someone is coming.” And everybody laughed – because they were leaving, 45 minutes later!
You just totally zoned out.
Totally zoned out. I was into my craft, into my things. To me, it’s like a very grounding experience to cook like that for pleasure at home. Or for friends. Anywhere.
What prompted you to call Anthony Bourdain? He mentioned you in the first book. And then you called him up for lunch, right?
I called him up, yeah. When his book came out, it was little bit … first of all, something came out in The New Yorker.
Before the book?
Before the book, there was an article in The New Yorker, and it made a big splash in the industry. Everybody was talking about it, about a bad boy describing the kitchens that were all made of pirates and criminals and so on. And the press was reacting a lot to that, and then he wrote the book, and everybody was like, “Oh, my god! It’s scandalous! It’s this, it’s that.” And people came here and said, “You know you are all over his book – I mean, he mentioned you three or four times at least.” So I said, “I have to buy the book!”
And I loved the book. And then I called Tony. Because I come from a different world. I had no idea that kitchens are populated with dysfunctional people and pirates and so on. I came from a much more traditional kitchen management in France. So, we discussed those differences, and then the friendship started, and grew, and today we are close friends.
I had a good time. The guy’s articulate, he’s smart … I say, “Let’s have a drink another time.” And he said, “Okay, fine.” And one day, I don’t know what reason, we call each other, and we have drinks somewhere and we had a good time again. And, you know, you don’t force those things. You don’t force it. It happens.
So how did the show come about?
Tony came up to me and said, “You know I’m doing some gigs all around the country.” And I think he goes to 40 different cities, as a show. And he said, “Would you like to come with me in some of the cities and then we call it something and we have an interaction? Because we have a lot of interaction together and it’s fun, maybe we can do a show with it.” I say, “Okay, why not? I mean I have never done it, but…” And he came up with the idea. He said… well, first of all he came up with the name. He said, “Why don’t we call it ‘Good and Evil’?” And I was kind of like…
Which one am I?
Yeah – I asked him that question. And he said, “Don’t worry – I play the bad one.” But actually, it’s no such thing as a good one or bad one, ultimately. Last year I think we did 10 cities and this year we’re going to do 12. We start the show by roasting each other, Then, we sit down together on more comfortable chairs and we discuss interesting subjects, like sustainability, GMOs, what’s going on in the industry, what’s relevant and not relevant and things like that. And then we open to the public, and we have question/answer with them.
And at the end we end up with a book signing and reception for some of the people.
When you travel, it seems like he’s always looking for the off the beaten path, the little tavern that’s hidden, the diamond in the rough that has an amazing dish. Do you think that’s a romantic notion or are you kind of like that, too?
I like that, too. But I like this, too. [Waves hands around restaurant.] When I say, “this,” I mean this kind of experience that we deliver to the clientele. I am very passionate about what we do in the kitchen at our level and the quality of the service we have here. I love that, so if I go to a city, I don’t mind to go see someone who’s doing something similar to us in style. But I love the idea of also going with him and going a little bit underground and finding some guys who have talent and can cook some good food and a different vibe, different ambience. So, yeah, I mean, when we are touring together, it’s a mix of dive bars and restaurants that look like this one.
Do you subscribe to the whole sort of celebrity chef/rock star kind of trope? You’ve been doing it too long for that, right?
To me, it doesn’t have an effect on my daily life. Because of the television, because of the magazines and the newspapers and the radio shows and so on. And the festivals all over the country with celebrity chefs and so on … yeah, I am aware that definitely we’re getting a lot of attention, but one thing for sure – it hasn’t changed at all my lifestyle. I am the chef of Le Bernardin and I am available here to anyone. As soon as I get out of Le Bernardin, my private life … I’m not sharing that with the media at all. And then, if I had an opportunity to go on television or something of that sort, I’m media savvy. I’m not shy about it. I like it.
You’re comfortable with it.
I’m comfortable, and I like the idea of sharing my knowledge and cooking wisdom, I guess. I like that, and the more I articulate about what’s going on in my industry, the more I understand myself, and what we’re doing here. So, yeah, the chefs being celebrities … it’s fine, but I tell you one thing – when I leave the restaurant, I don’t have a line of groupies outside! [laughs] When I come to work every morning, walking through Central Park, you know, I’m not signing autographs all the way.
Do you ever get important folks coming in here saying, “You know what you’re doing – surprise me”?
It happens every day.
Do you like that, or is that stressful to you?
No. Nothing is stressful, because you deal with it. Restaurants are … it’s like walking in quicksand. Nothing is stable, nothing is ever the same. It’s always different. well, it’s not like you have no stress, you are intense about it, but it doesn’t get you to stress. Any situation doesn’t stress me. I find a way to go around it, to make it happen.
Eric Ripert will appear with Anthony Bourdain on November 10 at Jones Hall.
Interview by Lance Scott Walker | Photographs by Keith Sirchio