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Eric Ripert on Anger Issues, Top Chef, and the Theory of Emptiness

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Chef Eric Ripert
Chef Eric Ripert
Photo: Krieger

At two PM on a Wednesday, the dining room of New York City's Le Bernardin is relatively full. Men in expensive suits dining with some men in turbans and expensive suits. Asians in expensive suits. Old folks expensive suits. I was there—slacks, t-shirt—to interview Chef Eric Ripert. An underling comes to fetch me and brings me through the kitchen, down an elevator, through a stairwell, down a hallway into the nerve center of the restaurant, the office. To the left is Chef Ripert, reclining in his glass-walled office, talking on the phone. Above him is a statue of a golden Buddha and next to that, a large hand in chin mudra. [Chef Ripert is a practicing Buddhist.] On my left, right as you walk in, are the framed and mounted four star New York Times reviews has given the restaurant. Big game, hunted, caught. Chef Ripert greets me and leads me past cubicles of ladies with headsets making plans into the conference room. The bookshelves are lined with cookbooks: the entire El Bulli catalog, a lengthy section on Latin America, Thomas Keller's oeuvre. On the whiteboards are plans for an upcoming wedding. Lucky fucking couple.

Do you hang out mostly with chefs or civilians?
I have good relationships with everybody but I don't socialize too much with other chefs. Daniel Boulud and Anthony Bourdain would be the ones I see the most. I have kind of a strict discipline. I try to balance my life in between the needs of being with a family—my wife and my son—and my professional life. And at the end of the day, I am tired and I want to dedicate some time at home.

It's true, chefs don't have set hours or a built-in retirement age.
Yeah, you die before.

And now for the hotly debated topic: the future of fine dining. Are restaurants like yours still relevant?
It's very simple: I think you can go see a concert of U2 or Lady Gaga and it doesn't prevent you from going to Carnegie Hall. You can do both right. People still buy expensive clothes, men and women, and go to trendy designers and so on. They want to celebrate and show off themselves. In a city like New York City, it is a very cosmopolitan city with a lot of wealthy people passing through and a very strong local clientele which is very sophisticated. Therefore, upscale restaurants of our level—Daniel, Jean Georges, Per Se—are relevant and busy and successful.

I have a great story for you about a great client of ours. May God have his soul with Him because he passed away. We had a great client, a customer, a Greek person who was building boats, a little like Onassis but he was a very good client of ours. [ED NOTE: My guess is that it was Loucas Haji-Ioannou.] The clientele of Le Bernardin doesn't eat at Le Bernardin every day. Tonight they're here, tomorrow at Daniel, then to a casual place, then they go to Jean Georges, they circle. This gentlemen would spend $10,000 on wine each time he comes here. He would come with either two or four people. We don't have too many clients like that unfortunately. In the middle of the recession, he asked me, "How are you doing with the wines?" I replied, I'm surprised because people like you still drink the expensive wines and everybody believes they don't. To me, it's a mystery. I asked if he was feeling the recession. He said, "Of course I do." He asked me a question. He said, "Eric, what do you take for breakfast?" I said, "I drink coffee, I eat a Greek yoghurt and I add honey and almonds." He asked if, because of the recession, I changed the yogurt for a cheaper one. I told him, "No." He said, "This is my yoghurt."

That's a nice yogurt... How would you break down Le Bernardin's clientele?
It's more than 50 per cent local. We have a very good Asian clientele. It's hard to know if they live in New York or don't. But for instance, to cater to that clientele, we have a captain who is Japanese and a Korean sommelier. We try to cater to them because sometimes they don't necessarily have the culinary vocabulary.

What is season two of Avec Eric going to look like?
Most of it is based here, but I am traveling for inspiration. I wanted to go, unfortunately, to the Cajun country and the Gulf Coast, but obviously we can't. So now we have to change plans. I wanted to go to Japan but it's the rainy season, I didn't know. So we are going to the Cayman Islands. Also, I want to explore the South, starting in Virginia and going down. Probably barbecue for sure — because how can you avoid it? But many other things as well. And we're going to Mexico now. I'd love to see how they make tequila.

Is that your biggest vice, tequila?
I don't have a vice. A vice is when you recognize it. I don't recognize it. I like tequila but I'm discovering Scotch, I'm just a beginner. But I love tequila. I have a shot every night. I sip on it, the equivalent of a shot. It depends the kind. Lately, I've discovered Casa Dragones, I like Don Julio on the weekend. I have a tequila collection. I also collect rums. I'm careful, though. I drink once, I don't go back to the bottle.

And then there's Top Chef...
They invited me once a season, and then last year I couldn't do it because Jennifer Carroll was a chef for me [at the restaurant 10 Arts] in Philadelphia. And if I was in this season, I couldn't tell you because I signed a confidentiality agreement. I can tell you one thing: Those confidentiality agreements are amazingly expensive if you reveal anything.

Can you tell me this: Does Padma Lakshmi talk as slowly as she seems she does on TV?
She has a rhythm which is obviously not speaking very fast but for me it is good because I understand everything she says.

[NB: After the interview, Bravo released details about Top Chef DC. I called Ripert back.]

Now that it's public, tell me about what's going on with Top Chef.
That's going to cost me only a million dollars. So anyway, I'm basically alternating with Gail Simmons, exactly how she alternated with Toby Young. It's in between Gail and me.

Does that mean Toby Young is out?
I didn't see him. I can tell you I didn't see him. Obviously I know, but I can't say definitively whether he is on it or not. When I was there he was not there.

My problem with Toby Young is that he was so interested in uttering bons mots and zingers that he almost completely ignored the food. It was, essentially, disrespectful.
I don't disagree.

What's your opinion on last week's Marc Forgione v. The New York Times fooferaw?
Look, I have been trained the hard classic way in France, where chefs were very abusive and borderline violent. In France, in the kitchen at that time, the mentality was we're going to humiliate the young cook or the waiter, we're going to break him. Then we're going to rebuild him and that guy's going to be a champion. I came to this country believing that that is the right way of doing things.

As a young chef, I was very very vocal, to say the least. I was not a nice guy to my staff; I was seeking perfection. In the US, my observation, and not just in the kitchen, is that we focus more on positive reinforcement than humiliation. But I was not happy with the way I was running the kitchen at Le Bernardin when I started. The staff was miserable. There was a lot of turnover. I changed completely, one day. Well, maybe it took me more than one day. I said, I just cannot run it like that anymore. I don't believe a cook who is terrorized can cook good food.

What makes you angry as a chef?
I don't get angry. I get frustrated. Angry is a strong word. Angry is when I take a plate and I break it. Or when I say, you know, F something. I don't get angry like that. I get frustrated and disappointed, and I address it right away to the person. For instance, today, I saw two plates that were going to the dining room and obviously I stopped them. The fish skin was supposed to be crispy and they were not. So I went back to the kitchen and asked who cooked the fish and who sent the fish. So two people came. It's me and it's me.

I said, "Guys, you know much better than that. The skin must be crispy. This is not crispy. Redo it." That was my tone of voice. Firm. No more, no less. It was an immediate reaction to them. I didn't have to do more than that. Sometimes the temptation when you are really involved, you have the tendency to give excuses to yourself. But there are no excuses. My job is to say there are no excuses. I am not a screamer. I used to be but I'm no longer. But I'm very straightforward and if I am not happy with you, you will know immediately. I will tell you. But that's it.

Like I teach my son who is six years old, nobody is happy to be angry. You can not mix both feelings. You are either happy or you are angry. At the end of the day, the chef who is screaming cannot be happy. Maybe he is feeling powerful, but he is blind powerful. On the other side, the poor guy cannot be happy either. So it is not worth it.

[Later that night at dinner, my wife hurt my feelings inadvertently. During the Top Chef follow-up, I asked Chef Ripert how being hurt factors into the happiness/anger dichotomy.]

Obviously you get hurt at times or you can feel angry, but what you have to learn is how to let it go without hurting other people. If you are, for instance, someone very sensitive and get hurt very easily, you can through meditation become strong and have a better understanding of what is hurting. As a Buddhist I think it comes from karma and since Buddhists believe in incarnations can come from this life or another life. It took me 20 years to understand when and why I feel hurt.

Basically, nothing has a true reality in itself. Look up the Buddhist Theory of Emptiness. The concept that all beings and events are interconnected and so there is no concrete reality. All is emptiness.

· Eater Scenes: Le Bernardin, Noon [-ENY-]
· Eater Scenes: Le Bernardin, Part 2 [-ENY-]
· All Eric Ripert Coverage on Eater [-ENA-]
· All Eater Interviews [-ENA-]