In the deep recesses of midtown Manhattan, beneath a newly redesigned dining room and a kitchen that was still dealing with the tail end of lunch service on the day I visited, is the conference room of Le Bernardin. You feel a little helpless getting there, guided through winding hallways that seem endless, where staff from the restaurant — and other businesses housed within the same building — mingle and toil. But once there, you find a welcoming shelf of cookbooks, everything from Myhrvold to Girardet, as well as two whiteboards for menu planning and, fittingly, a couple of nondescript office chairs.
This is where the four-star chef Eric Ripert met me for an interview last week. We talked about Le Bernardin's evolution, both in terms of its cooking and service, the state of fine dining, and Ripert's particular management style.
Much has been written about the renovation of the space — the bar and lounge, the updated look, the ocean painting. But has the cooking changed at all?
Not really. The menu has changed 90 percent from September 6th to now, which is the fall. It's mostly seasonal. We have a mantra here that dictates the style of the cooking that we do, and that is that the fish is the star of the plate. It doesn't matter if we use molecular techniques or stay classic. At the end of the day, it's about enhancing the quality of the fish. That being said, from 1986, when Le Bernardin opened, and 1991, when I arrived, to now, our food has evolved.
I have been inspired by New York City, which means all of its cultures and ethnicities. I have been able to travel and I have matured. When I came here in 1991, I was relying a lot on Mediterranean influences, because it's where I grew up. I had one grandmother from Italy and one from Provence. I grew up in Andorra, which is basically Spain.
They're going to kill me in Andorra for saying that. Better to say, "I grew up in Andorra, which is in Andorra."
Now I have been to Asia and South America, I have seen new ingredients that we didn't have twenty years ago, and we have been exposed to new techniques, so the cooking has evolved.
And I imagine the service, too.
Yes. When Le Bernardin opened in 1986, it was very formal.
Yes. But slowly, slowly, slowly, it became more friendly. We didn't want to have a service style that would be as extreme as, "Hi, I'm Joe. I'll be your waiter tonight." There's no doubt that what we have will always be more retenu. However, we have made it more interactive. The waiters pour sauces and finish dishes tableside, and they can explain preparations to the diners. People can feel free to engage, if they wish. If they don't, we won't bother them, either.
Why did you risk alienating some clients by updating it?
Because we are not a church or a temple of anything. We are a restaurant where people come to have an experience. The experience can be for great food, for a celebration, for business, to have a romantic date. Anything goes. I don't want to use the word "robotic," but the service used to be somewhat formulaic. It was going to be the same for everyone, no matter what was going on at a table. Now, it's a bit more tailor-made and adaptive to each situation. It's more interesting.
Do you note that sort of change in fine dining, whether in New York or across the globe?
You still have some restaurants that are old-fashioned, and not in a bad way. They carry a certain tradition. And that applies worldwide: in Japan, in France, and even America. But you also have an evolution with some restaurants that cater to what people want. I think that we cater to a young audience. Of course our clients aren't all twenty years old, but we have a relatively big percentage of young people coming here. So, service and food evolved to cater to them. But as far as the jacket-required issue goes, I think that people like to dress up and enjoy an occasion. We have people who come here who have saved up to have a celebration, and they like to look nice. Therefore the whole "jacket required is out of fashion" criticism is total bullshit.
The décor was something from 1986 and the last thing we needed to change to deliver that experience. In 1986, the lighting wasn't important, but now there isn't one restaurant where that isn't studied. In 1986, it didn't matter if you had a bar or lounge for your clients to have a drink and wait.
Or a place for people to try your food without spending as much.
But we don't discount here. If we discount, we won't be able to keep the standards. Things are very well-priced here, and the margins are quite low. You can't come to the lounge and have a cheaper deal than in the dining room. It's a different experience. That wasn't because we wanted to give people a bargain.
But how do you react to backlash against fine dining, in a climate where so many people seem to be celebrating casual restaurants?
It's a paradox which I can't explain, because I am not an economist. The recession happened, and we didn't feel it in the restaurant. You can talk to Daniel, Jean-Georges, Thomas. The middle market has been crushed, but we are not suffering. I think we are still a very good value here. We're not a rational business. We don't create a dish because we have a price or profit in mind. We create it because we want to. The china we buy, if someone breaks a dish during service, that's basically the cost of the lunch.
I'm referring more to the perception of fine dining and the idea that you don't need all the bells and whistles.
The press has been writing about a lot of restaurants that open that are little bistros or cheap in terms of pricing. At the end of the day, what they deliver is very different from what we deliver. Supposedly there is a revolution now, where a chef in Paris opens up a place, is in a tiny kitchen by himself, and there's one menu per day. Like it is at Frenchie. If you think about it, it's somewhat similar to how it was with Maguy and Gilbert when they first opened in Paris with 20 seats. But they evolved and expanded to give clients more choices and to improve and to be consistent.
What the press is documenting as restaurants that are casual being successful while fine dining establishments being less successful or attractive is bogus. In January 2009, the country stopped. Everyone was scared to death. So I tried out an experiment, since we were doing well and were concerned with the 1.8 million hungry people in New York. We gave City Harvest a dollar from every customer that had come in that year. It was about $100,000. A luxurious restaurant did that many people that year, and that's not a sign of weakness. It's a sign of dynamism and vibrancy. I strongly believe that we are craftsmen that deliver high quality.
There's that idea — you could call it a "myth" — that a chef needs to be in the kitchen often for the restaurant to be at the top of its game. For a chef with as much acclaim as you, you seem to have chosen to be here a lot instead of expanding or branding yourself to the extent you probably could. Why?
I'm here a lot because I want to be here. To put things into perspective, our saucier started before I was even here. My executive chef has been here for 18 years. Chef de cuisine? 18 years. I can go on and on and on. If after 18 years, they haven't understood my vision, we have a serious problem. Either I'm stupid and don't communicate well, or they are stupid and don't get it. I don't think I'm needed in the kitchen 24/7, but does it make a difference to be in the restaurant often compared to someone who will visit a place once a year? Of course, because you see things. At the same time, am I cooking every single dish for every single person? I wouldn't pay 40 guys if I could do that.
I could be somewhere else. I could open 20 restaurants. At the end of the day, it's about being happy in life. I think that Jean-Georges and Daniel, if they were me, they would be shooting themselves. Bored to death. But that's my personality. I like to be small. I have time to be with my family, time for myself, and time for my work.
The last thing I wanted to discuss is your management style. There's an episode of Avec Eric in which you talk to David Chang about the differences in how you handle pressure. You, as a Buddhist, seem to opt for patience and peace, when of course a lot of kitchens are known for screaming, physicality, and testosterone. Can you explain why you chose to be that way and assess how it's worked out for you?
I used to be a very authoritative chef — a young, borderline violent dictator. Very intolerant, insulting my cooks, screaming in the kitchen, breaking china. But I wasn't happy and my team wasn't happy. In 2000, I started to contemplate what had gone on in my career. I was losing a lot of employees and was confused. So I decided to change the way we manage people. I realized that you couldn't be happy if you had anger. It's a very simple thought. But it helped me decide to not be abusive any longer. We decided to change.
But how did you manage to transmit that to your staff?
It took me a long time to pass that to my cooks — there was a lot of resilience. I couldn't yell at someone for yelling, so I had to be very patient and explain that yelling is not good. First of all, you're not happy. Second, the cook you just yelled at is scared. Third, the team isn't happy. And it creates an ambiance in the kitchen which is not productive. I want a peaceful environment. It took us a while, but today we have arrived at a certain level of management where the team is happy to be together and work together, and it stays that way even at our busiest times. The chefs don't yell and scream, and there is no drama.
Sometimes we have lapses. It's not like every day is joyful. But when we have a bad day, we recognize it and try to compensate for the mistake and move on. Sometimes a guy will flip.
Do you ever flip?
The other day I said something mean to a sous chef. I didn't really scream, but I knew I got him. I regretted it, apologized, and that was that.
But I notice the success in the turnover. People will stay, even line cooks, for three years. They feel that they are part of the experiment, and they realize that you can do good food, under pressure, without being an asshole.