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Eric Ripert on Aldo Sohm Wine Bar and Culinary Schools

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Continuing Eater Lounge coverage from the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. Right now: Le Bernardin chef Eric Ripert.

How are you, whats new?
I made it to Aspen. Finally. You know, last night my flights were canceled and canceled so I made it. I'm excited to be here for the Food & Wine Classic, I haven't been in Aspen for quite some years. In New York, you know, we took over a big space across from [Le Bernardin] where we're going to do a wine bar, the Aldo Sohm Wine Bar. He's our sommelier. We have started the construction, or rather the demolition.

Whats the timeline on that?
We are probably going to open in the beginning of 2014. Hopefully. So that's a big project for us. We just changed the menu at Le Bernardin, so that's big news for us. Inspired by the weather, the season, and also what New York State farmers are bringing to us. Obviously our fishermen bring us things seasonally as well. We adjust every year a lot at this time.

And you have a new book project that was just announced?
Yes, I announced it today on Twitter. It's 15 chefs in the world, and we participate in the project as an art book. All the proceeds go to City Harvest. $500 books, 200 books, $100,000 potentially for them. I'm excited about that.

The book is about love. The artist created this book with poems and pictures and it's all related to love. So my theme was compassion. I chose the goddess of compassion Tara because I'm Buddhist. I cooked a few dishes, a few recipes that are basically dedicated to the book and to Tara. I choose one spirit at the end also and have a nice picture of the spirit that I believe complements the menu. I'll number and personalize each of them.

I even bought my own book. [laughs] To show people by example. The photos are stunning. It's very, very creative and it's unbelievable. The visuals are very beautiful. Erotic at times, but it's fine, nothing wrong with that, right? The goddess I chose from Tibetan Buddhism, she's always naked. But it's all good.

On somewhat of a different topic, we've been talking to chefs about culinary school lately. What do you think are the pros and cons of culinary school?
[With] culinary schools, you have to choose a good one. [Choose] a school that has a good reputation, obviously, and a good curriculum to learn as much as you can. You have to understand, when you [graduate], it's a passport to go work potentially for a good restaurant, good chefs. It's not the end of the road, it's the beginning.

The bad side, the problem, is the cost. It's expensive and it's not like you're going to Harvard, where when you come out you're going to make $100,000. When you get out, you make $10 an hour, and basically are doing tasks in a kitchen reserved for beginners. So you have to start from there, you have to be humble and make that sacrifice.

The good thing is you can take a shortcut in your education. Because if you are apprenticing, the first year you peel carrots, second year you peel potatoes. You don't learn as much, you're not exposed to as much knowledge as at culinary school. I like to take students from the good schools, because again, they have a bit of knowledge everywhere, and they're young and motivated enough to go into our kitchen.

What are the good schools?
I like the CIA a lot. The ICC, and ICE as well. Those schools in New York are good. I don't know the others in the rest of the country because I haven't been there, so I can't recommend, but obviously the CIA is the school.

Is there anything that can be done about the disparity in the cost of culinary school and the wages cooks make upon graduating?
I went to culinary school. I was lucky. In France, education is free so you don't have to pay. No matter what, it's still a sacrifice. You have to buy knives, uniforms — it's an investment. As much as we believe being chefs and working in kitchens is glamorous, it is not. We are blue collar. When you pass the door of the kitchen you are going to peel potatoes, you going to fry, grate, touch the guts of the chicken and so on and we're not going to change that because it's what cooking is about. And what time does cannot be replaced. The experience of working five or so years after school cannot be learned in 6 months. You cannot do that.

I don't see what we can do except maybe the government could sponsor culinary schools. I don't see how we can change that. If you are patient, humble, hard-working — and you don't have to be a genius, but you're pretty smart — if you have those qualities and you're not in a rush, you will make it to the top. It is no doubt. But you have to have vision and the will, and that is the payoff. And happiness is not only about money, although money contributes a lot. [Laughs]

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