"I'm having fun, you know? As a chef and as a restaurateur I'm having fun. I love being creative and I love what we do here."
On the morning we go to visit Chef Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin, midtown is a bustle with the Rockefeller tree lighting taking place that evening. There's an excited energy and a hustle outside. But in the great expanse of Le Bernardin's dining room—with a painting of the rolling ocean stretching across the back wall and warm, dark wood defining the space—it's easy to feel calm and steady.
This grounded focus extends, of course, onto the plate, where a piece of fish is treated with reverence and elevated to its fullest potential, fulfilling their mantra, "the fish is the star of the plate". It also extends into Ripert's show Avec Eric, where his focus on food and creating it is refreshingly absent of competition or induced drama. As well as with his intricate work with City Harvest, for which he is the Food Council chairperson. And it is apparent in Ripert himself, who seems calm and is very present while we speak, though another long day is ahead of him.
Maybe it's his practice in Buddhism that provides the basis for the restaurant's focused passion. Maybe it's Ripert's many years in fine dining that have brought him to a place of confident continuity. Several chefs I respect have shared their belief that you must be a happy person to create good food. As we begin to move about the space taking photos, my "how are you today, Chef?" is met with, "Today I am happy. Today when I woke up, I was smiling."
For you personally, why does food at your level of luxury have value? I always had a passion for good food from my background: my mom was not a "foodie," but she was very passionate about food and what was going on with nouvelle cuisine and chefs like Michel Guerard and Paul Bocuse. My mom would every day do breakfast, lunch and dinner, with a lot of effort into what we would have for each meal. Lunch and dinner would have different china and a different tablecloth, for instance. There was always a good bottle of wine. She would do appetizers, main course, and dessert. So I grew up thinking that everybody was like me in the world! That experience from a young age created a passion in me about fine dining. About great ingredients, prepared the way we prepare them in a fine-dining restaurant. And then I really had a passion for eating. At age 15 I was a bad student, so I went to culinary school because it was a vocational school. I was delighted!
Decades later, has the significant changed? I'm having fun, you know? As a chef and as a restaurateur I'm having fun. I love being creative and I love what we do here, which is striving for excellence. Although we know that perfection doesn't exist, we strive for perfection every day.
Why do you think we support fine dining in New York despite economic decline in recent years? Most luxury restaurants haven't seen too much of a dip, correct? It's strange because fine dining lives in parallel with a different world that is very popular. People have a passion today, in this country especially, about food and restaurants.
A big city like New York has a lot of single people who like to go out, or people who have little apartments and tiny kitchens, and they go out because sometimes they just want to have an experience. Sometimes it's a celebration, and sometimes it's just to be pampered or discover something different. That's what makes our restaurant special.
You come from a food culture whose roots go much deeper than ours. Have you seen a progression in our understanding and appreciation of food in your time here? It's a true revolution. It's a renaissance. I came to the U.S. for the first time as a tourist in 1986. You couldn't find fresh basil—you just couldn't find it. Right!? Some restaurants had some good ingredients but they were very hard to find. 1986-2012 is not very long. With the help of the media—especially I think with the influence of the New York Times, magazines like Bon Appetite, Food & Wine and Saveur, and then with television and Food Network (for the good and the bad!), and all the shows focusing on food—people are interested in food, and people are interested in cooking. You have stores like Whole Foods, Trader Joes, and Dean and Deluca that have fresh products; they don't just sell things out of the box, in a can or frozen.
Even outside New York you see huge stores like Wal-Mart with an aisle of organic fresh produce. They don't sell organic fresh products just to show off—it's a business. So people cook more, they have more of an interest in quality. I love that we have this kind of true revolution about food. And the young audience is even more passionate than what I call "the loyal clients" about where food comes from, about sustainability, about humanely raised animals and so on.
So we're moving in the right direction? We are not only moving in the right direction; we have seen a lot of progress.
We're in a season of thanks and reflection, but so many restaurants are still dealing with hurricane cleanup. Though Le Bernardin wasn't devastatingly affected, did the hurricane strike you personally? We are a high-end restaurant and feel we are lucky because we live with our passion—we are happy and lucky to work in this environment. So we don't wait for a catastrophe to arrive to be involved with the community. We do it on a daily basis, mostly through City Harvest—I can't be successful and feed lucky people and have others who are hungry.
So when Sandy destroyed our coast, everybody had a sense of compassion here. What we decided to do is help City Harvest as much as we could: we cooked full meals for 300 people at a time for them to pick up and deliver. On a personal level, some people volunteered and made donations. So we helped a little bit more than we do usually but, again, for us it's a daily thought—to help people who are hungry.
Now that the year is almost coming to a close, do you reflect much upon the past or start planning the future shape of your work here? Obviously you have to have a vision, but what I really try to do everyday as a practice is to be in the present as much as I can, and to try to share that with the staff. Then we have meetings (I like to call them "sessions," but they're meetings) about where we want to go with our service and menu—where we want to go and what we want to explore. But being in the present is so important.
For more chats at Le Bernardin, check out our piece with pastry chef Laurie Jon Moran.
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