It’s not every day that you get to meet one of your heroes.
My day arrived on the evening of Thursday, February 19, 2015, when I met Eric Ripert, the chef and co-owner of Le Bernardin in New York City. I had dined at Le Bernardin once before, several years back, and it was the most sublime meal I’ve ever had. I’ve been trying to get back there ever since.
I have several credit cards with airlines and hotels so I can earn frequent flyer points. Like all credit cards, they are always sending you myriad emails touting the latest and greatest promotions. I usually hit “delete” immediately, but the one that arrived on January 21, 2015, caught my eye. I opened it, and here’s what it said:
Spend an evening experiencing the cuisine of internationally celebrated restaurateur, author, and television personality, Chef Eric Ripert. This culinary event hosted by Chef Ripert will take place in New York City at Le Bernardin's new private space.
CALL TO RESERVE: 1-888-xxx-xxxx
I called immediately and, for once, I didn’t mind being placed on hold. When the lovely lady from Visa answered the phone, I realized that I had left my work iPhone back at the office so I had no idea if I could do this thing on a random Thursday night in February. Rolling the dice, I bought two tickets for the event. Risky move, I know, but it all worked out in the end. Now, I just had to get to New York in the dead of winter!
If you live on the East Coast, you know that this has been a particularly harsh winter. Maybe I’ve been a good boy lately. Maybe, just maybe, I’ve racked up some extra Karma points because my plane from Birmingham to Washington left on time. (The plan was to fly to Reagan-National and meet Laura and then take the shuttle to Laguardia.) Unfortunately because of high winds at Laguardia, our flight was delayed. We were given the choice of getting off the plane and booking another flight or staying put and waiting until we could leave. We decided to stay and were rewarded when our flight left earlier than expected!
After an uneventful cab ride from Laguardia to the St. Regis, we chilled out before heading out to La Bernardin.
The evening started with cocktails and canapés. It was a diverse crowd. Some were New Yorkers who were clearly regulars of Le Bernardin. Others were out-of-towners. I think one couple had traveled all the way from the West Coast.
After about 20 minutes, Ripert walked out from the kitchen and began to mingle with the crowd. I tried to “act like I had been there before” when I reached out and shook Ripert’s hand, but I’m sure the glazed foodie-groupie expression on my face gave it away.
Before dinner, Ripert gave a brief cooking demonstration, showing how he made his famous tuna carpaccio. And while I consider my knife skills pretty decent, this guy never even looked down as he cut chives into perfectly symmetrical pieces!
Ripert is honest and unassuming when he talks about food. In fact, he’s almost shy. For him, cooking is a real creative endeavor. And unlike a lot of his contemporaries, Ripert has resisted the urge to open up restaurants in Vegas; Branson, Missouri; or Concourse D in Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport.
Toward the end of the meal, Ripert made himself available for a Q&A session. I grabbed the mic for the first question. Here’s my question as best that I can remember: “Considering all that France has offered America and the world in terms of cuisine and culinary technique, what could the increasing number of American chefs in Paris offer France?” This was a loaded question of course, which my fellow diners responded to with nervous laughter. Ripert, however, answered it with grace.
He said that the issue is no longer about one country versus another. Rather, it is about the whole world because chefs (including Ripert) learn from other cultures. For example, Ripert mentioned how he wants to incorporate Korean temple food into his menu after a recent trip to Korea.
When Ripert did talk about the difference between American chefs and French chefs, the point of departure he chose to discuss was interesting. He said that working under a French chef can be brutal, if not abusive. He recalled many literal kicks in the derrière and demeaning language. If I recall correctly, Ripert said that his nickname was the French phrase for “bruised shoulder” because of the number of times he had been punched by the chef. In contrast, he said Americans were more constructive in their criticism and more collaborative in their approach.
Ripert is a successful, classically trained French chef, with all the tradition and conservatism that that implies. Yet, he continues to create recipes that are both traditional and new—no easy feat. At the end of the night, we were all given a swag bag which, among other things, contained a signed copy of Ripert’s cookbook Avec Eric (With Eric). The recipes are built around themes, such as “Big Flavor,” “Artisanal,” “Craftsmanship,” and “Tradition.” In the introduction to the chapter titled “Tradition,” Ripert says “Traditional recipes are important maps to follow in order to create something new.” For anyone who has ever cooked anything—either their mom’s less-than-perfect chocolate cake recipe or the latest “it recipe” from The Food Network—this is good advice indeed.