The Forks blog

Q & A with Eric Ripert

Written by Melissa McCart on

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Last night at the Benedum Center, Anthony Bourdain of "Parts Unknown" and "No Reservations" and Le Bernardin's Eric Ripert put their friendship on display here in Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, back in New York, Mr. Ripert's restaurant won a James Beard award for "Best Restaurateur." Co-owner Mr. Ripert has been chef at the three-Michelin-starred Le Bernardin for nearly 20 years.

Before the event, I sat down with Mr. Ripert for a interview that covered the relevance of fine dining, culinary plagiarism, and how to calibrate a palate.

Q: What are the most significant changes in fine dining?

A: Fine dining has changed a lot, especially in America. America has been leading and inspiring fine dining.

It used to be -- especially in Europe -- very formal. It still is. What I have seen in the last 20 years is that the service is becoming more friendly, without going to the extremes of, "Hi I am Bobby and I am your waiter tonight." We don't do that in fine dining. But now there is a bit more interaction. People have a relationship with the waiter.

And the food has changed in the last 20 years tremendously. Today we see also restaurants that are Americans reinventing themselves and new restaurants that are leaning toward more casual. We basically cater to hipsters now. No, no -- that's just a joke.

Q: How does that translate to what's on the plate?

A: Being in New York is so cosmopolitan. I get inspired by all the cultures around me. And there's this melting pot of ingredients and new techniques. I'm lucky I get to travel and all these things influence my cooking. Ultimately, we are obviously French by nature but very open to what's happening in the world.

Q: How does a restaurant encourage diners to respect ingredients, or is that not the responsibility of a chef ?

A: You can do it through media. But really, you cannot lecture a diner. A diner doesn't come to a restaurant to be in a classroom. They come for pleasure. You have to be subtle.

Q: What is your most memorable meal recently?

A: I just came back from Scandinavia. I went to Stockholm and I went to Denmark to NOMA. I was very impressed with the cooking, the experience, the products.

Let's make an analogy with music. Let's go far back. There used to be records, compilations and such. And then Pink Floyd came along, concept albums, like "The Wall" and "The Dark Side of the Moon."

In the past, you'd read a restaurant menu and choose different items to have the experience that you'd have -- a compliation.  Now when you go to a restaurant -- especially these restaurants in Scandinavia -- it's a concept experience in a sense. One dish is amazing on its own, but when you finish the entire meal, you have a really special experience as a whole.

Q: Does culinary plagiarism exist and is it a problem?

A: It exists obviously. The basics -- they come from the masters. They spent lives creating the basics -- generations of masters. To say that you have invented something from scratch: no one has ever, ever done it. Now, it's true that some chefs copy other chefs. They take the dish, snap the picture, done.

I have no problem with that. I take it as a compliment. I always say, if I spend 12 hours a day in my restaurant and we have 45 cooks ... I can't imagine the guy who would steal a recipe from me. Good luck.

Q: Is it possible to embrace local foodways as well as fine dining?

A: Fine dining today is very different from the way it was dictated, especially by the French, 20, 30 years ago. Fine dining can be a fun experience in a place that doesn't cost a fortune. Now the menu can be presented in a very different way than you expect. You don't need a waiter dressed as a penguin in a $12-million dining room.

When you come to New York, fine dining is very specific to New York. It has its own style. Fine dining in California has its own style, especially San Francisco. In Scandinavia, you pay $600 dollars, except you're paying for 18 cooks for 19 covers. So that's fine dining.

In New York, people dress to go to restaurants. Women always like to dress. And the proof is that you see more and more Prada stores and Gucci stores, you name it. They're opening everywhere. And this is fine dining for New York.

Now, I'm not suggesting that when you go to Florida it's the same. This is what makes fine dining different and fun, to see how it is when you travel.

Q: What has remained constant at Le Bernardin since it opened?

A: We are still influential because what we do makes sense. We have created a mantra for ourselves that fish is the star of the plate. Therefore, whatever we are going to put on this plate is to elevate the fish. It's a powerful mantra because when you go to the market, you say, "Oh, string beans! Oh, carrots! Oh, onions! I'm going to make a little sauce. What am I going to cook with it: chicken? Well no! Let's cook the fish."

It's not the same as saying, "Oh, wow. I have a beautiful cod. What can I do to elevate the cod?" So that, I think has been the influence of Le Bernardin.

Q: If there's a thread that you keep returning to when you're in your kitchen, what is it?

A: Taste your food. It's ironic that in professional kitchens chefs have a tendency not to taste their food because it's so busy. But I'm like, "Guys! You have to know if it's good or not. You have to taste your food."

We actually have spoons made of corn starch. We don't double dip. I have 46 cooks and we taste all the food all the time.

Q: Does that help calibrate their palates?

A: We calibrate our palates every day when we enter the kitchen. We cut some Swiss-style cheese. It doesn't taste great, it doesn't taste bad. We decide together what is the profile of the cheese. Some guys say, "It needs more salt." Some guys are very sensitive to the salt. If you think it's too salty or not salty, it means you have to calibrate your palate. So we try to have a consistency.

Q: What would you say to young chefs coming into the industry?

A: First of all, you have to test your passion, because it's not glamour in kitchens. And then go to a good culinary school. They're expensive. It's a big investment. You have to know that, coming out you're going to make $10 an hour. It's not like coming out of Harvard. And then I recommend motivation to work as much as you can, as long as you can to really learn the craft and the tools to open your own restaurant.

Q: What would your sous chef say he's learned from you?

A: I hope he would say rigor, passion and humility.

Avec Eric photo

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