Eric Ripert on Finding Compassion in Life and the Kitchen Through Buddhism
Chef Eric Ripert starts each day taking time for himself, most often in his private meditation room. This time helps shape the rest of his day and guides his calm and collected approach as executive chef and co-owner of Le Bernardin. Careful to nourish a particular style in the kitchen that emphasizes a fastidious attention to detail, sharing knowledge, and leading in a compassionate way, Ripert has a warm, soft-spoken demeanor that belies his intense passion for innovative cooking. He credits his practice of Buddhism for helping him through difficult times and for helping shape his open-armed approach to life in and out of the kitchen.
As Le Bernardin celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, Ripert humbly reflects on his three-plus decades there. Over this time, he has brought his artistic vision fully to life, subtly evolving it season to season and year to year, creating an exquisite experience for those guests lucky enough to sit in the dining room of a restaurant that has managed to maintain its four-star rating from The New York Times since shortly after its opening in 1987, the only restaurant to hold this particular honor for such a long duration (it started in Paris, in 1972). Le Bernardin has also kept up its three-Michelin-star status. This year, Ripert himself was honored by Michelin with its mentor chef award.
Ripert’s passion for cooking began in his mother’s kitchen and ripened as he worked with such legendary French chefs as Dominique Bouchet, Joël Robuchon, and Jean-Louis Palladin. Today, following in their footsteps and continuing on as he still boldly paves his own path, Ripert remains at the helm of Le Bernardin, still experimenting, still designing, still inventing, and still pushing forward new ideas and recipes. Seafood is, as it has always been and, if Ripert has his way, always will be, the star at Le Bernardin, but in staying true to the times and shifting fine-dining tastes, it has been joined by vegan tasting menu offerings. Now more than ever, Ripert and his team pay special attention to sustainable ingredient sourcing, understanding that where ingredients come from is just as important as how they taste in a dish.
The author of a best-selling memoir and of several cookbooks, Ripert has also brought his genius to bear through publishing and television. He has long been a guest judge on Top Chef, appeared on several episodes of the late Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and Parts Unknown (the two were very close friends), and was the host of his own show, Avec Eric, on PBS. As the vice chair of City Harvest, a New York City nonprofit that aims to strengthen the local food system and reduce food waste, Ripert also takes time to help feed New Yorkers in need.
On this episode of Time Sensitive, Ripert talks with Spencer about his cool-headed leadership style, his meticulous approach to managing time and technique in the kitchen, the enduring influence of his mother’s culinary wonders, and the transformational power of Buddhism on his being.
Ripert recalls his early years in the Andorran mountains, discusses Le Bernardin’s 50-year journey, and shares his thoughts on the restaurant’s enduring four-star rating across three-plus decades.
The conversation turns to Ripert’s rigorous approach to time—with his kitchen staff, his recipes, and his restaurant’s guests.
Ripert reflects on where his passion for cooking started, coming to terms with childhood trauma, and some of his early kitchen jobs. He describes discovering Buddhism as an “antidote to the poison.”
Ripert talks about the way he runs his kitchen, the overall ambience at Le Bernardin, and the restaurant’s evolving menu, including vegetarian recipes that stem from his childhood.
Ripert speaks about his long, deep friendship with Anthony Bourdain and his daily Buddhist practices that help shape his daily actions and overall emotions.
SPENCER BAILEY: Hi, Eric. Welcome to Time Sensitive.
ERIC RIPERT: Thank you for having me. I’m very happy to be here.
SB: I’d like to start our conversation in the mountains. [Laughs]
ER: Sure. [Laughs]
SB: You spent your early childhood in Antibes, in France, where you were born, and then Andorra, just over the Spanish border, where you moved as a young child. You’ve called your time in the mountains there a sort of “sacred refuge.” So I wanted to begin there. What lessons, if any, from your time in the mountains, hiking, camping, cooking on slate, do you take with you today?
ER: Well, that experience was very special. I was very young. I was 10 years old, 11 years old, and a teenager when I was living in Andorra. It was part of the lifestyle of the people living in that country, which is a very tiny, tiny country in the middle of the Pyrenees in between France and Spain. Being in contact with nature is something pretty amazing, and to live with the seasons and at the rhythm of the seasons. When it was the fall, we were going to forage for mushrooms. The winter, not much, but we were skiing a lot and going to the lakes, making holes in the ice, and fishing. And then in the spring, you do something else, then it’s the summer, and it’s pretty amazing because it basically connects you to nature. That is something that stayed with me my entire life. To be connected with nature, I think, is very important.
SB: Was there a sort of “mountain time” for you? In other words, did you find that time moved differently when you were in Andorra, or in the mountains?
ER: For sure. I love to go on my own, hike, and sometimes I even did more than hiking. I was basically climbing the mountains. It was time for myself. I was a young kid, but I was still reflecting on my life, on what I wanted to do when I was going back to school. It was really something special that I enjoyed tremendously.
SB: Your journey to New York City, and to Le Bernardin, was certainly its own sort of ascent, if we want to use the hiking analogy [laughs], and—
SB: We’ll get to the sort of process, or some of the steps you took to get there, but first I was hoping to just touch on the fact that this year Le Bernardin turns fifty.
SB: Extraordinary run. I mean, the restaurant was founded in 1972 in Paris, opened in New York in 1986. You joined in 1991, and in 1994 were named executive chef, and eventually became a co-owner in the business. Looking back, how are you thinking about your thirty-one extraordinary years at Le Bernardin, but also this extraordinary history, this fifty-year legacy?
ER: Well, Le Bernardin is very unique. I mean, as you mentioned, it started in Paris in a tiny street in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, twenty-five seats. Maguy Le Coze, who is my business partner, and her brother at the time [Gilbert] was the chef. She’s by herself in the dining room. They have a dishwasher. They party, they’re having fun. It’s a hip restaurant in Paris. It’s a seafood restaurant.
From there, a couple of years later, they get a one-star Michelin, and they’re supposed to become serious, but they don’t care. They do whatever they want. It is unorthodox. Then they have two-star Michelin. Then they decide to come to New York. They have this amazing space in, at the time, the Equitable Building, Midtown, on the West Side. Not a great location at the time, very close to Times Square. In the eighties, it was not really a hotspot. But anyway, they have that beautiful restaurant, and The New York Times gives them four stars after three months of opening. First time in the history of The New York Times [to bestow that honor so soon after a restaurant opening].
And since then, it has been a success, in terms of attention from the media, and support from the clientele, and so on, which means that we have a great team. We are very passionate, and we are very lucky to live the dream. Whatever we want to accomplish, we have been supported in our vision to create an experience for people that is very, very unique. I’m very happy to be part of that adventure since 1991, as you mentioned. I was a very young chef. Then, in 1994, I took the helm of the kitchen when Gilbert Le Coze passed away, unfortunately. And until today, I’m still reinventing Le Bernardin every day, questioning what we can do better. The team is really, like I mentioned, involved and passionate, and we are moving forward. We are fifty years young, not old. [Laughter]
SB: Well, in 1995, you’re just 29 years old, and you earn a four-star rating from The New York Times at Le Bernardin. Twenty years later, you get it again for the fifth consecutive time. I mean, this is, if I’m correct, the only restaurant to maintain this duration of time, having four stars from the eighties all the way to now. I mean, it’s extraordinary. What do you attribute to this perseverance? Because it’s really a reflection of what’s happening in the kitchen.
ER: In the kitchen, in the dining room, in offices. Because, you know, the clients, the first experience is on the phone. When you call, you have someone human who is answering, not a robot. You can, of course, make your reservation online because today with technology, obviously, it’s a pleasant experience. But you can talk to someone. So the offices are, of course—
SB: A pulse.
ER: —very important. Then the dining room is very important because it’s where the clients are basically spending their evening. The food is very important, of course. The kitchen is very motivated and I have a great team. I’m very happy about that.
We have been very lucky with those awards and accolades. The New York Times is definitely a very, very important way of rating restaurants. When you get that, you celebrate, and you say, “Thank you.” And you try to do better. But our industry, and especially in New York, we are very lucky. We have The New York Times, we have the Michelin. The World’s 50 Best [Restaurants] exists now, and other classifications for restaurants, like La Liste, which is a French algorithm, reward Le Bernardin all the time. It’s basically telling us that we are doing the right thing. Again, we’re pushing ourselves to say, “Okay. Well, it’s not enough. We can do better.”
SB: I was hoping maybe you could speak here, also, to Gilbert, who you mentioned, the co-founder and former executive chef-
SB: … who died of a heart attack at age 48 in 1994. He had become a sort of big brother to you, and brought you in to Le Bernardin in the first place. How did you respond to this moment? How did you grow out of this news? I mean, you were basically thrown into this.
ER: Yeah. Well, I met Gilbert. After a couple of phone calls, we have a breakfast together, and he’s showing me Le Bernardin. He has something, of course, in his mind. He wants me to take care of the kitchen. When I see Le Bernardin, it’s revelation for me. I’m like, “Wow. This is like a big deal.”
I was working at Bouley, at the time, downtown in Tribeca. I gave my notice to David [Bouley]. Then I called Gilbert, and I said, “I’m starting at Le Bernardin whenever you want, but I would like to take a vacation.” He said, “Where are you going?” I said, “I’m going to Spain.” He said, “Can I come with you?” So my future boss wants to come with me on vacation, to party in Spain. I’m like, “Wow. That’s going to be interesting.” So we go on a vacation. We have a blast. Then we come back, and we completely forget the vacation. He’s my boss. However, he was extremely supportive of everything I did, including my mistakes.
We had a great relationship until he passed away, unfortunately, like you mentioned, age 48. Maguy Le Coze asked me, she said, “Would you like to stay at Le Bernardin? And if you do, I would like for you to completely reinvent the menu, and reinvent the food, and do your food.” I said yes. I didn’t even think about it. I said, “Of course, it’s a yes. I’m going to do that.” Our last sentence was like, “I don’t want Le Bernardin to become a museum to the memory of my brother. I want us to move and be something else, so I’m going to take care of the dining room and the offices, and you take care of the kitchen.” That was the beginning of being thrown like that, on my own.
I created the new menu, and then Ruth Reichl, who was the food critic of The New York Times, came twelve times before she gave us the four-star rating. She started to come in September, and we got the review the following year in April. I guess I was young, and she wanted to make sure that she wouldn’t make a mistake and give a four-star to someone who wouldn’t potentially stay, or who will make a lot of mistakes, or be inconsistent. I don’t know. But I was so focused, and so inspired, and so motivated, that I didn’t feel the pressure at all. I just did what I’m supposed to do, which is, basically cook.
SB: This consistency, I mean, it’s fascinating to me. I was hoping we might get a bit into the kitchen life of Le Bernardin—the marinating, the poaching, the sautéing, the roasting. How do you think about time in the context of this space, the kitchen space?
ER: Time is essential in our industry because, as you can imagine, and you know that, clients come at the same time, more or less. Lunch time is between 12 and 2, let’s say, and dinner at 8 o’clock. Everybody is packed in the restaurant. You have to feed people in a timely manner, delicious food, the food that they ordered on the front of them, in a clean and cold or hot plate, depending on the dish. So time is essential. Before what we call the “service,” which is when the people are coming for their lunch or dinner, time is essential, too, to get the deliveries, to do the preparations, to get ready for that moment. And then, when people are leaving, we still have to take care of the facilities, clean up, get ready for the next meal, and so on.
So time is something that we deal with constantly, but it’s not stressful. We have the habit of it because we create systems. We put systems in place so we don’t stress too much. We also do not want—so I’m talking about time in a different way now—we don’t want the employees to be burned [out], so we make sure that they work a certain amount of hours. They have breaks. They have two days off. They have time to recover, and so on. I think that, also, managing the time like that is part of our success.
SB: There is this phrase—which I’ve never actually asked a chef this question, but [laughs]—there’s the phrase “too many cooks in the kitchen.” I’m curious—
ER: Too many cooks in the kitchen?
ER: Well, after Covid, I can tell you, it doesn’t exist. [Laughter]
SB: Well, I think from a time perspective, it’s interesting how you balance time and staff, in terms of what each person’s doing, and how they’re doing it, and the time they have to do it.
SB: How do you determine that? How do you manage that relationship between number of heads in the kitchen and the amount of time they’re doing certain tasks?
ER: Sure. So we ask our employees, what is their preference? Some of them like to work on the morning, and some of them like to work at night, or must work at night, or must work on the morning. So that’s the first thing.
Then, we have two teams, a.m. and p.m. And then, when they come to our kitchen, they’re never left alone at the beginning. We put them in a station that is fairly easy, and they have someone next to them, will show them the task. They understand that in one hour they must accomplish that much; in two hours, that much should be done; and so on. Then, after a while, when we feel confident and they feel confident as well, because we don’t want, again, to have people who are stressed or scared, we leave them on their own and see. It’s when we really realize if they are capable or not because you have to accomplish every task, obviously, on time. That’s the way we work with the team.
SB: From a recipe standpoint, and maybe this is tricky to talk about in an interview, but there are so many recipes you might call “time-consuming.” So much of what Le Bernardin is incredibly involved, detail-oriented. It’s craft. How do you manage this sort of idea? Perhaps we could talk about a specific recipe, like the pan-roasted monkfish on cabbage? Or some sort of recipe from a time perspective. I’d love to hear you speak to that.
ER: Sure. The way we use time in cooking is essential, as we know. When you make a sauce, you have to be very patient. Most of the sauces require a lot of time. You have to not only be cautious with the timing, but also, you have to be cautious how you use the heat. You have to domesticate the heat. Some sauces need a very high heat for a very short period of time. Some sauces need a long period of time on very low heat, and this is the way we create our complexity in the sauce.
Also, the sauce has a life. I’m going to give you an example. In a sauce, we use ten, fifteen different ingredients. And that sauce that we make has to be consistent for a few hours. You cannot have the flavors collapsing in the middle, or the flavors, like some flavors killing everything else in the sauce.
I’ll give you an example. When you make coffee at home, if you drink coffee, when you brew the coffee, if you drink it right away, it has a certain flavor. If you leave it in a coffee pot for two hours, it tastes different. If you drink it at night, it’s disgusting, as you know. It’s the same for the sauce.
You have to manage the time and you have to manage technique to be able to create something successful. Then, when we cook the fish, time is essential because fish is very fragile and delicate, so timing is super important. If you cook a steak, twenty seconds extra are not very important. Meat is more forgiving. Fish, twenty seconds, it’s a long time. You can overcook your fish. And then, instead of having something juicy, and with the right texture and so on, you have something chewy, or overcooked, dry, that doesn’t have any more flavor. So we juggle with time the entire period that we spend at Le Bernardin for cooking.
It’s the same for the dining room, as well. I mean, everything has a time. They have to read the clients, and know if they are in a rush, if they want to eat fast, if they want to take their time, if they want to spend the entire night, for hours and hours. Dealing with time, it’s part of our DNA, I will say.
SB: You’ve noted that it takes ten years just to master sauce making. From a time perspective, that’s also fascinating. It’s like beyond a Ph.D. [Laughs]
ER: Yeah. Well, it takes ten years. Even after ten years, you still learn about sauce. Even after thirty years. I mean, I started long time ago. I still learn about sauce. Some ingredients, you don’t know, but they expand. Like, for instance, if you use some spices, they may expand and become extra spicy or break the balance of the dish by being too strong. Some ingredients will collapse. They will suddenly have no flavor in your sauce. We learn every day, actually, because we’re using, always, some new ingredients, and we’re using new techniques. It’s a learning experience that is a lifetime. Ten years it’s really the minimum to understand the sauce. After that, you still learn, and learn, and learn. If we can make a comparison, it’s like being a judo black belt kind of guy. [Laughter]
SB: Let’s go back to your childhood in Andorra.
SB: I’d love for you to share a bit about your mother [Monique Ripert], who was born in Morocco, and owned a popular fashion boutique.
SB: You learned to cook alongside her, and your grandmother, and you’ve noted that “she cooked like a Michelin-starred chef every single night.”
SB: Must have been nice. [Laughs]
ER: It was very nice. She was cooking, not only for dinner, she was cooking also for lunch, for the family. She was taking care of breakfast. And she had a job, a real job, like very busy with her business. And she cooked food that was Michelin star type of food, inspired by the best chefs that existed in France at the time, or in Spain. We had, every day, a table that was different from lunch to dinner—he china was different, the glasses were different, the silverwares were not the same. It was, every day, different flowers on the table as an arrangement. Then the food. the menus were very, very complex. The food was absolutely delicious. She was very inspired, at the time, by Nouvelle cuisine, so she was reproducing food from the chefs, and also putting her little touch. I thought every kid in the world was eating like me. I had no idea how privileged I was. Of course I realized that much later, when I was in culinary school, and far away from home. But she really, really inspired me to become the chef that I am today, the cook that I am today.
SB: I know you made breadsticks at age 4, but—
SB: … but, a lot of this time was spent observing, watching your mother cook.
SB: Tell me what that observing did for you.
ER: Sure. My grandmother—my two grandmothers—and my mother were allowing me in the kitchen, but I was very young. I was 5, 6 years old, and then I aged, but I was still watching them. They did not want me to touch anything because they thought I will mess up the kitchen. I will dirty the counters or, I don’t know what they were thinking, but I was only allowed to watch and to eat. So I was tasting a lot of food.
What I learned from them was the passion that they had for cooking. I think they were putting so much love in the food. Of course, it’s very difficult to prove that food has a difference when it’s love in it. There’s no scientific research that says, “Oh, wow. He put love in it, and we can feel it.” But you can take an apple tart that is gorgeous and made in a factory, and then, you take an apple tart made with love, and it is maybe not perfect, but you can see the difference, right? So I learned that from them: how to put love in it, how to be passionate, how to be organized, how to be adventurous, how to be loyal to your roots, and everything. It’s a mine of good things that I learned by being with them.
SB: Of the first five years of your life, you said that they “were so happy and bright that decades cannot diminish the sunshine and warmth that I feel when I look back at that time,” which is just extraordinary. What changed? Was it your parents’ divorce? Was it the arrival of Hugo, this boyfriend and later husband of your mother’s?
ER: Well, for sure, when you are a young kid, I was 5 years old when my parents divorced, it’s definitely, emotionally, very hard. I think it’s hard for the parents. It’s hard for the children. If you have animals, it’s the same. It’s not a good ambience in a house. It’s a lot of tension, so it’s not a happy moment. Then, of course, when your parents start again their life with someone else, is a challenge.
Hugo, his name in my book is—
ER: 32 Yolks. Hugo, his real name is different. I didn’t want to say his real name, but anyway, Hugo was not a good person. And I decided that I will not accept having someone who was not a good soul in my house, next to me, and influencing myself and my mother. So I declare war to him. And as you can imagine, when an 8-year-old kid declares war to an adult, the adult loses. For sure. It’s very unfortunate, but I learned a lot of painful lessons from that experience, as well. However, it was truce every day. Every day we were stopping the war for the mealtime. It was like white flag. We were eating, everything was perfect. After dinner or lunch, the war was going on again.
SB: There are these beautiful stories. You talk about your time with him in the mountains, actually, where you were able to cook, and share meals together with him and his friends.
ER: Yes. That was very special, and I’m grateful to those experiences. We would go and walk for hours and hours with the knapsack and then we would have those very elaborate picnics, sometimes with the trout that they were catching and cooking on-site, so you cannot do better than that in terms of freshness. But we were lucky. I mean, I was not drinking at the time. I was too young, but they had great bottles of Bordeaux and champagne. It was a celebration over there. We were eating extremely well. My mother was always packing some great desserts because she knew I had the sweet tooth. We were enjoying life, yeah. That was probably the good moments that I had with Hugo, and they were exception to the rule.
SB: Yeah. I mean, reading your book 32 Yolks, I couldn’t help but think of Augusten Burroughs’s Running with Scissors. I don’t know if you’ve read that [laughs], but it’s… Your childhood, as beautiful as so much of it was, there were also these very traumatic and challenging, troubling moments. You describe it as “a round robin of pain and heartbreak,” and Hugo verbally and physically abusing you. At boarding school, there was a situation with a priest who tried to molest you.
SB: How did you learn to cope and heal amidst all of this? How did you learn to manage the anger, I think, most importantly?
ER: Yes. So when you are in those situations and you are young, you don’t know better. Whatever comes at you, you’re basically in a survival mode. When Hugo was violent with me, or verbally abusing me, I was trying to survive and that was my daily routine. When I was sent to a school far away from home, and that priest tried to molest me, same thing—surviving, defending yourself, trying to avoid those situations. With the priest, I was lucky enough to escape, and my mother came right away. I was basically saved from his craziness. But you create anger, you’re right, because you have some bad memories, you have some wounds. And the anger builds up and builds up. For me, at one point, I was very angry as a child, and then as a young teenager, and then as a young man.
I was lucky to discover Buddhism. I was very interested because I read books from the Dalai Lama. I was arriving in the U.S., actually, as an angry man, and the Dalai Lama received the Nobel Peace Prize. I read the speech of acceptance, and I was so inspired by it that I started to read his books. I started to be interested by the Buddhist philosophy, and it helped me tremendously at the time. I mean, I’m talking about 1989, 1990. It’s a long time ago. Thirty-two years later, I’m still a Buddhist. It has been a tremendous transformation in myself, for my own well-being, and for the well-being of people around me. That has been the antidote to the poison.
SB: I was curious to ask you, because I thought maybe in a roundabout way, some of these experiences, awful experiences from your childhood, were a strange preparation for the kitchen, and the kind of torments, at least, you might face in your early years in the kitchen, anyway, the [Joël] Robuchon years. There’s so much to go over, in terms of your early kitchen life, your time at culinary school in Perpignan, then at Le Sardinal, Dominique Bouchet’s La Tour d’Argent.
SB: In the time we have together, today, I think Robuchon’s probably the one I want to touch on. You did face a lot of verbal challenges there. There was no yelling, but there was a lot of—
ER: No. So, in the nineties in France, kitchens were violent. When you were young and you were in the kitchen, you were abused by the chefs—verbally abused. You were beat up. They would kick your butt. They would punch you in the shoulders. They would do all kinds of things. That was the ambience in the kitchen. The philosophy behind that was, “We’re going to break this young person, and we are going to rebuild someone like a superhero of the kitchen. We’re going to make them a champion.” Of course, it’s a wrong philosophy. And we lost a lot of talents in that process because a lot of young kids didn’t want to deal with that. They were leaving the kitchens. I believe that the world has changed tremendously since that era.
But I was dealing with it. It was part of the process. I was paying my dues. I had a bit of surviving, and I was well trained. Then I go to Robuchon. Robuchon is considered a god. It’s two gods in the food world, in the world, in the nineties: Robuchon in Paris and Frédy Girardet in Switzerland. Very different personalities. Robuchon was not violent. He was not a screamer and not physical with his team. However, he was extremely, extremely persistent in achieving the best quality possible. He was searching for perfection. Never found it. He was basically a tortured mind, I guess. He would basically treat us in a, again, very different way, but in a very painful way. Because, for instance, I would put a lot of passion into making a sauce, and I would think my sauce is good. He would come and test it, and would say, “You see, you will never be a saucier. You don’t care. It doesn’t matter to you, right? The flavor don’t matter. This is not good. Re-do it again.” That would like [gasp] would break your heart.
SB: Always on edge.
ER: Always on the edge. It was like that all day long. All day long. It was a kind of a painful experience. I almost prefer to be beat up in the shoulders than to deal with that emotional pain. He was like that. It was his personality. I think he was tougher on himself than he was on us, but it still was a very, very difficult experience. However, I’m very grateful to him because I am where I am today because of his knowledge that he share with me and the team, and because all of this education in his kitchen.
SB: And it was a militant approach to time in that kitchen, which is sort of funny because you did a year of military training that you’ve described as a vacation [laughs], so you did have something to actually, like, compare that to.
There was even something there—and I wanted to bring this up, since this podcast does focus so much on time—there was something there called the “pee-pee book.” And I was wondering—
ER: Yes. [Laughter]
SB: … wondering if you could share what this was because it has to do exactly about how Robuchon was managing time.
ER: Yeah, sure. I want to go back to the military for a second.
ER: Military, I felt like I was on vacation. However, I never understood why I was in the military and the purpose. Because, to me, everything they were asking us to do was illogical. We were supposed to take the leaves from one side of the space and bring it on the other side. And when we were done, we were supposed to bring it back to where it was. And I was like, “Why do we have to do that? There’s no logic.” At least in Robuchon kitchen, I could understand the frustration because it was a logic about it.
Now, the pee-pee book. The pee-pee book was interesting because if we wanted to go to the bathroom, we would have to go to the desk, take the keys, and it was a book where you will write your name, the time you take the keys, and the time you bring back the keys. And then Robuchon would look at the book every day, and sometimes make comments: “Oh, wow. You go that many times to the bathroom?” Or, “You stay that many times in the bathroom?” It was very interesting. Of course, we hated it and we were joking about it, also, at the same time. It was a great piece of conversation.
After my military duties, I went back to work for Robuchon, and I couldn’t accept that “pee-pee book” any longer, so I started to play with him a little bit by writing, “Eric Ripert, 11:55, pee-pee. 11:57, I give back the key. Three o’clock, caca,” and things like that. The reaction was very interesting because one day, he looked at the book and just took the book. The book disappeared. Never commented on what I was writing. I have no idea if I had an influence on his reaction or not. I like to believe that I did have an influence. [Laughs]
SB: Humor as a weapon.
ER: Sometimes. Absolutely.
SB: At its heart, your time there was really about rigor, precision, discipline—all things craftsmanship, basically.
SB: Now that you’ve been running things at Le Bernardin for more than three decades, what’s become your philosophical approach, I suppose, to cooking, and running a kitchen, and ultimately, craftsmanship? Are there mantras you follow? Are there things you still think about from your time in the Robuchon kitchen that you’re carrying with you today?
ER: Well, I learned a lot of things in my early career, including Robuchon. I don’t want the cooks to be shaking and to be stressed because I’ve been there. I know that someone who’s terrorized or scared will not do a better job than someone who is inspired to do a good job. So I’m really, really militant at creating an ambience in our kitchen that is a good ambience for everyone to find his spot, and to evolve, and to have a good experience with us. It’s not an easy experience. Kitchens are not easy. It’s hot. It’s humid. It’s a lot of sharp objects everywhere. There’s a lot of things that make kitchens not easy. You have to stand on your feet for a long time. So we know that, but I do not accept people who abuse people. I do not accept the fact that it could be a bad ambience in the kitchen, it could be a bad ambience in between the dining room and kitchen. Le Bernardin is one place where we all have the same goal: to please and create an experience for the clients, and also for us to be rewarded in what we’re supposed to have the passion for—so some people have passion for being in a dining room, sommeliers with the wine, and cooks, obviously, about cooking, and in pastry about baking, and so on. We put a lot of effort into making sure of that. Every day we are challenged, of course, because we have some bad moments. It’s not like it’s nirvana over there.
SB: Yeah, mistakes happen.
ER: We make mistakes. We deal with situations that are very surprising sometimes. Like, tonight, supposedly the weather’s going to be bad. I don’t know if it’s true or not. We may have a big storm, and everybody comes at the same time. Instead of being people at 7:30, 7:45, 8, 8:30. We may get everybody late. And then, it’s a huge struggle to create an experience that is seamless. So we may be super, super challenged, but we will do it without fear. That is really something that I’m not compromising [on]: ambience in the kitchen, the way we treat the employees. Every employee has to be treated with respect.
And then, of course, we have respect for the ingredients. We have respect for the planet. This is something that is a lot in the news lately, but is not new. We have to respect the ingredients. Especially with seafood. Imagine mishandling seafood. If you have a mediocre ingredient with something mediocre, even if you’re a genius, in the end it’s mediocre. We have to support the fishermen and people who practice farming in the right way. We have to think about the well-being of our planet and the well-being of humanity. We are taking care of all those aspects on a daily basis, constantly thinking about how we can be, I would call it, sustainable in a sense.
SB: Well, your most recent cookbook [Vegetable Simple: A Cookbook] was about vegetarian cooking—
SB: Or focused on. This is clearly an area you’ve been thinking a lot about. I mean, as you note in the book, it goes back to your childhood, and a lot of your mother’s recipes—
ER: For sure.
SB: You’ve been, also, bringing in different sorts of ingredients to the fare at Le Bernardin, so I was hoping you might share a little bit about that.
ER: Sure. So first of all, we do not serve species that are endangered, and we do not use ingredients that come from farms that are factory farms. Or, even if we’re talking only about vegetables and fruits, we use only organic as much as we can. It’s very difficult sometimes, in the winter, to get one hundred percent of organic products. But we try to be organic and sensitive to farming or fishing. So that is something that we are very militant about. It takes an army to… You have to basically convince your entire team that it’s the right thing to do. It takes time. And we’re learning again about the good practices, and so on.
Now, Daniel Humm went in a direction that is very extreme. He went from having a restaurant that was serving meat and seafood and all kinds of food. Today, Eleven Madison is vegan. I admire Daniel—he’s an extremely talented chef. At Le Bernardin, I decided to take a solution that is less extreme. We have a vegetarian tasting menu. We have a vegan tasting menu. We have our menu, which is basically seafood, because Le Bernardin specializes in seafood. I like to give people options.
When I did the vegetarian book, I said in the book I’m not judging your habits. This is a book that is inspired by my childhood dishes that I loved, dishes that I served in the summer in my country house when I invite people, dishes that I eat the entire year. But if you want to eat a steak, eat a steak. I’m not a vegan myself. I’m not a vegetarian. I eat seafood. I eat meat. I eat more vegetables, actually, today. But I like to give options to people, and I like to educate myself first, and the team, and then let the clients decide what they want. If you want to come to Le Bernardin and have a vegan experience, well, we’re going to make sure that you have a great time. And if you come and you have some seafood, it’s fantastic. And if you want a steak, we can give you a steak as well. It’s a matter of a different approach in between being very extreme and black and white. I like what we call the middle way. So it’s in between black and white. We take that middle ground.
SB: And Le Bernardin is rooted in Brittany and the coast of France. I think excising seafood, for example, would be like excising the root of the tree.
ER: Yes, for sure. I have no intention of stopping serving seafood at Le Bernardin. We are a seafood restaurant. This is our DNA. Those are our roots. It’s our soul. It’s what we are.
Now, we are giving more options and actually, we are having a lot of fun, and I believe it’s good to have those vegetarian options on our menu. Again, we support small fishermen that have small boats, day boats. They go, they catch the fish, they bring it back. We’re not supporting factory boats, huge companies who have terrible practices. Our scallops, they don’t come from a boat that dragged the bottom of the ocean and destroyed everything. They are harvested by scuba divers. It’s the way we are working. We are very sensitive, very mindful about all the elements that we believe we can control to make a better world, and to make a better experience for everybody. Or for the well-being of all. Let’s put it this way.
SB: To go back to where we began, fifty years—
SB: What do you attribute to this endurance? What do you attribute to—
ER: We are stubborn. [Laughter] I’m joking. It’s the team. It’s essential to create a team that believes in your vision and that is very supportive of what you are trying to achieve. As you can imagine, by myself, I cannot do much. In a restaurant, if you are by yourself, you cannot cook everything, serve everything, clean. It’s impossible. You need—
SB: It makes me think of Chez Jacque.
ER: Jacque [Quillacq] was interesting because he was by himself in the kitchen and he had his wife in the dining room. But he was doing twenty covers, and it was one menu a day. It was only what he wanted to serve you, and it was no choice. Le Bernardin is a different model. I mean, I would be maybe amused by doing something like Jacque for a few weeks or a few months, but then I want to do Le Bernardin. This is what I want to live on every day of my life, that experience with my team, and the clients, and the purveyors, and everybody involved with Le Bernardin.
SB: Even at, let’s say, a hundred-seat scale, though, you maintain an intimacy.
SB: I think that that’s important to point out. That intimacy even starts in the kitchen and with the staff across the restaurant. I mean, could you speak to some of the people who have been with you for this time?
ER: Yes. We have Vincent Robinson, who is our saucier. He started in 1986. He was—
SB: He precedes you.
ER: Five years before me. He was a line cook when I started. I thought, Wow. He’s very talented. He’s from Barbados. He has a lot of qualities. He evolved in the kitchen and then he became our saucier, and nobody makes a better sauce than Vincent. Then we have in the dining room, for instance, a couple of captains that started as dishwashers. And then they learned English, and then we were like, “Wow. They’re learning English and they have some interest. They want to get out of the dishwashing station. Let’s give them opportunities.” And it’s by giving opportunities that you create loyalty from your team. We have a lot of people who have been at Le Bernardin for many, many, many years. I mean, Eric [Gestel], who’s in charge of the kitchen right now while I’m talking to you, is at Le Bernardin since 1994. I mean, it’s a long time. We have, maybe, a third of the team that is like that, that has spent more than ten years at Le Bernardin.
SB: Before we finish, I wanted to end on two subjects.
SB: One, you already talked about, Buddhism, and the other I just really felt that I wanted to touch on, which was your relationship with Anthony Bourdain.
SB: You had this extraordinary friendship with him. Eater once wrote, “There is perhaps no greater bromance on television than the one between Anthony Bourdain and Éric Ripert.” You traveled to Napa Valley, Chicago, Paris, Peru, Marseilles, China, and the French Alps with him for his TV shows. He even visited Le Bernardin on an episode of No Reservations. How do you think now about all this time you got to spend with him, and what stands out to you from all of that time together?
ER: I cooked at Les Halles, too, becuase he made me go to Les Halles, and he challenged me to be the grill guy for the night. [Laughter] Which was fun. What you see on TV is, of course, a reflection of the friendship that I had with Anthony, but it’s television. It was Anthony’s show, and I was there as the sidekick of Anthony. I was there to help him to create the best show possible, with me in it, when I was with him. In real life, our friendship was also very vivid and vibrant, and we were very close.
I think opposites attract because we were very different. Anthony was coming from a different world. I’m talking about professionally in the kitchen. He was coming from kitchens where they had pirates in it. And I was coming from a kitchen of Robuchon, where it’s like Catholic school. So we were coming from very different environments. We were also, very often, disagreeing on subjects and so on, but we always had that tremendous respect and friendship and love for each other. It was very powerful. Anthony said I was his best friend. He was my best friend. We had some great times. Of course, on television—but television, it’s work. But we had a lot of good time, believe me. But outside, it was even more interesting. And we spend lot of time together, including weekends, vacations, and so on.
SB: And the story of this two-decade friendship, it also makes me think about how you were able to build this incredible relationship with your father, and unfortunately, lost him when you were quite young. You’ve lost these incredible male partners, figures, including the very man who brought you into Le Bernardin. I just wanted to hear how you think about loss, and how that ties into Buddhism because Bourdain and Buddhism are connected in this kind of profound way.
ER: For sure. Anthony was an artist, but he always said that if he would’ve been religious, he would’ve been a Buddhist. I think he had a lot of respect for the philosophy. Buddhism is something that is very complex. When Buddha, which means the enlightened man, started to teach, he decided to create three baskets: One, which was philosophical; one that was scientific; and one was purely religious. I believe Anthony was interested by the philosophical aspect, and potentially the scientific aspect, and probably not interested by the religious aspect of it.
Yes. I have lost a lot of loved ones in my life. People that were very close to me. But life isn’t permanent. Nothing lasts forever. That’s why we have to be very grateful for when we have good times, learn from when we have bad times, and live the present fully. Because the future doesn’t exist yet, the past is past, and the only way to live fully is to be right now, in the present, and very focused. Everything isn’t permanent. Everything changes. From the beginning of this interview to now, a lot of things have changed. We don’t see it sometimes. Sometimes, it’s very subtle. Sometimes, it’s not that subtle.
As human beings, as sentient beings, we know that from the second that we are born we are going one direction. And we don’t know when the end is. The end could be in a fraction of seconds, in years. It’s what it is. It’s life. I’m not trying to rationalize the fact that it’s painful when someone dies. Of course it’s very painful. You live with it. We have no choice. It’s part of our life in this world until it’s our turn to get out. That’s pretty much the end.
SB: I don’t want to end there. [Laughter] Because it would seem like almost bleak, but also too obvious.
Just to throw one last question in: Your experience and time spent studying, reading, learning about Buddhism, and just time spent meditating, how does that impact your non-studying, -meditating, -reading time?
ER: Well, so I meditate every morning and I do my practice every morning. I read and I study on a daily basis. Except when I travel, it’s difficult. But this is my ritual. It’s usually in the morning that it happens. If you practice meditation and compassion, for instance, and let’s suppose you meditate on compassion in general, it probably won’t have an impact on people that are suffering in the world, but it will have an impact on yourself. Instead of developing bad habits—like anger, for instance, or whatever negative emotions you can have—you’re creating a new path in yourself.
Chances are, after repetitive meditations on compassion, you will probably create a compassionate mind, a compassionate heart, and you will see the world with a more compassionate way. And I’m using compassion, but I could use many other subjects. We can take love. Love in Buddhist terms is to make sure that you make someone happy and you go to the root to the happiness of that person. Compassion is when you want someone not to suffer and you do everything possible to avoid suffering for that person, or for the world, or for the animals, or for anything. Meditation and practice are changing you slowly. It’s not like, overnight, suddenly you are the Dalai Lama. And by the way, I am not the Dalai Lama. [Laughter] I’m far away from that. But I’m really trying to do the right thing and to be a good person. Of course, I have my moments, and of course, it’s not easy all the time. I can be, also, a bit difficult at times, or maybe a lot difficult, I don’t know. But at least I know that my practice is guiding me to do the right things, and I’m very passionate about making a good impact in our world. Again, that meditation, or studies, are transforming my mind. I see things in a different way.
SB: Eric, thank you so much for your time today. This was great.
ER: My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me and giving me a voice.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on August 9, 2022. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity by Jennifer Grant. The episode was produced by Emily Jiang, Ramon Broza, and Johnny Simon.