Eric Ripert, the Michelin star chef and co-owner of Le Bernardin, has lived through some challenging times — 9/11, the Great Recession of 2008, even the French boycott during the War in Iraq (remember Freedom Fries?)
But he says nothing comes close to what he experienced over the past year-and-a-half as Covid gripped the world. We all know how the restaurant industry was affected by the global shutdown. Many restaurants closed for good.
Le Bernardin is different.
It’s a New York institution… Ripert is a bonafide celebrity… and the food is, well, sublime.
When I set out to launch Cho & Tell, sure, I wanted to talk to fashion designers… but if you follow me on Instagram, you know that I learned how to cook during lockdown. Food has become a passion… which made me appreciate my friend, Eric Ripert, all the more.
Here are excerpts from our recent conversation:
Alina Cho: Take me back to the shutdown.
Eric Ripert: The shutdown. That was, of course, painful.
Alina Cho: But you had a premonition, and you shut down early. Talk about that.
Eric Ripert: Yes. So, it was actually Friday, the 13th of March. I came back from a wedding in South Africa, and I was watching the news, European news and American news — they were talking about the virus. Suddenly in New York, the week of March 10, every hour, things were evolving very quickly, and not in a good direction. I put a TV here in our offices and I was following the news hour by hour. On [Thursday] March 12th, I called up the staff and said, "I'm going to take a decision very quickly, but I don't think it’s safe for us, for the clients, for the purveyors, for anyone. So, I may decide to close maybe next week, we'll see." Then Thursday night, the news was so bad. I said, "Tomorrow, we have to close." So, we closed without notice like that. We had clients on Saturday and Monday, and we just called them and said we are shutting down the operation.
Alina Cho: Have you ever seen anything like this?
Eric Ripert: I mean, this is the biggest crisis I have seen in my entire life. I have never seen a war. I mean, my generation, we have never really seen a war.
Alina Cho: But this was like a war.
Eric Ripert: It was like a war. It is the equivalent of a war except they don't bomb your house, that's it.
Alina Cho: How are things now?
Eric Ripert: We are still closed for lunch because it's empty in the neighborhood, at least, for lunch [Le Bernardin will reopen for lunch in September when Broadway returns]. We are a destination at night, so we are packed. It's impossible to get a table. Even in July, which is a slow month usually. I mean, my friends will be mad at me, and I'm like, "I just can't."
Alina Cho: People are so anxious to have fun and something special…
Eric Ripert: I think people are coming out because, yes, they are back in New York. They want the city to be vibrant. They want to socialize. I mean, we are social animals in New York. They want to splurge. They want to be pampered. They're tired of a year of restrictions and masks and lockdown and everything else.
Alina Cho: You told me that when people dine here now, they get the best bottle of wine. They're going all out, right?
Eric Ripert: Yes, they come for the best experience they can have and money is no issue. So, therefore they take the tasting menu [$270] with a wine pairing [$140], or they take a very expensive bottle of wine, and so on. I think it's a combination of two things. They want to have fun, but they also want to support my industry. Especially in the very, very beginning, we had clients who were coming here, and they were spending an enormous amount of money just to support us. Exactly like after 9/11. After 9/11, we didn't have the heart to go out, but the big families of New York were going to restaurant and restaurant and restaurant, and they were spending a lot of money. They were not in a mood to party, but they were there to support us. Then the country came to New York, actually. The entire US came to New York to support us.
Alina Cho: What do you get out of cooking?
Eric Ripert: In one word for me, it's pleasure. I mean, obviously. If not ...
Alina Cho: … why would you do it?
Eric Ripert: Yes. But it's interesting because when I cook, first of all, I'm very much in the present, so I'm very concentrated, without forcing [it]. I have a relationship with the ingredients. If I touch a tomato, the tomato gives my hand, and my eyes, and all my senses a lot of information.
Alina Cho: Like what?
Eric Ripert: Like for instance, if you have a tomato, and it's basically hard like a rock, and very heavy, you know it's full of water, and it's not ripe. If you have a tomato and it's soft, and not too heavy, and has a smell, you know it's going to be a good tomato.
Alina Cho: How do you avoid, especially in the Hamptons, where you're a guest frequently, being recruited into the kitchen?
Eric Ripert: Yeah, very often I end up in the kitchen. We're not going to mention who it was yesterday because it's private, but I ended up in the kitchen grilling the lamb. [Let’s just say the host was famous].
Alina Cho: There's no way to get around it. You can't say no to your friends.
Eric Ripert: No, but I'm happy to…
Alina Cho: You're happy to… and they're so happy.
Eric Ripert: When I see a kitchen, I'm like, "Oh, there's a kitchen." For me, it's more fun to be in the kitchen. I’d rather to be busy and doing things.
Alina Cho: Two more quick questions. Number one. What is your favorite restaurant in the Hamptons?
Eric Ripert: That's a tough one because I'm going to piss off everyone.
Alina Cho: Okay, all right. Can you tell me what your favorite farm stand is in the Hamptons?
Eric Ripert: Yes. Halsey Farm on Deerfield.
Alina Cho: They have the best dill pickles.
Eric Ripert: Yes. They are very delicious.
Alina Cho: They sell out, so I buy a case.
Eric Ripert: Good for you. That's why they sell out because you pass by before!
Alina Cho: So, tell me, how does a chef who is known for his fish end up writing a book called Vegetable Simple?
Eric Ripert: When I was a kid, I grew up in the south of France. We were eating meat basically on Sunday and maybe one more time during the week.
Alina Cho: Very French.
Eric Ripert: Yes, and Friday, because France has a Catholic history, it was seafood. Fish on Friday, but the rest of the week, it was a lot of vegetables. In the south of France, we have gorgeous vegetables, and fruits, and herbs and spices. We were eating a lot of vegetables and I enjoyed them very much. In my diet at Le Bernardin, of course I eat fish every day because it's a seafood restaurant. But on the weekend, I find myself eating a lot of vegetables. On the weekend, I go to the farm stands in the Hamptons. Then we invite people to the house, and I love to do a lot of quick recipes that enhance the qualities of the vegetables. So, I do eight, 10 recipes, put them in the middle of the table…
Alina Cho: It’s so smart because I always find that there's a lot of recipes for quote-unquote main dishes, but it's very hard to find great vegetable recipes that are easy.
Eric Ripert: That are easy, yes, and I don't know why, to tell you the truth. It's not difficult to cook vegetables, or to have vegetables as a garnish, as a main course, as an appetizer. It's very simple.
Alina Cho: What's the key?
Eric Ripert: It's to buy the book! [Vegetable Simple is a New York Times bestseller]. No, but it's to have good cooking basics based on logic. The more you put on the vegetable, the less you're going to taste the vegetable. I grill a lot of eggplant and zucchini, squash and things like that. I love to grill them. I put salt, pepper, a bit of Herbes de Provence, a tiny bit of olive oil, and that's it. Then put them on the grill, and the grill is not too hot so you don't burn them, and you stay attentive to your grill, and nothing's going to happen. They're going to cook nicely. When they start to be tender, [they’re done].
Alina Cho: Herbes de Provence?
Eric Ripert: I put Herbes de Provence in a lot of my cooking. It's good with fish, with meat, with vegetables, anything.
[Ripert announced just this week that he’s already hard at work on his next book, Fish Simple!]
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