King Fish: Chef Eric Ripert of New York’s Le Bernardin
is more than just a pretty face
By Susan Dyer Reynolds
When I told my friend that I was interviewing Eric Ripert on his visit to San Francisco, she gasped, “Oh my GOD. Are you going to faint?”
I laughed, “Well, Tyler Florence has rubbed my knee and Jacques Pepin kissed my cheek … probably not.”
My friend sighed. “I am going to the Pebble Beach Food and Wine event just to stalk him.”
I’ve interviewed many famous chefs over the last eight years, but I’d never had anyone react this way; and what made it even more amusing is the fact my friend is a prominent PR woman in San Francisco who also deals with famous chefs on a regular basis.
Eric Ripert, the executive chef of New York’s acclaimed seafood restaurant Le Bernardin became a household name from his frequent guest judge spots on Bravo TV’s popular Top Chef series, as well as appearances with his friend Anthony Bourdain on Bourdain’s popular Travel Channel series, No Reservations.
I mentioned the episode where he and Bourdain went back to cook on the line at Le Halles, the fabled stomping grounds in Bourdain’s best-selling book, Kitchen Confidential, and how Bourdain, sweating away, cursed cool and collected Ripert as he smiled at onlookers from the meat station. “You make this look so easy,” Bourdain lamented. When I reminded him of that moment on the show, Ripert’s blue eyes gleamed. “I was showing off,” he said with devilish delight.
His reputation as a pretty boy sex symbol catches the humble Frenchman by surprise, evident in his self-deprecating sense of humor. During the photo shoot, Northside San Francisco photographer Elizabeth Armstrong complimented Ripert on how easy he was to work with. “No coaching!” she said, snapping away as Ripert sat on a sun-streaked sofa at Aqua restaurant. “You are used to shooting the young ones,” Ripert said without missing a beat, “They don’t know!”
I asked Ripert, looking fit and tan in his chef’s whites and a pair of jeans, how he liked the unseasonably warm weather in San Francisco and he quipped, “I brought it with me from New York!”
His longtime friend Laurent Manrique, executive chef of Aqua, was busy making preparations for the evening’s special event – a tour de force of the recipes in Ripert’s book, On the Line.
When I asked Ripert how the event came about, he explained (loudly enough for Manrique to hear), “Laurent said, ‘Let’s do a book signing and I will cook from your book.’ If the food is good, I’ll take the credit.”
Manrique shook his head and rolled his eyes and they both had a good laugh.
The stations, the heat, the cooks, the costs, the chaos, and the triumphs
Ripert’s On the Line is the ultimate read for anyone who loves behind-the-scenes restaurant tales, but it is also a gloriously photographed and designed book. It contains a fascinating glance into everything Le Bernardin.
A “fairly typical” day details everything that happens from 6:30 a.m. (“Porter arrives in his basement area, checks kitchen inventory and garbage pickup”) to 1:30 a.m. (“Dishwashers sweep and mop before going home”).
There is a glossary for decoding the language of the kitchen, from the staff to their stations. Ripert divulges every item in his pantry and walk-ins, and gives his cooks their due, with profiles from his “Other Right Hand,” executive sous chef Eric “Coco” Gestel, to the “Master of Improv,” the saucier who creates the sauces so important to each plate Ripert sends out (“Every entree has one, if not two poured tableside – enough for every mouthful, per Maguy Le Coze’s long-standing specifications.”).
One of the most compelling sections features gorgeously photographed, pristine seafood with Ripert’s notes on each (“Scallops have a natural sweetness but don’t absorb anything, not even salt.” “Sea urchin has a wonderful texture, almost silky with the fresh, sweet flavor of the ocean.”).
For the true restaurant-o-phile, Ripert has play-by-plays of some of Le Bernardin’s most popular dishes, from the minute the order comes in until it leaves the kitchen. He names the cast, the duration (“two minutes for the pounded tuna”), the mise en place (ingredients in place in advance, such as minced shallots), and details the action (“Panora: ‘Pounded at the pass?’ Gestel: ‘Let’s go!’ Panora: squeezes fresh lemon over the dish and brings it to the pass”).
The “Cardinal Sins” chapter is something everyone working or hoping to work in fine dining should read: maître d’ Ben Chekroun’s 129 Monumentally Magnificent Trivialities to keep in mind at all times (such as not remembering the guests’ likes and dislikes, not naming each item you serve; clearing plate without permission, and no sense of humor).
“The Charity Connection” introduces Mandy Oser, the woman “pretty much in charge of his life at work.” Here he details another component of the business – charity – and it is astonishing. “Rarely does the restaurant get to cook in its own kitchen,” Ripert says. “And rarely will the restaurant use another kitchen’s ingredients.” He then presents the “packing list,” for a benefit to feed 500 in Chicago, which includes the cooks, the tools and the ingredients involved (“300 pounds fish and 2 kilograms caviar”), and the staggering costs (“Transportation and shipping $300 to $500; ingredients $6,000”).
The final section features nearly 100 pages of recipes with Ripert’s handwritten notes and instruction included (“If you can’t find sea urchin, ask a dependable sushi restaurant for a source.”). Many of Ripert’s most famous dishes are here, from his beloved tuna and foie gras, to the “Egg,” a delightful pre-dessert treat given to VIP guests – a shell filled with milk chocolate pots de crème with caramel foam, maple syrup and Maldon sea salt.
On the Line, by Eric Ripert and Christine Muhlke (Artisan Books, $35).
Meat and poultry upon request
On a recent visit to New York City, I stopped by Le Bernardin for lunch with a friend. Ripert came to the table to greet us and, with his sharp wit intact, said to me, “When I came to San Francisco, I brought the sun; you come to New York and bring the rain!” (He may have been right – it rained for six solid days during our trip to the Big Apple.)
I grew up with parents from New England and my mother cooked seafood often at home. The menu at Le Bernardin reads like a dream-come-true for anyone who, like me, loves to eat fish, crustaceans and bivalves.
At the very bottom of the menu is a note: “UPON REQUEST – Squab, Lamb, Kobe Beef, Pasta.” You have to love a chef who only does meat, pasta and poultry, which are staples at most restaurants, “by request.” You also have to love a chef who puts his money where his mouth is – another note proclaims, “Le Bernardin will not serve Chilean Sea Bass or Blue Fin Tuna in support of NRDC and Sea Web’s educational efforts to speed the recovery of these endangered species.”
The menu is divided into categories: Almost Raw, Barely Touched, and Lightly Cooked. I started with the dish Ripert told me during our interview in San Francisco that he would be most remembered for if he retired tomorrow: shimmering almost translucent sheets of pounded yellowfin tuna, silky foie gras, shaved chives, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, served with pieces of toasted baguette. Warm, snowy white peektoe-Maryland lump “crab cake” features delicate shavings of cauliflower and a tart Dijon mustard emulsion; a progressive tasting of creamy Kumamoto oysters “en gelée” moves from refreshing and light to spicy and complex; while fluke sashimi takes an Asian twist from crispy kimchi in a chilled lemon, soy and jalapeño nage (an aromatic broth made with lobster or crab).
I never order salmon in restaurants – in fact, it made my list of most overdone dishes two years in a row in Northside’s “Best of Food & Wine” issue. I figured if ever there were a test of a seafood master, it would be to produce a salmon in a way that made me love it again. I had been studying the menu for days, and I passed up numerous more tantalizing dishes – baked lobster with wilted romaine, squash and candied ginger; masala-spiced crispy-skinned black bass with Peking duck-papaya salad in ginger-cardamom broth; whole red snapper baked in a rosemary and thyme salt that requires 24-hour notice to prepare – and for my entree, I chose the salmon. It was the best salmon I’ve ever eaten. As with most of Ripert’s dishes, the barely cooked organic Scottish salmon was the star, but the supporting players – sweet pea-wasabi puree, spring vegetables and citrus-yuzu emulsion – made it sing, elevating the ubiquitous salmon to a performance worthy of a standing ovation. The fish itself, medium rare and flaky, nearly melted on my tongue.
As I popped my umbrella open to head down 51st Street, I felt like breaking into a song-and-dance number myself; perhaps “Singing in the Rain.” Instead, I walked slowly toward the Palace Hotel feeling satiated as never before after a seafood meal, and more convinced than ever that Ripert is more than just a pretty-faced celebrity chef; he is the undisputed King Fish.
Le Bernardin: 155 West 51st
Street, New York; lunch Monday–
Friday noon–2:30 p.m., dinner Monday–Thursday 5:15–10:30 p.m., Friday–Saturday 5:15–11 p.m.; 212-554-1515, www.le-bernardin.com.