I’ve always been passionate about good, tasty food.
Tell me about your childhood and some of your favorite dishes growing up?
I was born in Antibes, southern France, close to Italy and right on the Mediterranean. It is a well-known fishing port and the town is famous for its southern French food influenced by Italian and Mediterranean. After my parents divorced, my family moved to various cities in France. At one point we lived in a region called Andorra for seven years. Andorra was an interesting place where French and Spanish culture came together.
I liked eating any kind of food as a kid. My mother and grandmother cooked very well. Their southern French dishes were made of fresh ingredients from every season. It’s very simple and tasty fare, and I call it my soul food. In summer we had much lighter food, like fresh grilled fish and steak or whatever was available at the local market. I also liked ratatouille with many vegetables. In winter, I loved chicken stew simmered in red wine for several hours. I loved the link between regions and seasonality. Also, I loved my grandmother’s magnificent apple tart and would practically eat it every day.
You left your home when you were 15 years old and started at culinary school. What brought you to decide to become a chef?
I didn’t know how to cook at the time, but I loved food. I was always passionate about good food and loved eating. I was also interested refined table settings, with beautiful china, glasses, tablecloths and service.
What did you learn at cooking school?
I learned everything about the kitchen and restaurant business, including how to cook, to be a waiter, deliver hospitality and take care of the back office. But this was just a basic introduction, like learning the alphabet A, B, C… Most of my present skills come from all my experiences in the different kitchens I have worked in.
You moved to Paris after graduation. What restaurant did you work for ?
When I was 17, I started working at the restaurant La Tour d’Argent in Paris. Two years later, I started working at Jamin under Joel Robuchon and I was soon promoted to Assistant Chef de Partie*. After military service, I returned to Jamin again as Chef Poissonier*.
*Chef de Partie: Station chef in charge of a particular area of production in a kitchen.
*Chef Poissonier: Chef in charge of the fish station.
I took new opportunities as long as there was something new to learn.
You worked and trained at several famous restaurants in Paris. Was it easy for you to find new roles and gain new experiences?
It was never easy and didn’t always go well, but I was still young and had no experience so I always focused on what I was going to learn. This was important for me, so I always said “Yes” whenever valuable new opportunities arose. Nobody has much experience or knowledge at first, and I just worked hard to learn new skills. After you learn something, you trying new things. Then you become a beginner again and again, and you learn something new again and again. After expanding your knowledge and experience, you aren’t scared of anything anymore and have the sense you could work anywhere.
What did you learn at these restaurants?
Basically what I learned was discipline. I learned how to clean a kitchen, the value of punctuality and basic knife skills. It was great to learn these things along with the different styles run by different chefs, along with more sophisticated techniques than anything I had learned at culinary school. Once you learn everything and complete your training, you can create your own style without copying. That’s why basic skills are so important.
So would you recommend that any aspiring chefs among our readers should experience working not just at one but at several restaurants?
Yes, I recommend working at many restaurants. But not for short periods like a year at a time. Stay for two, three or even four years, learn something and move on the next restaurant. Do this maybe three or four times in your early career. If you did this four times, you would get 12 years of experience. This is a lot. If you worked and learned at only one restaurant in that time, you would learn much more slowly than if you worked at several different restaurants.
To America to learn a different style of cooking.
You started at a new restaurant in the U.S. in 1989. What brought you to move here?
Mr. Robuchon from Jamin found the job, for me and sent me to Washington D.C. to work for Jean Louis Palladin at The Watergate Hotel. He said, “Go and learn a different style and new culture”. The timing was perfect because I was still single and had no kids, and was happy even with a lower salary. If I were married and had children, it would have been too late. So I said “Sure!”. I worked with Jean Louis Palladin for two years then my friend David Bouley in New York called me and asked to work with him. I like his style of cooking and of course I like the city a lot so I said, “Of course!”.
You started working at Le Bernardin in 1991 in New York. Again you got a new offer?
Yes, I was approached by the owner, Gilbert Le Coze from Le Bernardin. I was lucky because I always had new opportunities and chances presented themselves to me. I never felt I struggled or feared for anything I was going to do next.
I focus on doing my best every day, then one day stars came to me.
You became executive chef of Le Bernardin in 1994, and a co-owner in 1996 after Mr. Coze passed away. Since then, you have continued earning high star-ratings and awards from prestigious media and organizations. You haven’t dropped from your top three-star rating since the Michelin Guide established in New York. What’s your secret to gaining and keeping those stars for so many years?
The thing is to forget about stars and focus on your work. Every morning I wake up and go to work and what I’m thinking is not about stars or awards, but what I’m supposed to do as a chef, what I need to get done in the kitchen and the restaurant. If you work hard and do the best you can, maybe one day you could get three Michelin stars. I believe that if you obsess over something, it won’t come to you.
The same goes for money and wealth. I see billionaires and I can tell that money and wealth contributes to happiness, and you need some wealth to live, but money itself is not happiness. But if you are humble and always smiling, you will experience some form of happiness. I never thought about money when I was young because always passionate about what I was going to learn from the different chefs. I could make more money if I wanted to, but I’m not interested in that because I have a good balance with my work and life, and I’m happy enough now.
So you mean that you don’t feel any pressure to maintain stars.
Nope. Of course it’s my honor to have stars and awards and I really appreciate it. We celebrate it with champagne. But if I didn’t have it, I’d still be happy enough because I love what I do. If you do something you love, you will never feel any pressure.
Very touched, humbled + grateful … so proud of my LB family’s constant hard work + passion. THANK YOU to our fantastic team, my partner Maguy Le Coze and my biggest supporters-my wife Sandra and son Adrien. #Repost @lebernardinny ・・・ What an incredible start to service…! Chef @ericripert and the entire LB family are immensely honored and THRILLED to receive three stars from the Michelin Guide 2018! Congratulations and thank you to everyone involved! 🌟🌟🌟 @michelinguide
Instagram of Mr. Ripert updates on the day of a phone call from the Michelin Guide 2018.
What have been the most difficult things in your life?
Nobody is born with a top chef’s skill. You have to learn how to use a knife properly even it’s easy for a professional chef. During learning process, you cut your fingers all the time. I had many many challenges like this all my life.
I also struggled in becoming a good man. For instance, when I was young, I had a lot of energy and easily got into a temper. But one day I realized that when I was in a bad mood, people around me were not happy neither. It is not possible to be angry and happy at the same time, and happiness is never born from anger. It was a big challenge for me to change my approach to managing myself. I needed some kind of guidance in my life and one day I encountered Buddhism. I began reading Buddhist scripts and it captivated my mind. I keep up my studies now with Buddhism classes, and by having a teacher come to my house to teach me. I’ve met the Dalai Lama a couple of times. Buddhism helps me a lot.
I study Buddhism and philosophy because I’d like to be a best man. Every morning when I wake up, I’m thankful to be alive and that I have the opportunity to do something better that day. When I go home at night I ask myself, “Did I work well today? Can I do it better tomorrow?” Even today, I’m still learning and that will never stop until the last day of my life.
Apart from being a chef, you’re the vice chairman of the board of City Harvest*. You have published cooking books and your memoir, 32 Yolks. You also appeared on the TV show “Avec Eric” and so many other things. What is your next goal?
My goal is very simple. I want to do the same thing every day, but better. My life goal when I leave this world is I that want to achieve enlightenment, and to be the best man I can be. It might take 10 lives for me to get there, but I’m sure I will!
* City Harvest: NYC nonprofit organization focusing on food rescue, distribution and education.
You often use Japanese ingredients such as kindai maguro, dashi, wasabi and yuzu, and fuse these with French cuisine perfectly.
I like traveling and I am sometimes influenced by different cultures. I recently came back from Japan, where I visited Tokyo, Kanazawa and some small villages in Fukui. I stayed for more than 10 days and visited a lot of craft centers, such as the Takamura knife company, a sake brewery and a soy sauce brewery. I also visited Japanese traditional sweets and green tea places, handmade soba noodle restaurant and the fish market in Kanazawa. It was fantastic. I’m also inspired by Japan’s temple and ryokan (traditional hotel).
Could you share some of your secrets for success to our Foodion.net readers?
Do what you love. Work hard and be humble, and you can master anything you want. If you want to achieve anything big, it is good to work with a team. In teams, cooperation is important. The people I want to work with are also those who want to work with me. I’d like to work with someone who pushes me, does things differently from me and wants to share their knowledge with me.
(Interviewer: Kasumi Abe, Proofreader: Stephanie Oley, Photographs of chef and restaurant exterior: Go Nakamura; photographs of food and restaurant interior: Daniel Krieger)
Baked striped bass; spaghetti squash and green papaya salad, ginger-red wine sauce 2017 © Daniel Krieger
Kampachi sashimi; crushed Niçoise olives, Greek salad 2017 © Daniel Krieger
© Daniel Krieger