He almost became a waiter. When Eric Ripert was finishing his first year at culinary school in Perpignan, France, his instructors were so impressed by his front-of-the-house skills that they were planning on ending his kitchen studies to have him focus fully on service. But even as a 16-year-old, Ripert knew his passion was cooking, not waiting tables.
In his new memoir, 32 Yolks: From My Mother’s Table to Working the Line, Ripert recalls how his waiter days came to an abrupt end. Serving a table that included a French colonel and his wife, Ripert broke one of the basic rules of service (and physics): He removed glasses from the back end of his tray, creating an imbalance. "I lost control of the tray, turning all four drinks over on the colonel and soaking his beautiful starched uniform," he writes. It got worse. On his way back with more drinks, he slipped on the floor and spilled the glasses on the colonel’s wife. In his third attempt, he spilled a few more drops on the colonel’s head.
It wasn’t long after that the faculty decided to keep Ripert in the kitchen. And a good thing for us! Aside from hosting the Emmy Award-winning Avec Eric and traveling around with Anthony Bourdain, Eric Ripert presides over Le Bernardin, a haven of refined seafood in midtown Manhattan. Under the chef’s stewardship, Le Bernardin has managed perfection—maintaining the maximum four New York Times stars ("extraordinary") and three stars from Le Guide Michelin ("worth the journey").
So how is perfection achieved?
I pondered this one Friday afternoon last month as I sat in a conference room beneath Le Bernardin. It was more than a conference room though. In effect, it was like being inside Ripert’s brain. Along one wall were three shelves jammed with books on every cuisine conceivable. In one row were Asian-themed books such as The Kimchi Cookbook, Burma, and Thai Street Food. Below it were the works of legendary French chefs like Paul Bocuse, Michel Guerard, and Alain Chapel. And below that were such titles as Chez Panisse Cooking, The Inn at Little Washington Cookbook, and En smakresa—middagstips från marcus samuelsson.
And then there were the dry-erase boards that plotted out the Spring 2016 menu. One of the boards was divided into three categories: ingredients (e.g., chayote squash, cactus, fiddlehead ferns), techniques (e.g., shallow poaching, charring, vinaigrettes), and "flavours" (e.g., fresh, floral, herbal). Another board was strictly focused on the scallop ("Ideas: Tartare, Bone Marrow, Spring Vierge, Parmesan Napoleon"). And yet another panel was titled "Mood Board" and featured images of food desired by the chef and his team. (I’m hoping it’s safe to reveal these war-room plans now that spring is over.)
When Ripert arrives, wearing his classic stark-white chef’s uniform, he jokingly refers to the room as the bunker. And though we are seemingly far from the kitchen, he isn’t worried—"I’ve got 24 cameras [I can check] on my cell phone." He’s kidding, but admits, "I have a camera."
When you’re running a four-star restaurant, control is key—and so is discipline. But oftentimes, in pursuit of perfection, the discipline can go too far: Prior to his coming to America, Ripert worked at another three-Michelin-star establishment, Jamin, helmed by the legendary Joël Robuchon. Braced for screaming matches, Ripert was surprised by the silence in the kitchen. "It suddenly clicked: everyone was so so quiet because they were scared," he writes. "The fear of not meeting Robuchon’s demands was all it took to terrorize everyone into submission. Multiply that by the fierce desire we all had to cook to his standards and it was no wonder everyone was so tense."
Robuchon was never physical, but the psychological torture was immense. If a plate was sent back from the dining room with even a morsel of food left, Robuchon would unleash his fury.
"Ripert, come here! Look at your salad!" I looked at the plate in horror: one piece of lobster and a single dot of apple remained.
"Ah, are you happy with that? Huh? You sabotaged my dish, Ripert! Is this what you wanted?"
Five minutes later: "Ripert! How could you do that? How could you send me this lobster salad like that?"
A half hour later: "I cannot believe—I cannot believe the shit you send me! I cannot believe we are serving that to our clients. Where did you learn that shit?"
Even two hours later: "Where did you learn to serve that shit, Ripert? Where did you learn?"
I couldn’t resist asking if Robuchon had read the book. "I sent him the copy," Ripert says, "and I sent him a nice dedication, saying I am where I am today mostly thanks to you and respects and whatever I said. I think someone translated it to him. I haven’t talked to him since. I don’t believe he’s very happy about it." But, he adds, "I’m very clear in that book saying first of all he was a genius; second of all he was not violent physically; and he was not a screamer."
At Le Bernardin, Ripert strives for excellence without the abuse, either mental or physical. "What I do not want is to have any employees coming here and being stressed or anxious," he insists. "I don’t want a cook shaking like that. He’s not going to do a better job than a cook [who’s not terrorized]. I do not want to create that environment."
Needless to say, Ripert is no fan of Gordon Ramsay and his antics. "I fought all my life not to be him, not to promote violence in the kitchen. Because what he’s doing, it’s undermining what my generation has done, which is to fight that violence in the kitchen and to create an environment that is inspirational to cooks, to be happy, and with those stupid shows, he’s promoting the idea of verbal abuse." I suggest the behavior is driven by ratings. "So what?" he says. "We’re going to do for ratings what? We’re going to kill people?"
Ripert has proven perfection can be achieved without bullying young chefs. "We don’t think about the stars, and we don’t think about the rewards—at least myself and I’m trying to instigate that with the entire team," he explains. "When I come to work, I focus on my journey here, about my day, what we have to do, the challenges, the creativity, and everything else. I don’t put extra pressure on myself, and I don’t want the team to have that extra pressure…. I believe if we focus on our craftsmanship, on our way of managing, and if we are successful, then the rewards will come. But I don’t think we should think about the rewards, because then, if you think about the rewards, then actually it is a distraction. You don’t necessarily do your job, potentially you don’t get the reward, and on top of it you put pressure on yourself. So I’m reversing the thought process."
Just as he appears on television, Ripert exudes calmness. But his journey to zen was considerably turbulent. His parents divorced when he was five. An abusive stepfather entered the picture when he turned seven. The following year, he was shipped off to boarding school. And his beloved father died while hiking when Ripert was 11. (One way to describe 32 Yolks is Whiplash meets ABC Afterschool Special.)
Despite all this and more, whatever Ripert did, he did well—maybe not immediately, but over time and with hard work: terrines, lobster salads, ducks, fish. At La Tour D’Argent, he eventually mastered every station except the one devoted to pommes soufflés, which he avoided out of fear.
But just imagine, I suggest to him, had he taken on that responsibility, or at Jamin, at the entremets station making the kind of mashed potatoes that, Ripert writes, "probably existed only in Robuchon’s mind." Instead of being a master poissonnier, he could’ve been the great potato chef.
"Yeah, there’s no potato restaurant yet," Ripert says with a laugh. "I could’ve opened one and been very successful."