The predisposition of our society to be in awe of people who do one thing extremely well to the point where they are glorified to star status has always been a part of our culture. But only in the past 50 years or so has this awed admiration resulted in situations where top athletes and movie stars bankroll hundreds of millions of dollars and are elevated to a status approaching knighthood. Stars like David Beckham and Michael Jordan make most of their millions from endorsements, which is a tribute to their intelligence, charm, and good looks. But sometimes we lose sight of the fact that these stars begin their careers by doing one relatively simple thing very well – in their case kicking soccer balls or flinging basketballs.
Eric Ripert is also a charming and handsome star, one who happens to be famous for his ability to cook fish, something that he does very, very well. So well, in fact, that a mouthful of his barely cooked tuna or silky-soft salmon practically guarantee either a wordless moan or an exclamation of wonder, depending on the vocabulary of the diner. And with all due respect to Mr. Beckham and Mr. Jordan, people don’t generally moan in delight after a dunk shot or a penalty kick – a pump of an arm and a hoot perhaps, but nothing approaching the ecstasy of tasting the delicate and delicious creations of Le Bernardin’s chef.
We met Mr. Ripert on the upper east side of Central park, where he begins his daily walk through the park, a customary exercise that he began over six years ago. His walk through the park is a daily ingredient that has become an integral exercise of living, a time of day when he tries to free his mind from the restaurants, the recipe development, and the media appearances, and take pleasure in the experience of each moment. Here he allows himself to enjoy each step, to exchange greetings with passing friends and strangers, and to absorb each sight along the endlessly winding sidewalks of the park that has become his sanctuary between home and work.
“My walk in the park is like an exercise of meditation. I really try to live the moment, to be myself at this moment in this space. The mind always wants to be either ahead of time or in the past, so I try to control my mind and be where I am. I used to take a cab in the morning, and I would arrive at work so stressed out, so pissed off at the world because of the traffic. So one day I said, ‘I can’t do this anymore because I’m going nuts’, so I decided to go thru the park.”
Giving up the fast lane to his office and kitchen at Le Bernardin restaurant on 51st Street is just one of many ideas that are working for Mr. Ripert. The balance and structure of his daily routine is more than likely one of the keys to his continued success, not only at Le Bernardin where his restaurant has held on to four stars from the New York Times longer than any other restaurant, but in every other aspect of his professional and personal appearances. Joining Mr. Ripert on his journey from the Upper East Side to midtown showed me that his daily park experience includes more than just meditation, and that he also enjoys having his daily routine interrupted with creative diversions. Halfway through the park we met Ralph, a saxophone player he has befriended over the years, whose worn yet polished instrument is no less aged than the player himself. The smiles and introductions are quickly displaced by Ralph’s smooth, graceful improvisation of an unknown melody, his haunting sounds turning this quiet corner of the park into a concert hall worthy of the park’s empty band shell that stands behind us. When the music is over and we say goodbye to Ralph, Mr. Ripert seems energized again, and it felt natural to draw a comparison between the saxophonist’s art form and Mr. Ripert’s.
“The saxophone player improvises a lot, and what is fun when you cook is to improvise a lot. It’s not like you write the recipe and you follow it exactly; each time you do that recipe you have a lot of freedom to play, just like the saxophone player. He has the melody and the way he plays it today is going to be totally different from the way he’ll play it tomorrow.”
His uncanny ability to improvise is apparent to anyone who has read his most recent book. “A Return to Cooking” is an impressive recipe book whose imaginative concept chronicles Ripert’s journey to four separate and disparate locations in the United States, where his challenge was to discover local flavors and ingredients and use them to create new, original, and amazing recipes. Ripert’s literary excursion began at his home in Sag Harbor, where the project’s complexity and demanding nature became immediately apparent, and at first their progress slowed.
“Out of the four trips in the book, although they were all very distinctive and interesting, the most challenging was the first one. We had never worked together, and we had no idea where the project would go, so I was a bit concerned and I had to find my pace. And then it was ok.”
When I asked if he would prefer his next book project to be a little less challenging than “Return to Cooking”, I didn’t sense that he was basing any of his future project choices on any kind of difficulty factor – just the opposite in fact. The challenges are what drive him, keeps him sharp, and determines which of the few projects, out of the many he is offered, he eventually accepts.
“It has to be something new. The publisher will say, ‘why don’t you now do a world tour’, but I don’t want to repeat myself. The next book will be something completely different. I would like to do something inspired by real issues, more like a documentary type book. Let’s say you have a camera and you go into a four-star restaurant like ours, and you spend a month with us to create a documentary. I would like to try that, a documentary book.”
What a wonderful idea, I thought, to spend a month at Le Bernardin while getting paid to eat their food. I immediately made a mental note to submit my name for immediate consideration should a project like that ever become a reality, for the idea of spending one month as Mr. Ripert’s culinary guinea pig, in the interest of science or even for book, is a role that I’d be willing to play. Then without warning, I noticed that the park’s towering canopies of aged oaks disappeared, and as we stepped out onto 59th street, I snapped out of my food fantasy. But not for long.
As one steps into Le Bernardin restaurant, it’s impossible not to notice the aroma that you literally become surrounded by as you walk through the dining area, a place so comfortably and elegantly designed that you immediately find yourself whispering to the person next to you as if you are entering a shrine. The satisfying taste of fish can almost be experienced with one inhalation, a single harmonic combination of many different aromatic elements that are being prepared in the kitchen and serves to add more drama to the growing anticipation of the prepared food. The next thing you notice is that the people who work here seem different, a difference that is difficult to put your finger on. Not a waiter is inattentive, and yes everyone works diligently, and of yes of course they are all dressed perfectly and work together to form a collective mindset with each one devoted to their customer. This is what one would normally expect from a four star restaurant. But there is something else; they are all polite and smiling, and not because they are paid to, but because they are happy. This is an important distinction in the hospitality industry, and not an easy accomplishment for a restaurant with such a large staff. As I walked through the dining room in the middle of lunch and looked at table after table, I noticed that this blissful state of mind was contagious – it was afflicting the customers as well.
To spend only a few hours at Le Bernardin is not enough time to discover the secrets of its phenomenal success. However, chef Ripert was happy to share a few of his thoughts on what motivates his staff to reach the incredibly high standard they achieve every day of the week at lunch and dinner. He sees every one of his employees as an integral member of his team, each deserving his respect and his mentoring, and he knows that many of his people come to his restaurant not just to work, but also to learn.
“The guys who make you successful have to be rewarded. I’m the tip of the iceberg. For me to be able to do what I do, I need this enormous support from the team. If not, I wouldn’t be able to walk in Central park in the morning and talk with you. I would have to be in the kitchen all the time. We are the ambassador of the team, and when you give something back to your teammates, they are very dedicated and very passionate as well.”
Although it took much time and effort to put together his team, it is the strength of the players on that team, along with his personal credibility, which keeps it cohesive. This is what gives Ripert enough time to walk the park, write books, make appearances on television shows such as David Letterman and Ellen Degeneres’s, and most importantly, to spend time with his family.
“It’s challenging to find time for your family, be efficient at the restaurant, and at the same time be a businessman. You have to draw lines, you have to have organization. For myself, I know that I take two days per week for my family. And the morning is dedicated to the family. This is something that is very important, and I try not to compromise that. At the same time, I know exactly what I need to do at Le Bernardin, but you can only do those things if you have a team surrounding you, made up of people who are loyal to your ideas and your vision.”
Finding the right people, trusting them, and delegating those things that he used to do himself, is the way to build a team that shares Mr. Ripert’s passion, and this proclivity for building a passionate team is never more evident than when we watched Le Bernardin’s Chef de Cuisine Chris Muller build our appetizers and main courses, with a focused concentration that left my associates speechless. It quickly became clear from watching Mr. Muller work, what Ripert meant when he spoke of the cohesiveness of his team.
“When someone is with you a long time and you know that he understands your vision, and you understand the challenges of that person, then you can delegate more. For example, Chris has been with me for so long, and I used to worry about things that today I don’t have to worry about.”
It was not always so smooth during Ripert’s tenure running the kitchen of Le Bernardin. When he began building his current team six or seven years ago, he knew he had to build a strong one, and then nurture it.
“When the team was not as strong, it was bumpy. Some days were good days, some days were bad days. Today it’s more stable. It’s important to be constant; with a good team you can be constant. Even a hurricane is not such a big deal if your house is well protected. We have days with bad weather, days with good weather. But because we’re prepared, it’s easier to pass those days.”
Traveling is such an important part of Mr. Ripert’s life, both as a person and a chef. When we spent time with him, he had just returned from a trip to Brazil, his fourth visit to a country that he counts as one of his favorites. He referred to his Brazil journey as part business and part rest, and while he stayed at a house with some friends he was inspired by the local flavors and culture, and then created improvisational recipes for an upcoming magazine article. He insists that the inspiration he gets from this type of traveling, and how much of it he puts into the menu at Le Bernardin, (or other menu projects like the menu he created for the Geisha restaurant or the menus he is creating for his Grand Cayman restaurant), depends not on the location but on how he is feeling at the time.
“Sometimes when I am traveling, I can be in a lousy place and be inspired and, at other times, I am in a beautiful place and I am not inspired. The process is totally uncontrollable. It’s hard to quantify the influence of a trip and the influence of the ingredients that I see there. Sometimes it’s 80% of the trip, sometimes it’s only 20%, and sometimes it’s memories from 20 years ago, you never know. Cooking is an artistic thing to do, we are craftsmen. But we are artists as well; we are all different in terms of expressing ourselves and digesting life. If you talk to 10 painters and give them the same colors and the same brush, you come up with different results.”
As the discussion turned to the media and its influence on him as an artist, he stayed upbeat and positive. One reason for this consistency is that Mr. Ripert has always done very well with the press. Although he cared very much about how the press saw him ten years ago, today he says that he cares less than he used to about what the outside world thinks about him or his work, which allows him to stay more focused on his work. He has such an enormous and resolute confidence in what he does now that he doesn’t look to ratings, his fans, or the press releases for encouragement. He has always had as much of that as he has ever needed here at Le Bernardin. It was that devil-may-care attitude combined with his personal confidence and easy-going rapport with the media that led him to walk up to Frank Bruni during a review of his restaurant to say hello to him, which didn’t please Mr. Bruni very much.
“He was not happy that I recognized him, but it didn’t spoil his experience as a client. He chose whatever he wanted, it’s not like we arrived with 10 different dishes to taste or something that the next table can’t get.”
Mr. Ripert claims that he has never attempted to judge Frank Bruni and his reviews of his and other restaurants, but he does trust his opinion.
“I trust not only Bruni, but I trust the New York Times, and I trust the team of the New York Times. Why would they be brilliant in delivering the news and opinions in all other aspects of their newspaper, and then only be stupid about the food industry? Frank Bruni doesn’t have to be a cook. He’s not writing for chefs. Frank Bruni represents our clients. Our clients do not have to be experts in cooking, or experts in products. He’s representing an opinion. I’m focused on what I do, and he’s focused on what he does. If he started to listen to what the industry says, or to whatever people say on web sites, he’s gonna go nuts and he’s going to lose his identity, and then he’s not going to do what we’re asking the food critic of the New York Times to do. Frank Bruni has his own opinion, and we hope he agrees with us, but if he doesn’t, he doesn’t.”
For some of Ripert’s customers, coming to Le Bernardin is a once in a lifetime experience, but to many of the regulars to whom 155 West 51st street is a second home of sorts, the food is sometimes secondary to the overall experience.
“When they come here, I hope they are very focused on their experience, in what they are searching for,” Ripert explains. “If someone comes here for business, and they think we can help them do business, we’re here for that. If someone wants to focus only on food, we can focus only on the food. If it’s to celebrate an anniversary, we are here for that. That should be our mission at the restaurant, to deliver what you desire, as much as we can.”
After experiencing the dinner tasting menu at Le Bernardin, I can attest to the fact that Eric Ripert and Le Bernardin certainly deliver what anyone would desire. Frank Bruni calls this restaurant “a high church of reverently prepared fish”, and indeed there were times when I swore I could hear chanting coming from the kitchen. But alas, it was merely some more moaning coming from nearby diners who could not find the words to describe their tuna with foie gras, their poached lobster, or one of the many desserts that put a smile on every face we saw around us.