Journalism is a tough profession. At this very minute, there are reporters out there who are risking their lives in war zones to report the news. Meanwhile, my assignment is to eat lunch at one of the best dining establishments on the planet.
I screw up my courage as I step through the revolving door of Le Bernardin in New York City and face the daunting choice between the tasting menu and the three-course prix fixe. After enjoying its exquisitely plated seafood delicacies and calmly sumptuous ambiance, I will meet its famed chef, Buddhist Eric Ripert.
In 2019, Le Bernardin was declared number one restaurant in the world by the global food guide La Liste. Back in the eighties, when Le Bernardin had only been open for three months, it received its first four-star rating from The New York Times and has gotten four stars ever since. It boasts three stars from the Michelin Guide—the highest possible rating—and has won more James Beard Awards than any other restaurant in New York.
Although I’m no stranger to fine dining, I’m not accustomed to places this fine. I worry I won’t ace the etiquette and that I’m wearing the wrong shoes. After I’m led to my table, I’m presented with a welcome glass of champagne and a white cloth to freshen up, plus nibbles to awaken the appetite.
First there’s a duo of salmon—poached and smoked—that’s served with shaved sourdough toast. This substantial spread is presented in a delicate white bowl edged with a faint bubbly pattern reminiscent of sea foam. This, after all, is a seafood restaurant.
“We have a mantra that says the fish is the star of the plate,” Eric Ripert tells me later. The aim, he continues, is “to elevate the qualities of each species.”
Already I can taste what he means. The mayonnaise, lemon juice, and chive confetti are there to highlight the salmon’s own flavor, not mask it. In other words, the salmon is celebrated for being salmon. I put a generous pink pillow of it on the crispy sourdough toast, lacy with holes.
“We are French by definition, because our culture and the service are technically very French,” explains Ripert. “However, I like to believe we are also a New York restaurant. By that I mean we are exposed to all types of cultures and techniques. There is a certain integration of those cultures—a certain fusion—so you find a unique way of cooking fish at Le Bernardin, very personal to our style.”
A waiter offers me an assortment of breads, and I choose the multigrain roll, which is crusted with sesame and poppy seeds. There’s a whole fleet of wait staff at Le Bernardin, and they are highly attentive without being intrusive. If they think that I’m failing the etiquette test, they’re not letting on, and neither is Ripert himself.
In his crisp white chef jacket, he’s discreetly watching over the dining room. He comes over and greets me with a handshake, but kisses both cheeks of the woman at the table facing mine. Very French indeed, I think, as I slather butter on my roll.
In 1965, Eric Ripert was born in Antibes, on the French Riviera. His mother was a determined shop girl who, virtually overnight, transformed herself into the owner of a chic and flourishing boutique. His father was a high-flying banker. As a glamorous young family, their lives were a swirl of parties, jazz, and fine food.
One of Ripert’s earliest memories is of his mother repeatedly serving him fricasseed lambs’ brains, because she’d read it could enhance a child’s intelligence. The little Ripert, who didn’t care about the supposed benefits, hurled the brains across the room. But by and large, he was a precocious gourmet and loved the food his mother prepared. Despite working six days a week, she put a three-course dinner on the table every night, complete with fresh flowers and good china.
In his memoir 32 Yolks, Ripert writes, “The first five years of my life were so happy and bright that decades cannot diminish the sunshine and warmth that I feel when I look back at that time. My parents’ greatest gift to me was this: a model of love that was so big, it felt like the stuff of movies and songs. It wasn’t an endless love, but it was a gift all the same.”
When infidelity caused his parents’ marriage to crumble, Ripert and his mother moved to St. Tropez, and later to Andorra. It was heartbreaking for Ripert to be separated from his beloved father. What was worse, Ripert’s mother remarried and her new husband verbally and physically abused him. He began acting out, and this landed him in a Catholic boarding school, where a defrocked priest attempted to molest him. But the truly devastating blow came at age eleven when he lost his father to a heart attack.
To help him with his grief, one night Ripert’s mother took him to an exclusive restaurant, Chez Jacques, where Ripert feasted on coq au vin and chocolate mousse. But there his hunger was satisfied in another way, too. Ripert, who was desperate for a supportive father figure, was befriended by the restaurant’s kind and eccentric chef. Ripert had never met a professional chef before, and their friendship was a big reason why, at age fifteen, he enrolled in culinary school.
Fresh out of culinary school at age seventeen, the ambitious Ripert sent his résumé to eighteen three-star Michelin restaurants. Only one, the stately four-hundred-year-old La Tour d’Argent in Paris, responded. The very first thing he was asked to do on the job was mince some shallots and straightaway, before he’d even removed the skin, he sliced his finger open.
At that time, cooking was very much a blue-collar trade learned on the job, and graduates from culinary school were sneered at. Ripert’s bleeding finger was—for the fast, mean chefs of La Tour—proof positive that he was indeed a rich-kid, culinary-school dolt. But Ripert ultimately proved he had what it took to endure the figurative and literal heat in the kitchen. He survived the violence that was then common in the world of professional cooking—the nasty ribbing, the barked insults, and the blows. He worked the grueling hours—leaving for work before dawn, finishing after midnight, and practicing his knife skills in his precious few scraps of personal time.
Ripert worked at La Tour d’Argent for a year and a half. Then he landed a job at Jamin, a restaurant that in 1983 was revolutionizing French cuisine. The owner, chef Joel Robuchon, was a living legend. He devised recipes with seemingly endless elaborate steps and paired ingredients like a mad genius, such as spiced sea bass with a verjus sauce or an oyster medley with bay scallops and caviar. And then there was Robuchon’s wildly extravagant plating style. He would, for example, demand that Ripert put upwards of ninety tiny, perfectly placed dots of sauce on a single plate.
After learning as much as he could from Robuchon, Ripert was ready to spread his wings and move to America. First, he worked in Washington, D.C. as a sous chef at the storied Watergate Hotel’s restaurant Jean Louis. Then he was recruited to work at Le Bernardin in New York, where he became the executive chef and an owner after chef Gilbert Le Coze died suddenly of a heart attack.
Today, Ripert is very much a celebrity chef, appearing regularly on cooking and talk shows. He’s had his own award-winning show, Avec Eric, and was on many episodes of his late friend Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and Parts Unknown. My Best and Le Bernardin Cookbook are just two of his books.
With so much on the go, I can’t help but wonder how much time Ripert actually spends cooking these days. Perhaps it’s impertinent of me to ask about this, but he nonetheless answers with dry good humor.
“This is not really a disguise,” he says, brushing his chef’s whites. “It’s for real.”
For lunch, I decide on the three-course prix fixe, which means I get to make selections from three different columns. The first column alone— “Almost Raw”—has ten different options. I’m tempted by the flash-marinated fluke slivers with cured cucumber and dill-yuzu infused apple broth, but I’m also drawn to the kampachi sashimi with pink peppercorn pickles and hibiscus vinaigrette. Ultimately, I settle on the red snapper.
While I’m waiting for my first course to arrive, I take a good look around the dining room. There are, I observe, two dominant features. The first is a giant painting of a frothy green sea that’s all water and movement and intimacy—no sky. The second is a five-vase flower arrangement of tropical greenery and white orchids. From where I’m sitting, it stands dramatically in front of the painted sea.
Diminutive vases of purple orchids decorate some tables. Others, like mine, have lemon-hued calla lilies. The tablecloths are white and, like the restaurant’s dishes, they are subtly textured, as if by sea foam. The overall effect is an inviting, unpretentious elegance. The leather seats are perfectly padded for comfort.
For Ripert, cooking is a meditation.
Suddenly, my red snapper materializes. It’s been cut into misty slivers, arranged into a rectangle, and garnished with thin cucumber quarters and sprigs of purple and green. Punctuating the plate are four squares of compressed Asian pear. Two are crowned with kimchi while kimchi jelly tops the others. The server, right in front of my eyes, finishes the dish with a juicy kimchi sauce.
I take my first bite, and if this were a movie, the scene would be cross-cut with fireworks going off. Yes, it’s that delicious. These Michelin stars? They really do mean something. My concerns about not being up to snuff for this fine dining establishment melt in my mouth like the snapper, and my every taste bud is suddenly a believer. I have complete faith that I’d love everything on this menu—even the things I think I don’t want—even the salmon sashimi with baby cucumber flowers, even the sautéed dover sole with chanterelles and peas. I don’t care for salmon sashimi or peas, but I bet they’re done to perfection at Le Bernardin.
For my second course—“Barely Touched”—I select the column’s only vegetarian option: warm artichoke panaché with spring vegetable risotto and black truffle vinaigrette. Though it’s a seafood restaurant, Le Bernardin is surprisingly welcoming to vegetarians, offering an eight-course vegetarian tasting menu that includes dishes such as slowly cooked Mediterranean vegetable bouillabaisse in anise and saffron infused broth.
Chef Ripert tells me that, as a Buddhist, he feels conflicted about serving animal products. “Buddhism changed my view on the respect that I have for the life of animals that we sacrifice for our pleasure,” he says.
Yet Ripert, who eats meat himself, does not believe that the majority of his clientele would approve of Le Bernardin becoming fully plant-based. “I think that if I were very extreme in my views and imposing on the team and said, ‘Le Bernardin is becoming vegan,’ we would disappear from the map,” he asserts. “More than seventy-five families would lose their jobs here, and it would have no impact, because we live in a society that eats animals.
“My middle way is to offer some vegetable options,” says Ripert, and to serve sustainable species and to kill animals, including lobster, as painlessly as possible. “But, I still have that conflict,” he admits. “One day, maybe I will have a vegetable restaurant.” Meanwhile, he does have a vegetarian cookbook in the works.
When my artichoke course arrives, it’s a tidy scoop of risotto—brightened with asparagus tips and a carrot slice—that sits at the center of the plate. Entirely ringing it, in sunbeam style, is the sliced artichoke. Creamy truffle sauce provides the finish. I’m struck by the mandala-like design.
Eric Ripert had his first meaningful brush with Buddhism at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. He was twenty-four years old and about to move to America. With his few remaining francs, he went to the newsstand, intending to make what he believed was a very mature purchase: Playboy. But then he spotted a book about Tibet and impulsively bought it instead.
Soon after, Ripert came across the teachings of the Dalai Lama and was so profoundly touched that, roughly thirty years later, he still considers the Dalai Lama his root teacher.
In his home, Ripert has a meditation room where he sits, studies, and receives teachings. Today, he tells me, his main teacher—a Nepalese-Tibetan geshé (monk-scholar)—visited him, as he does every week. Although Ripert has a daily meditation practice at home, he says, “The restaurant is where I can really practice.”
“What I mean by that,” he continues, “is that it’s pretty easy to practice when you are in your meditation room. But when you are dealing with people and confronted with challenges, that’s when you can really practice Buddhism. If not, it’s just theoretical. The theory is not that simple, but it’s easy compared to practicing in real life. A difficult customer, a difficult day, people not understanding—they’re opportunities for us to practice. When everything is easy, you don’t learn anything. When it’s difficult you have the opportunity to learn.”
A professional kitchen is a famously high-pressure workplace. “But we learn how to work with stress,” he says. “We create systems to avoid situations with too much stress.” For Ripert, what’s most important is not creating an atmosphere of intimidation, so common in the restaurant business. He vividly remembers in his early days of working in a kitchen, when there was so much violence that he often had bruises. But that didn’t make him a better cook. “Nobody performs at his best when he’s shaking and afraid and stressed,” Ripert asserts.
“I do not accept anyone who would take advantage of his position to abuse or insult,” he says. “I want people to work in a peaceful environment. It’s not easy because we have many different individuals from different cultures and with different tempers. If they have bad habits, we have to patiently train them to have good habits. It’s a work in progress that never ends. However, we have zero tolerance for violence. Someone who does something verbally abusive will be warned. Someone who’s physically violent has no place in a kitchen.”
When Ripert speaks of workplace violence his face is grave. But when I ask him about his family, he lights up. His wife is not a Buddhist, he tells me, but Catholic. And then there is his only child, a sixteen-year-old boy who was taught different philosophies by his nanny, grandfather, mother, and father—Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism. Ripert laughs as he recalls a day two years ago when he asked his son if he was ready to decide on one. “Yes,” said the boy. “I think I am an atheist!”
For my third course, I believe I’ve settled on the poached halibut with marinated cherry tomatoes, mint–basil pesto, and tomato consommé. But then I find myself ordering the lacquered skate and fennel–herb salad in smoked duck broth.
Ripert is happy with my choice, describing it as “challenging” in the sense that not many people eat skate or know about it. And yet, he says, “It is refined and delicious.”
The white fish is fanned out on the plate and accompanied by dark leafy greens and silky shiitakes. Tucking in, I suddenly appreciate the movement of this meal, how it’s been working up to this moment. The first two courses were toothsome but light. Now this skate, which is clearly the crescendo, is earthy, full-bodied.
I now understand why Eric Ripert has earned his status as a celebrity chef. But I wonder how fame sits with him and if he has to take pains for it not to go to his head. “The challenge is when you start to believe everything you read about yourself,” he tells me. “When it’s compliments, your ego grows, so you have to be cautious and take it with a grain of salt. It’s always nice to receive compliments, but you cannot believe that you are the Beethoven of the stove or the Mozart of the kitchen, because in that case your ego blows up.”
Still, Ripert is not complaining about how the media has, in recent years, created a celebrity chef culture. “They glorify my industry. What can I say?” he says with a modest laugh. Then he’s quick to add, “I try to use that platform to be inspirational and deliver the right message.”
Ripert says he didn’t enter his field to become famous. “You come into this industry because you love the craft, you love cooking, you love the hospitality aspect of it, you love everything about being in a professional kitchen,” he says. “You don’t come into my industry because you want to see your picture in a magazine. That’s the wrong path. If you become an actor because you want to win an Oscar, you will probably never get one because you’ll forget to act.”
For Ripert, cooking is a meditation. “Someone who is cooking at a very high level has to have that kind of concentration. If not, you are not able to do different things at the same time well, and you are not able to bring out the flavors you want.”
Finally, for my dessert, I order the constructed coconut wedge, which is so convincing the waiter feels compelled to explain, “Everything is edible.” The shell is chocolate and the flesh is bavarois. It is served alongside coconut’s best sweetheart, pineapple, which has been roasted, sliced into generous ribbons, and given an edge with piña colada sauce. The waiter then fills the coconut hollow with snowy white granité.
It is not Ripert but rather the pastry chef who is responsible for this whimsical dessert, but it’s very much up to Ripert’s standards, and I find myself swooning over the rich, textured sweetness. It’s so delicious I cannot resist a second small dessert: a milk chocolate pot de crème with caramel foam, maple syrup, and Maldon sea salt, which is presented in a real eggshell with the tip neatly sliced away.
As I bury my spoon in the layers, I think that perhaps two desserts is excessive following a three-course meal. But I polish it off anyway. Oh, the sacrifices I make for journalism.