Interview: Eric Ripert on Perfection, Dreams, Tequila + Travel
Famed French chef Eric Ripert built an international reputation at Le Bernardin, a four-star seafood restaurant he co-owns with Maguy Le Coze in Manhattan. He owns Blue at The Ritz-Carlton in Grand Cayman, West End Bistro in Washington, D.C., and 10 Arts in Philadelphia. He also hosts a food-focused travel show called Avec Eric and was in Los Angeles to promote his complementary book. I met at Intelligentsia Pasadena prior to his December 1 appearance at Whole Foods.
You feature over 100 recipes in your book that you describe as “simple.” What is your definition of simple when it comes to a recipe?
My definition of simple is not too many ingredients, and ingredients that are very easy to find. And then, steps or directions that if you follow them, are going to make you successful with the dish. That’s what I would call simple recipes. When you look, you can see right here on the cover [points to Avec Eric book cover], you have mussels. That’s simple. You have deviled eggs, you have glazed carrots and roasted duck breast. Pretty simple. You have roasted chicken. These to me are what I’d call very simple recipes. Well documented, and again, you can see it’s not like five pages of instructions. It’s something that you can also do in a timely manner. You don’t have to start with a stock and go cook for three more days. It’s not like that.
I noticed that one of your chapter headings is titled “Perfect Pairings,” and you use the word “perfect” more than once. Is there such a thing as perfection in cooking?
No, there’s no such thing as perfection. What is interesting is the search for perfection, but in cooking, it’s very subjective. What is perfection for me may not be perfection to you, and so on, but we all seek to create legitimate harmony, something harmonious, and when you’re cooking, you’re looking for that and you’re going to end up with dishes which are going to be successful and people are going to like those dishes because of the combinations that sometimes are intricate and sometimes are made of contrasts, but ultimately, they make the recipe delicious.
Do you feel like you’ve made dishes over the years that you couldn’t have improved?
You can always improve. For sure. Cooking is craft and it’s art, and when you craft, for example, this table, [touches table], you do it, you touch it and it’s still the same. In cooking, there’s such change. The flavors evolve all the time. For instance, this coffee, if you drink it now or if you drink it in ten minutes, it’s a different product, so cooking is always evolving and changing. It’s not consistency. It’s not something that, it’s done, it’s here, it’s forever. It’s very difficult to make it consistent.
Each of your chapters involves a cocktail recipe. Is a cocktail something you normally enjoy with a meal?
I like wine, for sure with the meals, but I always like to start with a cocktail. I think a cocktail is a good idea, especially if you have guests, to break the ice, and if you’re with your wife, and you’re making dinner, a cocktail can make the experience surprising and romantic and sexy. But when you are at home and you are inviting people home, and you have cocktails, it’s definitely convivial, and it’s definitely creating an ambiance. Again, after one cocktail or two, you definitely have a sense of closeness.
In the foreword to your book, Anthony Bourdain said you’re known to enjoy high-end tequilas. How did you become so interested in them?
Starting a long time ago, maybe 20 years, I’ve enjoyed high-end tequilas, and at the time, remember, 20 years ago, Patron was a very boutique-y brand. Very few people knew what Patron was, and it was hard to find, and someone gave me a shot of Patron. Not a shot, but we sipped on Patron, and that was my introduction to good tequila.
What are a couple current favorite tequilas?
Well, Don Julio 1942 is definitely very good. Casa Dragones is a tequila that I like very much. It’s kind of light, slightly citrusy and a very complex combination.
Any food that you suggest pairing with tequila?
Well, I think if you go with Mexican food, it’s a natural connection. I’m not saying you should drink tequila for your entire meal, especially if you have five courses. You might be a bit damaged then, but tequila, actually, even when I cook, I put tequila in my guacamole.
A little añejo, it’s perfect, very good.
I only have one other drinking question, which is, where do you like to drink and what do you like to drink when you’re not at the restaurant?
Where do I like to drink? I don’t go to bars very often. After work I go home and have wine and listen to some music. I also like Scotch, so I enjoy sometimes tequila, sometimes Scotch. When I go to restaurants, I definitely have a good bottle of wine. I enjoy sipping on wine and take my time. It’s not about drinking the fastest or the most. It’s about drinking something of quality that I enjoy.
What is there left for you still to accomplish as a chef?
Every day, you start from scratch again. Every day, you start from zero. Whatever you did yesterday doesn’t count anymore. It’s the nature of our business. You may have done an amazing dish or an amazing recipe, but it’s history. If there’s a dish that’s oversalted or overcooked or not tasting good, you’re at the bottom again. So the challenges are daily. You have to be focused on what you do on a daily basis. It’s about cooking. It’s about providing a good meal.
Would you say that you’ve opened your dream restaurant yet?
I think I have been very lucky to work where I’ve worked in my life, and to have Le Bernardin, and to have opened all the restaurants that we have. Of course I can dream all day and night about things, but you have to be realistic, and at the end of the day, Le Bernardin is really where I can express myself as a cook, as a craftsman, as an artist, as a mentor. So yes, I would say, it’s my dream restaurant, yes.
How has having a restaurant in the Cayman Islands affected your approach at Le Bernardin?
It hasn’t affected anything. When we created Cayman Islands, the idea was to bring Le Bernardin by the beach, and we are going to do a restaurant which is mostly seafood, like Le Bernardin. Luxurious, like Le Bernardin, but we’re not going to forget that we’re in the Caribbean. Therefore, it’s going to be very different than the ambiance in New York, different energy. New York has a lot of energy. In New York, we wear jackets. In the Caribbean, you don’t want to wear a jacket, so it would be a more relaxed atmosphere. Using the influence of the Caribbean in terms of products and flavors, so our menu definitely has Caribbean flair, which we don’t have necessarily in New York.
Do you have any plans to open any additional restaurants?
Nope. As of today, no. I think what is interesting in the question, because a lot of people ask me the same question. A lot of people base success in my industry on how many restaurants you open and own. It’s about the quality of food that you deliver every day to the clients. So to me, I’m very content with what I have. I’m not saying I’m not going to open another restaurant, but it’s not something that I’m obsessed with and striving to do. If it happens, it will happen naturally, and I will do it at my pace. Again, to me it’s about cooking in one place, good food, and not necessarily being a mogul and seeking to open 50 restaurants. I have no intentions of doing that. I’m too lazy for that.
People locally would probably want to know what it would take for you to open a restaurant in Los Angeles.
Well, we need to find a couple of wealthy people.
I was pretty interested in your appearance on “No Reservations” in Paris, where you joined Anthony Bourdain at the kind of cutting-edge brasseries in that city. You were basically forced to defend your position related to fine dining.