Eric Ripert was in town a few weeks ago on a book tour for his fourth and most recent cookbook, Avec Eric, a sort-of companion book to his Emmy award-winning PBS show of the same name. We met Ripert at the Chateau Marmont, his customary hang-out, to chat about the book (Wiley; 2010), his show, and a few other things.
Like how the recession has hit Le Bernardin, Ripert's New York City restaurant, where he's been for almost 2 decades; what the chef thinks about organic food here and in his native France; his take on celebrity chefs; and the identity of Ruth Bourdain. Turn the page, and check back later today for part 2 of this interview, plus Ripert's recipe for roasted chicken with za'atar stuffing. And to answer your question: yes, he looks and sounds just like that in real life too.
Squid Ink: Do you stay here often?
Eric Ripert: When I come to Los Angeles, I stay only at the Chateau. But I come here for 15, maybe 16 years.
SI: Have you run into Courtney Love yet?
ER: Ahh, I have no comment of who I run into. 16 years I come to this place. I really love it. I feel at home. That's what's fantastic about this place. It has a very good soul.
SI: So do you want to talk about your book? That's why you're here. It's your fourth book?
ER: Yes, it's the 4th book. It's the companion book to the first season [of Ripert's PBS television show, Avec Eric]. I think it's a book that can stand on it's own; it doesn't need the TV series attached to it. However, it's definitely inspired by the seasons. I don't know if you've seen the TV series, but we all start at Le Bernardin all the time, we have 3 or 4 minutes when I'm showing behind the scenes, and I kind of demystify a little bit what's going on. I'm obviously the chef, with my jacket and so on. I talk to the saucier and we talk about the challenges of the saucier, what makes a great saucier and so on, because I think the saucier is the most artistic thing you can do in the kitchen. Just the fact that you cannot measure flavors; it's only in the mind. It's very interesting. So anyway, we start with things like that, then I travel for inspiration. I go to beautiful places of course. But I went to see people that I was curious to talk to, at the source of where the food comes from. A lot of growers and farmers, fishermen, beekeepers and so on. And then I come back in the show to my own kitchen, which is a studio kitchen but it's really looking like my own kitchen, and I cook something for the viewer inspired by the traveling. So that's what we do in the show.
Now for the book, we've done exactly the same. It's a little bit of a travelogue; we added some wine pairings as well for the recipes. And in the show I document one of two recipes. Each chapter here has about 10, a bit more sometimes, recipes which are really designed for the home cook. They are not designed for the professional chefs, although if you cook that food in a restaurant you will be fine.
SI: They're more accessible.
ER: Yes, the ingredients are not too esoteric. You don't have to spend a fortune. You don't spend three days to do one stock, and then two more days to do something else. So it's made for the home cook. As much as I've been inspired by my trips, I think by looking at the images — it's a lot of pictures — I think people can also travel and be inspired. And then I wanted to have a book that was good-looking. Nobody wants an ugly book. I wanted to also have a very well-priced book, so people can buy it. I don't consider this a coffee table book.
SI: And the show is in its second season?
ER: Yes, season two is airing already in New York. I think L.A. has picked up season two just a couple of weeks ago. 13 episodes added to the 10 we did last year.
SI: What about next year?
ER: We don't know yet. We may go to Asia, we may go to South America. I always wanted to go to the Cajun country. I want to travel abroad, but I like the U.S. a lot; for me it's very exotic. I am an American now, but obviously I'm French and I think there are a lot of regions that are waiting to be discovered. We'll see what happens.
SI: You've been at Le Bernardin for how long now?
ER: 19 years. It's going to be in June, 20.
SI: Do you go back to France a lot?
ER: This year I was in France for one week with Anthony Bourdain. We shot No Reservations in Paris. That was the only time. Next year I'm probably going for two weeks. Yeah, I try to go every year at least a few days, a long weekend in Paris. I go back.
SI: What would you say are the biggest differences between the food culture here and in France — these days?
ER: Well, in terms of economics, let's say in the restaurant for instance, American people are not too inclined to pay too high a price for food, but they have no problem to pay for wine. In France it is the contrary: people have no problem to pay a fortune for a good carrot, but for the wine? They don't pay as much, especially in the restaurants. That's a major difference of mentality. I find the food in France, in supermarkets that you can buy and bring home to potentially finish or not finish or microwave, much better than what we find here. In terms of quality of ingredients. I find the organic wave much more interesting in America than in France.
SI: What do you mean?
ER: In France it's called “bio.” The word for organic is “bio.” And they don't believe in it much; they look at it like it's a bunch of hippies who are doing the goat cheese in the mountains. They don't have much of an understanding about what organic is. In terms of quality ingredients the French have a lot of respect and knowledge, but you have for instance in L.A. the Santa Monica market and the other one, the Hollywood market. The products are amazing. In California you're very lucky. Some parts of the country are very challenged. California is lucky, the East Coast is lucky because we get great seafood and a lot of produce from Florida, locally in good weather, but in the winter we have to buy it.
SI: A lot of it comes from here.
ER: Yes. So those are mostly the differences.
SI: Do you think that France's reluctance to embrace organics is because the products are already good to begin with?
ER: Probably. Yes, it's already there. Although they have to be very careful, because the very large companies are starting to try to cultivate and raise a little bit like we do here. But you don't have for instance the hormones in the beef. And then in terms of fine dining, I find the fine dining in America much more relaxed. In France it's very formal, borderline stiff. Not borderline, very often stiff. Fine dining in America is definitely not the same, and therefore much more fun. I find fine dining very vibrant, and despite what some of the media believe, I think fine dining is doing very well. Obviously, to back my words, I've done an experiment. In 2009 in January when the country suddenly stopped, I committed to give $1 to a charity called City Harvest that feeds hungry people in New York. I'm on the board. And I said, every client sitting at Le Bernardin, every dollar will go to them [the charity]. At the end of the year, the total amount was $93,000. So 93,000 people came to a fine dining restaurant during the year of the great recession.
SI: How does that compare with the previous year, or the year before that?
ER: You know, maybe it's 10%. I was hoping to do $100,000, so we gave a little bit less.
SI: So a 10% drop off?
ER: Total revenue in 2009 was minus 9%. The 23rd of December 2008 there was a very famous designer in New York on Madison Avenue with 90% off — empty. And then Hermès, no discount, no nothing, you couldn't get out the door. And so I said, despite the recession, people when they want to spend money now, they are going to spend money for quality.
SI: You can think of the recession Darwinistically: survival of the fittest and all.
ER: Exactly. Exactly. And it's what we've seen. We've seen a crush of the middle market. The low market is still vibrant, and the upscale market surprised everyone because — at least in New York, I cannot talk for other cities — it was good. We didn't lay off, we didn't do shortcuts. We actually did better.
SI: Other restaurateurs have said that New York came back before Los Angeles.
ER: Yes, since January 1st [of 2010]. Very strong. For us, we are at the numbers of 2007, which was the record year of all time I think for the entire industry. So we are back.
ER: I have no complaints. But you know, we worked with visibility and public relations and so on. The TV show. We have appearances on Top Chef, No Reservations, books, so the idea was, let's also show our product to a broader audience, not just here. And I noticed that we gained a lot of young people, because I think they are the ones who feel less the recession. When you are 25, 30, you know, you have no responsibility, no mortgage, no kids, no retirement to think about, nothing. So the young crowd actually in New York didn't care about the recession.
SI: Right. Maybe they didn't have jobs anyway.
Check back later for the second part of this interview, and Eric Ripert's recipe for roasted chicken.