A classically trained chef and military veteran, Chef Ripert began at the New York City restaurant in the early 90s, taking on the role of executive chef after original owner and chef Gilbert Le Coze passed from a sudden heart attack in 1994. With Ripert at the helm, Le Bernardin has been recognized by media around the world for offering top-notch food, wine, and service, including numerous best chef awards. Over the years, Eric Ripert’s role has expanded to part-owner of the legendary spot, but as most chefs can attest, his heart always remains in the kitchen.
I had a chance to chat with the handsome, award-winning chef as we sailed by catamaran to Stingray City during the recent Cayman Cookout.
Q: Especially with the end-of-the-year food trends predictions, I’ve seen a few people discussing the end of white-tablecloth restaurants. What’s your take on the fall of fine dining?
A: I don’t believe it. Our staff has only grown over the years. Fine dining is very central [to the industry] so it will be around for a long time. People enjoy it. It’s like music. One week, you can go to see a U2 concert and the next, you can see the ballet. There will always be a place for fine dining.
I work with an organization called City Harvest. Last January, we promised a dollar for every person who came in to the restaurant and at the end of the year, we donated nearly $100,000. To me, almost 100,000 diners is not the end of fine dining.
Q: Do the restaurant reviews influence you much at all?
A: Of course, they are very important, I wouldn’t ignore them. However, you cannot put too much into them. When I get to work, I think about what we need to do, the kitchen, the people. I think about everything in the restaurant. I never think about the stars.
Q: As both a restaurateur and a chef, do you prefer to oversee the operations or be present in the kitchen?
A: I enjoy the kitchen. The kitchen is my home. But, getting older, you like to mentor, take on more responsibilities out of the kitchen. The product, the service, the line. I like to stay a lot in the kitchen, but I like also to work with the team to make sure the operation is running smooth. My role has grown but I’m still a cook, then a chef, then a restaurateur.
Q: In expanding your restaurant empire, you’ve remained primarily at Le Bernardin. Is there a reason for that?
A: It’s because I’m very stubborn and I like to do what makes me happy. (laugh) I’m not sure I would be happy having twenty-five restaurants. I know chefs who have that many, and they’re very happy with it, but to this day, I am very happy with what I have.
Q: What are your inspirations?
A: Inspirations come from everything. From the season, from traveling, from the ingredients, from directing the chefs. We always work in collaboration.
Q: When I visited Le Bernardin, I was impressed that the menu notes your use of only sustainable seafood. Is the use of sustainable items important to your restaurants overall?
A: Yes, absolutely. 90% of our fruits and vegetables are organic. We always try to use as much organic as we can. We do not serve some species of fish in the restaurant because we know they are in great danger. To be a successful restaurateur and to inspire those in the younger generations, I make sure it is that way.