Hey, Eric Ripert!
Deep thoughts, plus an excerpt from his new memoir, 32 Yolks.
June 14, 2016 ● 7 min read
Chef Eric Ripert, of New York City's famed Le Bernardin, just punched his final ticket on an exhaustive months-long tear across the country, promoting his memoir, 32 Yolks: From My Mother's Table to Working the Line. It's a revealing book, one that took over two years to finish, and Ripert has become remarkably adept at recounting the stories held within it.
While industry readers may gravitate more towards his tales of pained service in old-school French kitchens, it's the admission of early familial strife — passages that read like melancholic foghorns, bleating across space and time in warning — that he hopes might even inspire couples facing a particularly hard decision. "Sometimes [divorce] is a very good thing for the couple and for the children, but in my case, it was a disaster. I wanted to document that," he says. It's complicated, as any book that condenses wisdom gleaned from half a lifetime is apt to be.
What isn't complicated is how long that tour was. So we talked about some other stuff instead, and threw in an excerpt for good measure.
What do you consider essential to your life?
I think what is essential is to find a level of contentment. Well, it's important to live your passion and it's a must to find a level of contentment. If you don’t, there’s always something to do, always something more, and you forget to live. Living in the present, having happiness, is essential in a lifetime because if you don't do it, it's too late. You want to be yourself, and be happy.
How long did it take you to know yourself in that way?
In the late 90s I decided that it would be my mantra. Since then I'm very, how can I say it? Zen about my life. I'm very at peace with myself, and very driven. Not driven to necessarily make money or make a name, but driven to be contagious in inspiring people.
What is the most memorable interaction that you've had with a stranger in the last few years?
I receive a lot of letters from people that have been touched by their experience at Le Bernardin, or by what I have said or written in the past. I'm not blasé about it, I'm always appreciative and very grateful. The other day, a very young teenager came in the kitchen with tears in his eyes. He said he had been following my career, and was very inspired. His mother was crying, too, and I didn't know what to do.
What do you usually do in that situation?
First, be kind. I always try to bring people to the kitchen so we don't interrupt the dining room. They'll usually have tunnel vision of themselves and me for a minute or two, and then they realize that they are also with forty cooks. I usually try to break the ice with a little bit of humor, to not to make it so intense.
Where do you think best?
When I am in nature. It's when I can really contemplate. I meditate every morning, so that of course, is an important moment, but being in contact with nature is very, very inspirational to me. It has a huge impact.
What’s your approach to meditation practice?
I practice two types of meditation: the first is just being mindful with intense concentration. Domesticating your brain not to think of the future and not to think of the past. The other one is a guided meditation that is for me, very often religious, as a practicing Buddhist. I try to do those two daily.
What is the most recent discovery you’ve made?
The more you give, the more people have a tendency to want. I don't know if that makes sense or not.
The book tour was new for me, because usually I am in the kitchen. I was surprised to discover that first people want you to sign the book, then they have a question, then they want a picture, then they want to know if they can shake your hand, then they want to invite you for a drink…it's endless. The good thing is that [the book] was successful, but it was very interesting to see that phenomenon for the first time. It took me by surprise that I needed to have people around me for that.
What would you like to be known for, when all is said and done?
I don’t know about being known for it, but I want to leave this world at peace, knowing that I have done good things. Perceptions from other people matter, but not so much.
First, Dessert: Chocolate Mousse
Two things happened the year I turned eleven: my father died and I became friends with my first professional chef, a guy named Jacques.
My mother, distressed at my sadness over the loss of my father, tried to cure it with the one thing she knew I still loved: an extraordinary meal. One day, after she closed her shop, she announced that we wouldn’t be going home to have dinner with her new husband, Hugo, and my baby sister. Instead we were going to the restaurant in the same complex of shops as her own, Chez Jacques.
“It is almost impossible to get a table,” my mother said, smiling conspiratorially. “But why don’t you and I go, just the two of us?”
I smiled for the first time in weeks. A night out alone with my mother? At an exclusive restaurant? It was like Christmas had come early.
As we approached Chez Jacques, my mother whispered, “Let me do the talking. They say the chef is a lunatic.”
We were greeted at the door by Mercedes Quillacq, a voluptuous blond Spanish woman in her midforties. I had never met her but she greeted my mother as if they were old friends, and she seated us with a flourish that implied we were honored guests. The restaurant was rustic and simple. I would later learn that Jacques had built the entire establishment himself and that the dining room was actually the first floor of the family home. There were maybe twenty seats and an open plan kitchen, which was unusual for the time. There was no menu, just a set meal for the night. You ate what Jacques prepared, and you paid a hefty price for the pleasure.
From my seat at the table I could see Jacques at work in the kitchen: short and muscular, he wore a white chef’s jacket with short sleeves and sweated with the force of a man who was all at once chef, sous-chef, and dishwasher. In one pot, he cooked pasta. In another, he made green beans. The industrial oven churned out culinary masterpieces, seemingly on its own. Now there’s a platter of caramel pork. Look, there’s a camembert en chemise (a version of brie en croute). And is that a roast duck? Watching Jacques cook for an entire restaurant, alone and happy in his kitchen, was like going to the circus and watching a master juggler spin a hundred plates. I was mesmerized.
I quickly learned that while the food was indeed legendary, part of what kept Chez Jacques packed was the show he put on. You did not choose to eat at Chez Jacques. Jacques chose you. Ten minutes after we sat down, the door opened. A well-dressed man walked in and greeted Jacques, whose eyes immediately narrowed.
“Get out!” he snarled. The man was understandably startled and tried to politely introduce himself.
“Uh, je suis Monsieur Veysette. . . .”
“Who sent you?”
“Uh . . .”
“Get out!” Jacques yelled, and so the man did as he asked and left.
My mother and I sat in silence, watching the drama unfold with both amusement and awe. My pleasure in being there grew, just knowing that we had been lucky to be let in the front door. A few minutes later, another couple arrived.
“Who sent you?” Jacques barked.
“No one. We saw . . .”
“Welcome, welcome,” Jacques said, suddenly switching to the warm tone of a mâitre’d in a famed Parisian bistro. “Mercedes, please see to it that they get the best table!”
My mother whispered to me, “Chef Jacques is known for kicking even the most elite residents of Andorra out of his restaurant. He takes great pleasure in telling the richest people in town to go screw themselves, but the food is so good, they always come back.” She went on to explain that Jacques was ex–French Legion and he wasn’t impressed with power. He’d survived the Battle of Dien Bien Phu; he didn’t care about the vice-president of the local hydroelectric company or a retired British footballer. Naturally, the spectacle only made Chez Jacques more of a destination. “Whatever you do,” my mother warned, “don’t ask for salt.”
When the dishes arrived, it was clear that we were being presented with more than a meal: this was a gift. The salad was composed as if Jacques had spent the afternoon in the garden, picking each green leaf himself. The coq au vin was so rich and satisfying that I had to resist the urge to lick the plate when I was done. When the meal was over, Jacques sent over not two small bowls of chocolate mousse, but nearly a tub of the stuff. My eyes widened at the heft of it; then I quickly and happily polished off the whole dish.
Jacques walked over to the table just as I was shoveling the last heaping spoon of mousse into my mouth. He looked pleased.
“The young man has a good appetite,” he said, winking at me.
“C’est trop, Monsieur Jacques,” I replied, respectfully. And it was—the very best meal I’d ever had.
“Do you want a tour of the factory?” Jacques asked, gesturing for me to follow him to the kitchen.
My mother nodded her permission and I eagerly followed Jacques back to the kitchen and propped myself onto a barstool for a better view. I pointed at the salads Jacques was making. “How did you get the vinaigrette so creamy?” I asked.
He smiled at the question. “That’s a secret,” he said. “Come back one day and I’ll show you.”