Talking Food Critics, Ethnic Influence and Chef Instability in Dallas with Eric Ripert
This Friday at Bass Hall in Fort Worth, Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert will deliver an interactive performance discussing the industry that has granted them stardom. Most of the press coverage about the show has focused on Bourdain, but while Ripert takes a quieter approach to life his story is no less interesting, especially if you're curious about craftsmanship and cooking.
Ripert's diligence has certainly paid off. His New York City restaurant Le Bernardin has earned four stars from The New York Times since 1986, longer than any other restaurant covered by the paper. I spoke with him about what it takes to ensure consistently flawless cooking over decades, the importance of critics in a modern day dining culture, and some guy called Anthony Bourdain.
You reopened a newly remodeled dining room just over a year ago. How did things go with Hurricane Sandy?
We got very lucky. As you know Downtown got very damaged. They have no electricity still. Many don't have any water. As soon as you pass midtown, though, it's like a normal city.
So you weren't impacted at all?
Well, we closed for two days, and then we reopened Wednesday of that week. So we were impacted in the sense that we closed, but no damage.
What about your suppliers for fish?
No. The boats came on Monday to the harbor in Maine, and the fish was very fresh. The north wasn't damaged by the hurricane, so all the fish from Canada and the fish from far away in the Atlantic was delivered. The fish from Florida hasn't been affected at all.
OK, so how many of these shows have you done with Anthony?
Good and Evil?
Good and Evil we've done 15 or 16. Something like that.
Are you the good guy or the bad one?
That's a good question. I'm going to tell you the way the show works. We start by roasting each other, so when Tony is roasting me, he does the best to make me look like the bad guy. Then I return the favor and roast him as well and obviously, I make him look like the bad guy. That's to break the ice and make everyone laugh, and we don't take each other too seriously and so on.
And then we sit down and talk about serious issues like GMO or over-fishing. We give advice for people who want to come into the industry. We talk about many topics that are more serious, obviously, and then we open up to question and answer, which is very interactive.
At the end of the day there's no such a thing as good and evil. He's not totally evil, and I'm not very good. (Laughs)
Have any new digs set up for Anthony?
We don't have a script. We surprise each other each time. Basically my strategy is to question his intelligence capabilities because he did so many drugs. I definitely question his taste buds because he smoked so many cigarettes. And I question his ability to cook.
Do you think he still has that ability?
Oh, obviously. He does. Yes.
Well, because of the work you do in a restaurant, I picture you in the kitchen a little bit more than Anthony. If I take a few weeks off from cooking, things aren't quite as sharp as they used to be.
Yeah, that's why I only do eight to 10 shows a year.
Is that why you decided to go with PBS versus the Travel Channel or a more popular cable network?
We did that because at the time, we thought that was a good network to support the format of the show that we have, which is more contemplative -- we take our time and so on. We've now stopped Avec Eric and I'm doing a series called On the Table on YouTube where I basically interview my guests while we're cooking.
Yeah, I saw the episode where Mario Batalli parks his Vespa in your apartment.
Well, it looks like my apartment.
We've had a ton of chef changes here in Dallas -- enough that a newspaper ran a story on the instability of our kitchens. You've had the same executive chef in your kitchen for nearly two decades. How do you keep them?
By treating them well and with respect. By feeding them well, which may sound strange, but I think it is very important to give good food to your staff. And also by rewarding them financially and with benefits, so they have good compensation and they are happy. When you keep your staff happy they will stay with you.
How important is that permanence in turning out the best possible cuisine?
You can imagine when you have a manager in your dining room, or your chef du cuisine, or your saucier with you for 20 years. I mean, obviously they know the way I think, and they have even improved the system as a team with us. It's an enormous benefit to the restaurant to have people in place that are passionate and happy and who have the knowledge as well.
Do you think you could maintain a four-star rating for a long time if your staff turned over every couple of months?
No, It's impossible.
In an interview with Tim Carman at The Washington City Paper you said you felt that food critics were very relevant with respect to a growing presence of Yelp and blogs. Now that those two media have swelled even further, do you think that is still the case?
Yes, absolutely. We can see it in New York, all the way to Philadelphia, people go to The New York Times because [Pete Wells] is knowledgeable, he has the budget, and he goes to restaurants. Obviously he's an opinion and just one person, but he has tremendous credibility in New York. And he's not the only one. You know we have a couple of food critics.
The food critic is definitely a reference because Yelp is basically full of people complaining. We have to take into consideration some of the comments, but very often it's not even rational what they say.
Reviewing your restaurant has become a rite of passage for NY Times food critics. Do you have a favorite review from the past 20 years?
They are all very important. The latest is Pete Wells, but they're all important to us. When you run a luxury restaurant it is vital to have four stars. If we lose a star, we would be in danger of being financially insecure because of the investments we make with the staff, with the china -- with everything. We need to keep the prices where we are and we need that kind of support.
Pete Wells didn't like his Dover sole in his review, referring to a red wine and cassis sauce the color of grape chewing gum. How did you feel when you read that?
Look! I mean -- he had his opinion. I thought the dish was good, obviously, or I would not have put it on the menu. When I read the review I actually took the dish out and we worked on another dish. I took his criticism seriously, yeah. (pauses)
He said it was the color of grape chewing gum. It was a red wine sauce, so it was a red, slightly pinkish sauce, OK. So maybe the description was a bit harsh, so it was not his favorite dish, obviously. And potentially not the favorite dish of our clients so I figure, let's take it out. Why bother?
Looking forward to eating anything specific while you're in Texas?
I heard there is a large Vietnamese community there, so I'd like to try that. And in Houston I have a friend, Philip Schmidt, and we are going to try and stop at a couple of restaurants but I am not very familiar with the food scene in Fort Worth or Houston.
Do you think a strong ethnic culture and restaurant scene is imperative to developing a strong mainstream or popular dining scene?
No doubt. For sure. Every culture brings its own ingredients and techniques and flavors and so on and then there's a relationship between chefs and clients who are close to different cuisines. It's not gimmicky. It's a natural fusion.
French restaurants today aren't only French. It's French in the sense that it maintains a certain tradition of hospitality and definitely of technique, but you may very well be using Japanese ingredients.
Not everyone has a travel budget that can whisk them away to Southeast Asia with a camera team in tow. How would you look for inspiration if you were confined to your hometown?
Oh, it's easy in New York City. In New York, depending on which area you go, the food is completely different. I mean you have Chinatown and its Asian influence. You have Koreatown. You have a huge Latino influence as well. You have Ethiopian influence, here. If you go Uptown, Downtown, East Side, West Side you get very different experiences.
Do you do a lot of eating around New York looking for ideas?
I don't know if it's a lot, but I do it twice a week.
I'm getting hungry myself. Thanks for your time, chef, and good luck with your dinner service tonight.
Yeah, I need some. (laughs)
Think I missed something? You can buy tickets here and ask Ripert or Bourdain a question yourself. Their talk concludes with a no-holds-barred question-and-answer session with the audience. Tickets to the event are available here.