Eric Ripert is grateful for his early exposure to two cuisines — that of Antibes, France, where he was born, and Andorra, a small country just over the Spanish border where he moved as a young child. His family instilled their own passion for food in the young Ripert, and at the age of 15, he left home to attend culinary school in Perpignan. At 17, he moved to Paris and cooked at the legendary La Tour d’Argent before taking a position at the Michelin three-starred Jamin. After fulfilling his military service, Ripert returned to Jamin under Joël Robuchon to serve as chef poissonier.
In 1989, Ripert seized the opportunity to work under Jean-Louis Palladin as sous-chef at Jean-Louis at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. Ripert moved to New York in 1991, working briefly as David Bouley’s sous-chef before Maguy and Gilbert Le Coze recruited him as chef for Le Bernardin. Ripert has since firmly established himself as one of New York’s — and the world’s — great chefs.
In 1995, at just 29 years old, Ripert earned a four-star rating from The New York Times. More than 15 years later and for the fifth consecutive time, Le Bernardin again earned The New York Times’ highest rating of four stars, becoming the only restaurant to maintain this superior status for this length of time, without ever dropping a star.
In September 2011, Le Coze and Ripert unveiled the next chapter in the restaurant’s history: a significant redesign from Bentel & Bentel that earned Le Bernardin a James Beard Award for “Best Restaurant Design” in 2012. The new look features a lounge, a first for the restaurant, where a separate menu is available.
Le Bernardin has long been one of the most highly regarded and successful restaurants in the country. Why did you feel the need to make the changes you did in 2011?
My partner Maguy Le Coze and I felt that the look and feel of the dining room was not meeting the needs of our increasingly young clientele. So we wanted to really reinvent the experience and create a more inviting atmosphere — and also keep pace with the way the menu has evolved over the years.
How have these changes been received by your guests?
Thankfully, very well! Our clients and guests have been hugely supportive. All our new visitors have been very positive as well. The addition of the lounge really surprised people in a good way, and it surprised us at how busy it has become!
We thoroughly enjoyed our meal and found the food inviting, creative and beautifully served. How have you changed the menu over the years to bring it to where it is now?
Our philosophy toward the menu has not changed. Our mantra has always been and remains that the fish is the star of the plate. We did introduce a new menu in the lounge, with smaller plates like salmon gravlax, oysters, ceviche and our smoked salmon croque-monsieur with caviar.
The place of seafood has changed dramatically in the American diet since the restaurant first opened. Can you talk about that change?
Americans didn’t have too much excitement for eating fish, and I think transport and handling was part of the problem. There were not many restaurants opening that were dedicated to seafood. Then more and more, people began to love sushi and consume more fish on a weekly and in some cases, daily basis. That’s been the biggest change.
An ongoing concern about fish stocks must have some impact on the food you serve. How do you view this and how does it affect your business?
We are very concerned about the issue of sustainability and about the quality and integrity of the food we serve. We have salmon that is organic, farm-raised in Scotland, that we use, and the rest is wild. We try to be sustainable in everything we do at Le Bernardin.
Are there any ingredients that you particularly enjoy working with? Why?
Black truffles and caviar! They are two of my favorite ingredients to eat as well!
What, if any, seems to be the most popular fish with your guests? Why do you think this is?
Ten years ago, I would have said salmon or tuna, but today, people are more adventurous. We sell every species of fish on our menu quite easily.
Is there any one dish or dishes that are always on the menu?
We try not to have signature dishes, and we try to change the menu as much as we can. If you look at the menu after a year, you’ll realize that 90 percent of it has changed. I always like to evolve with the seasons, as well as take inspiration from the discoveries we make — whether it’s traveling, studying new techniques, etc.
The old rule used to be “white wine with seafood.” That’s no longer true. Can you tell us about how that has changed, what wines you like with seafood and about how you shape the wine list at Le Bernardin?
It’s true — red wine goes fantastic with fish. It depends on the type of fish and the way in which it is prepared. At Le Bernardin, when we are coming up with a new dish, the kitchen and I work very closely with Aldo Sohm, our chef sommelier, to create a wine pairing for the dish. It can go through several rounds before we decide on the perfect wine to accompany the dish. The sauce in the dish is a big factor in deciding if it should be a red or a white, and both red and white wines are equally considered before resting on a final pick. Me, I would happily drink Bordeaux with everything!
If you were to make just one dish for yourself, what would it be?
Scrambled egg with black truffle!
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