Chef Eric Ripert feeds the world's most discerning clientele at four-star stunner, Le Bernadin, but that does not prevent him from helping out those for whom every meal is greatly appreciated. After announcing he is donating $1 for every customer served and On the Line book sold - an estimated $100,000 by the end of 2009 - to City Harvest, he discussed how being a bad student led him to the craftsmanship of cooking.
LM: What initially attracted you to work with City Harvest?
ER: I love the simplicity and the logic of the mission of City Harvest: feed hungry people -- not 5,000 miles away -- but here at home. I think that the perception of City Harvest is that it is only feeding homeless. What is important to know is that there are a lot of families in New York with incomes, with houses, who don't have enough money to feed themselves properly.
LM: You've said it's necessary to look like a chef. In your mind, what does a chef look like?
ER: When I see someone who has responsibilities, most of the time I can pinpoint that person because of the way he carries himself. The way a chef walks in his kitchen is very different from the way a cook walks in that kitchen, with the level of confidence and the level of authority. Chefs are leaders in their own little world. I think it's very important to carry yourself and to express yourself in a certain way so that everybody understands you're in charge -- that's what I was referring to. It doesn't mean the chef is the strongest man in the kitchen or the smartest. Leadership is about sensitivity too. It's not necessarily about being hardcore or bullish.
LM: How you think the role of the chef has changed since you started thanks to the Food Network and shows like Top Chef? How has it changed for people starting out who want to become chefs? Or how have people's perceptions changed?
ER: When I started, chefs were not a glamorous profession. Everybody liked the chef in the restaurant because they wanted to eat well, but outside of that there was not much recognition. Basically when you were a bad student or there was not much hope for you to go to college, your parents or whoever was in charge, was trying to get you somewhere where you'd eat all the time. From that day it has obviously evolved -- today it is highly regarded. Though there's not too much glamour when you're cutting carrots, it's perceived as a glamorous industry.
LM: Were you a "bad" student growing up?
ER: Yes, I was a terrible student and at age 14 I was forced to go to a professional school. To my delight, I chose culinary school.
LM: Do you think a chef is more of an artist, or a scientist, or someone who needs to be able to handle relationships?
ER: It's a combination of a lot of things obviously, but it's craftsmanship to begin with. The artistry eventually comes later for some of the chefs. The artistry component comes for the ones who are lucky enough to not just focus on feeding people who are hungry, but the ones who are creating experiences for their clientele.
LM: When in your career do you think you crossed the line from just feeding people to creating experiences for your clientele?
ER: When I started at Le Bernardin is when I really, for the first time in my life, was in charge of a kitchen, and I could integrate artistry into the craftsmanship that cooking is.
LM: With economy the way it is, do you predict any changes in either the food or the way people eat in 2009?
ER: I think some restaurants will benefit and some restaurants are suffering from the slowdown in the economy. I am convinced that if you serve great value, people will come to you. When everything goes fine, people are taking risks to eventually have a bad night and lose $200. But, when you only have $100 to spend, or $200 to spend, or whatever you're spending, you really want the maximum for your money. Therefore whoever promises quality in my industry will benefit.
LM: Over the course of the past year, people increasingly care where their food is coming from, whether it's a locally grown pig, or a heritage breed pig. Do you think that will change in the future or is that a trend that will stay?
ER: I think it is a trend that will stay longer. Everybody wants to support his own region and economy and farming. If we can preserve the land and if we can preserve the ocean, we all know, deep inside that we're doing the right thing.
LM: What specifically are you and Le Bernardin doing to preserve the land and the ocean?
ER: We list on our menu some of the species that are endangered in support of the NRDC and Seaweb campaigns to combat overfishing. We also carefully source our fish and work with long-time trusted purveyors who sell us wild and line-caught fish.
LM: What inspires you on a daily basis or overall?
ER: It's a little bit of everything. Creativity cannot be controlled like: I press a button, I'm creative. I press a button, I'm not. It's a constant state of mind and inspiration for me comes from my experiences with the outside world, which is either traveling or eating in other places or being in contact with other new ingredients or quality ingredients that trigger inspiration.
LM: Could you name one dish, one meal, or one trip you've taken this past year that directly inspired something you added to Le Bernardin's menu?
ER: I was traveling in India in March 2008, and afterward I spent some time playing with Indian ingredients -- it was an inspiring trip. Later in the fall of 2008, this experimentation resulted in a dish that I put on the menu: baked codfish with green mango salad, red lentil stew, and yogurt sauce.
LM: Any new ingredients that you're excited to use in 2009?
ER: I'm very excited right now because it's the black truffle season. It's the most esoterical ingredient on the planet with the white truffle season over. We are experimenting with a very unusual combination of flavors that complement the black truffle. To our big surprise, anchovies are a great match.
LM: Any chefs in New York that are either up-and-coming that you're excited to watch or any chefs that you learn from?
ER: One chef that I'm very impressed with is the success is David Chang. He is very fast and very talented, and someone I am very inspired by and admire. And of course, my old friends Daniel [Boulud] and Jean-Georges [Vongerichten], the usual suspects.