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In advance of his appearance on Friday evening at the Warner Theater with Anthony Bourdain, Y&H conducted an interview with Eric Ripert, the man who has held four stars from the New York Times longer than any other chef in Manhattan. Ripert, I should add, is also classy, slyly funny, and unflappable, as you’ll see from this two-part interview. You can purchase tickets to the Bourdain-Ripert event here.
Y&H: You’ve been a chef in the pre-online world and right in the middle of the online world. What’s your take on food bloggers and instant food critics and how has that changed the way perhaps restaurateurs and chefs work?
ER: I think it has changed much more the journalistic world than my world. (Laughs.)
Y&H: Well, that’s true. I can attest to that.
ER: You know, some bloggers are credible and have created a certain following. Some bloggers have no credibility whatsoever, and then naturally they limit themselves from the scene of the bloggers. I think the more people talk about their experience, the more we learn, the more we understand what people feel. We have a relationship with our clients in the dining room. It’s not like someone comes and nobody is asking, ‘How was the experience?’ So we already have a little bit of feedback. It’s basically additional feedback from the blogs. I see that with a very positive eye. It doesn’t bother me at all. I think it’s a good thing to have people writing about their experience, and to have some blogs which are, like, more kind of official….I have no complaints at all.
Y&H: Do you read any particular blogs and then take some of their advice to heart?
ER: Occasionally, I’m going on the usual suspects like Eater and Grub Street, and so on. Sometimes I’m looking at the comments and sometimes the comments are right. When I’m saying they are ‘right,’ they may be positive, obviously, but they may also be not as positive. And sometimes it’s just like people venting and lying, and it’s OK.
Y&H: As I’m sure you know, your colleague on Top Chef, Tom Colicchio, is no fan of Eater.com. Where do you stand on that particular site?
ER: I have no problem with Eater at all. Again, it’s an opinion, and today, opinions, through the Web, it’s a much more democratic process than it used to be. Now, I still believe strongly that food critics are very relevant…but I don’t mind the democratic process of anyone being able to say what he has to say. Sometimes it hurts, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it makes me laugh. Sometimes, I’m learning something. I’m very open to it.
Y&H: Top Chef. You guys just finished filming down here in D.C. You were, I guess, a guest judge for this particular season.
ER: For part of the season. I’m replacing Gail Simmons when she’s not there.
Y&H: So how many episodes were you in?
ER: I don’t remember. Around six or seven or maybe eight. Something like that.
Y&H: Can you give us any hint of some of the challenges they did in D.C.?
ER: For sure. We shot, which I believe was amazing considering the location, we shot at the CIA. I mean, that’s a pretty big deal, which I was, even myself, totally surprised that we could shoot with the director of the CIA in his executive dining room. Leon Panetta, I think, is his name. That was, I thought, a big deal.
Y&H: What was the challenge?
ER: I cannot say the challenge.
Y&H: OK, did you have to get a high-security clearance?
ER: Yeah, big time, and that should reassure everybody. (Laughs.)
Y&H: I wanted to ask you about fine dining in general. Where do you think we’re at culturally with fine dining? Do see that it’s peaked and is starting to decline? And casual eating is where people are at?
ER: I am disagreeing with people who think that fine dining is not doing well or going down. I have a lot of arguments to disagree with…I’m talking about New York, because I don’t have a fine dining restaurant anywhere else. But in New York, in 2009, in the year of the great recession, when everybody was really scared of the year, the first week of January, we announced that we will give, for every person coming to Le Bernardin, $1 to a foundation called City Harvest. That is dedicated to serve food shelters, because we wanted to be involved in the community. I was hoping, without really doing some studies of numbers and so on, but I was hoping to give them about $100,000, which means 100,000 people. We were able to give them $93,000. To me, when you have 93,000 people coming in the door, it means your restaurant is busy and successful. Fine dining in New York is doing very well, and the reason it’s doing very well is because it’s a very transient city. It’s a lot of people passing by…tourists, business people. You have also a very strong, educated, wealthy clientele. At the end of the day, you can very well love to go see a concert of U2 and then, a week later, go see the opera…So it’s the same for restaurants. I think a lot of people like to go to casual concepts, but plenty of people like to go to places like us, for celebrations, for having great food, for doing business, or XYZ reasons. My conclusion is that fine dining is not endangered, and fine dining is doing well. I mean, I see my competition. I look at Daniel and Jean Georges and Thomas Keller, and they’re doing well, too. When I started at Le Bernardin in 1991, we were about, I believe, 80 employees. Today, we are about 130 employees. We don’t hire people just to hire. [We hire] because we need them. The restaurants are busy.
Y&H: So there’s been no sort of revenue drop-off at any point for you during the recession?
ER: Of course. 2007 was a record year. It was the bubble. It was absolutely insane, and then last year, we were minus nine percent compared to that, which is very manageable.
Y&H: This is a little bit out of your area of knowledge, but I’d love to get your opinion because Fabio Trabocchi obviously worked in D.C. and was beloved by many diners here. Do you have any sense why Trabocchi didn’t work out at the Four Seasons?
ER: Ahh, no. (Laughs.)
Y&H: Do you have opinions but you’re not willing to share them?
ER: I mean, I have no idea. It’s a given that he’s very talented. Everybody knows in my industry that he’s talented. He proved it in Washington. Four Seasons is an institution. It’s a restaurant that’s been there for a long, long time. They have a soul and they have a style. It seems to me that they had to have time to integrate it further or to understand each other. But I never talked to Fabio, and I never ate his food at the Four Seasons and never talked to the Four Seasons about Fabio…I really don’t know what happened there.
Y&H: Let me ask you about something closer to home. The Westend Bistro. There was a lot of speculation over why the sudden chef change. Can you say for the record what really happened?
ER: (Long pause.) No. (Laughs.)
Y&H: That’s perfect. That says everything you need to say.
ER: It was an internal decision that we took, and we took it in collaboration and we changed the chef. And today, Leo [Marino], who was our chef at the time, is working for Jean Georges in New York.
Y&H: You keep in touch with him?
ER: Yeah, yeah.
Y&H: So you’re still on friendly terms with him?
ER: Polite. (Laughs.)
Y&H: Oh, you are subtle. All right, I’m just about done with my questions. I appreciate your time.
ER: You’re very welcome.
Y&H: A couple of just silly questions here at the end. What dining trend would you like to see end?
ER: Hmmm, that’s a good one. I don’t know if I’d like anything to end. I just don’t go to the places that I don’t really like the food. I’m not a fan of tofu. It doesn’t mean that tofu is not good. A lot of people love it. I don’t go to a place that serves tofu. In New York, we have a restaurant that specializes only in tofu, so I don’t go there. (Laughs.) Then in terms of trends, I think some restaurants serve items that I’m tired of…Like pork belly. I ate so much pork belly the last few years that I’m done. I’m not saying it’s wrong, but it’s not for me any longer.
Y&H: Do you ever get tired of people calling you handsome?
ER: I don’t care. I seriously don’t care, because at the end of day, it doesn’t matter in the kitchen. I’d rather have them call me “handsome” than ugly. (Laughs.)
Y&H: This is true. You know, it gets brought up all the time in interviews that I’ve read. You don’t pay attention to it?
ER: No, I don’t. I don’t at all. I have never. Look, obviously, I don’t want to be fat, bald, and ugly, but I don’t care.
Y&H: Last question. I read something, and I was a little surprised, that said you enjoy a good tequila.
ER: Yes, I enjoy a good tequila.
Y&H: What is your favorite tequila?
ER: Well, lately I have discovered a new one, called Casa Dragones, which I like very much…It’s an artisanal tequila. It’s basically a silver, and I drink that very often. And then on the weekend, I like a Don Julio 1942.
Y&H: What I like about the fact that you like tequila is that there are some people, I think, who still view tequila as a rather…
ER: Something to get drunk fast… No, I sip tequila and I enjoy it. And I have tequila every night. But I don’t have a bottle. I have a bit of tequila every night. I don’t drink it like a shot. I sip my tequila.