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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: What is this thing you’re doing with Tony on Friday?
ER: (Laughs). Well, Tony and I are in Washington, and we are talking and interacting with the crowd. Tony has some subjects that he wants to talk about, and I have some subjects that I want to talk about, too. Many times we have different opinions, and then we would have questions/answers with the public.
Y&H: Do you share your subject ideas with each other? Does Tony know what you’re going to bring up and do you know what Tony’s going to bring up? Or do you want to surprise each other?
ER: We don’t necessarily prepare ourselves. Also, someone is going to monitor. It will be a gentleman who has also his own questions for Tony and myself.…It’s coming from everywhere, but we’ll make sure it’s cohesive with the person moderating the discussion. When we will go to the question/answer, that will be a direct dialogue with the crowd.
Y&H: Who’s the moderator?
ER: The moderator is a deejay from Washington. I don’t know his name.
Y&H: A deejay?! You couldn’t get Joe Yonan or somebody like that?
ER: Maybe deejay isn’t the right name. Yeah, he’s a deejay, on the radio obviously…Tommy McFly from WRQX-FM, Mix 107.3.
Y&H: You started out your career under Jean-Louis Palladin [at the Watergate in D.C.]. How demanding was he? Give us your worst story.
ER: Well, I didn’t start my career with him. But my first chef in America was Jean-Louis Palladin. I started my career in Paris much earlier than that. However, Jean-Louis was very demanding, you’re right, and not necessarily seemed easy to work with in the kitchen. He loved to scream. He was a screamer, not in a malicious way. He was a very friendly man, very generous man. However, he loved to scream in the kitchen. In the beginning when I came, I didn’t speak any English, and I thought, ‘Oh, wow, lucky me!’ Because the guy is French. Of course, he wanted me to learn English quickly, so he spoke to me only in English, and it created some very, very bad misunderstandings between him and I. For instance, he would be expecting fish coming from my station, and I would be throwing something completely different. And then he would be screaming, and I wouldn’t understand what he said. So the beginning was very rock ‘n’ roll.
Y&H: I can only imagine, if you didn’t understand what the problem was.
ER: I was like, ‘Why is he not speaking in French’? (Laughs.) He was not explaining to me also the system, you know, like every kitchen has a system or an organization. I was coming from Paris, from a big team; he had a smaller team. We were much more hands-on. It was very difficult for me. The relationship in the beginning was very tense, and then we finally developed a friendship later on that became a very strong friendship.
Y&H: How did you win him over?
ER: Well, I quit. (Laughs.) I quit, and I thought he was unfair. He came to the locker room where I was changing and, basically, living. We had a discussion in the locker room…I said to him, ‘I think you’re very unfair, and I don’t want to work for someone who doesn’t enjoy working with me and who’s unfair.’ He said to me, ‘You know, you’re coming from one of the best chefs in the world [Joël Robuchon], and you haven’t shown anything to me, either.’ So we obviously argued a lot in that locker room, and then we finally (garbled on tape). I went back to the kitchen, and from that day on, we were working as a team.”
Y&H: Things have changed a lot in D.C. in the time since you were a professional working in the kitchen here. I’d be curious on your assessment of the D.C. dining scene.
ER: It’s much more diverse, as you know, a lot of talent in D.C. It’s attracting talent from outside as well. It’s a very vibrant and dynamic scene right now. When I was in D.C. in 1989-1990, it [had] obviously less restaurants, less talent. It was less exciting. However, it didn’t matter to me because I didn’t have the money and time to go anywhere. But the city has changed tremendously.
Y&H: Now, do you think that’s because people are after our money or do they think we actually have palates down here?
ER: Awww, hold on. Forget that one. We’re the people who are after your money! (Laughs.) No, I don’t think you should see it like that, because a restaurateur or chef who comes to D.C. is not (garbled on tape) the population. He’s basically opening a place where he thinks people are going to enjoy and have a good time. It’s not an obligation to support that restaurant. Whoever comes to D.C. believes that it’s an interesting dynamic…In our industry, we don’t necessarily always think money, although we have to be sustainable to stay in business, but we do a lot of things with passion or by passion.
Y&H: I don’t doubt that. I understand that you can’t do it without having the passion…
ER: In terms of finance of a restaurant, it’s totally insane. Everybody should do another job.
Y&H: Exactly. But the passion is not the reason people come to D.C., though. It’s motivates them…
ER: People and myself, I came back to D.C. because it’s a city that is energetic. It’s like a trend of people going out, and people eat much more outside than they used to. There’s a lot of good energy because other talented people are there. Obviously competition is very positive, because it makes you better. It motivates you. And I think the city today is attracting big players from outside, and it’s promoting its own talent, its own chefs who are doing their small restaurants or who are cooking the cuisine that they like.
Y&H: Are there any [restaurants] outside the celebrity chef family that you have eaten in D.C that you’ve enjoyed?
ER: Well, I always eat with my friends. Well, yeah, actually, you know what? I enjoy very much Bistro Français in Georgetown. I’ve known them since 1989 and 1990, and they do a fantastic job in terms of value and food. It’s very honest, great product in terms of quality. I’m even questioning how they make money there.
Y&H: They’ve always been sort of a late-night chefs’ hang-out, have they not?
ER: Ooh, I think more than just chefs. Clubbers. (Laughs.)
Y&H: You talk about the passion that it takes to run a restaurant…What does it take to maintain four stars for so long [at Le Bernardin]?
ER: It’s takes, like I said, passion, hard work. You have to be able to create a team that supports you, and that team has to be with you for a long time, to understand what you want. You have to create a relationship with your purveyors to get the very, very best product. You have to be very focused and creative. It’s a lot of little details that make a restaurant a four-star. The difference is in the details. And the consistency.
Y&H: The way I’ve always thought of it is, there has to be a captain or a couple of lieutenants that know how to run the ship and don’t let any sort of cracks appear…
ER: Yes, of course. You see, for instance, my chef in my kitchen is with me, I think, for 18 years. And my executive sous chef, I think, for 17 years. Our saucier, 20-something years. We have very small turnover in the kitchen. In the dining room, our maître d’ has been with us for about the same time, 18 years, 17 years. We have captains who are here for 15 years. We have promoted people who are actually working in a dishwashing station to captains in the dining room. We have promoted some of them in our kitchen to higher ranked positions and so on. What we create here is an atmosphere for the staff, for the team, that is going to make them happy. Obviously, they prefer to be on vacation, but if they have to work, they want to work here. We create other incentives, which are, considering the industry, normal hours, kind of normal hours. Very good salaries, a lot of respect toward them, a lot of interaction with them, a lot of nurturing. We work in collaboration to create the menus. We have a lady who’s dedicated to research and research ingredients and research techniques…So we create something interesting for everyone here, and that allows us to deliver the best we can.
Y&H: I guess that longevity in the kitchen helps you to pursue other things that you need to do or want to do, like open other restaurants or do your TV show [Avec Eric on PBS].
ER: Yes, yes, of course it does. Absolutely. And it brings a certain level of confidence that, if I’m talking to you on the phone and we have diners upstairs, I trust the guy with me for 18 years to know what I want. Obviously, you would be a serious idiot if you didn’t.
Y&H: Speaking of the TV show, why did you decide to go the PBS route instead of, like, the Food Network route?
ER: First of all, I’m not an entertainer, and I didn’t want to be an entertainer. I want to be inspirational, because I am inspired by my lifestyle of being a chef….I wanted to do it at my own pace, without any pressure of the network wanting me to be someone that I don’t want to be. So PBS created the perfect setting for us to be able to do a show that we really like, that inspires us and that, ultimately I believe, will inspire the viewer.
Y&H: What were your feelings about the first season?
ER: I like very much what we did during the first season, and now we’re shooting the second season, and we’re going to have actually more episodes. We’re going to have 13 episodes.
Y&H: Can you give us a hint of what you’re going to do in those 13 episodes?
ER: A little of the same format as the first season. We’re starting the show in the kitchen of Le Bernardin, then I’m traveling for inspiration, then I come back to my kitchen to cook for the viewer, something that is connected to the trip and Le Bernardin. But obviously what I’m cooking is something that you can do at home pretty easily. You don’t have to be a chef or you don’t have to search for produce. It’s pretty simple to find.
Y&H: You don’t need agar agar?
ER: No agar agar.
Look for the part two of our interview tomorrow.