Cover image: Éric Ripert shares a laugh with Alex Guarnaschelli © Andrew Kist for the Museum of Food and Drink
Bottom Line: Author and Food Network personality Alex Guarnaschelli sat down with Chef Éric Ripert at MOFAD for a rare and intimate discussion of his latest book 32 Yolks: From My Mother’s Table to Working the Line and the influences that shaped both their careers.
Review: Dangling on a chain around his neck, Éric Ripert wears a talisman, a faded copper medal, given to him by a psychic in France, who according to him, had predicted his entire career. She told him that he would one day be in a top kitchen in a city surrounded by water. London or Paris he had thought, but it was in New York City, where he became executive chef of the three-Michelin starred Le Bernardin, one of the country’s top restaurants along with a successful T.V. and writing career.
The story of his childhood may have more to do with his career path than psychic power. He had had the best food upbringing that any aspiring chef could have wished for. His grandparents in Italy and Provence introduced him to quality, rustic cuisine. His father’s vegetable garden gave Éric a taste for locally grown and seasonal ingredients. His mother, an elegant woman and passionate about food, devotedly woke up at 5AM every morning to prepare breakfast. Her impeccable sense of style continues to give him inspiration when plating up one of his Michelin-starred dishes.
Defining moments in chefs’ careers are sometimes dramatic as they tussle in an extremely hostile and dangerous environment.Gordon Ramsay’s daring coup d’état at the two-starred Aubergine in London earned him unprecedented publicity. For Ripert, however, it was a much humbler episode when he began as a commis in a high-end Parisian kitchen. The head of chef asked him to make a hollandaise sauce using 32 yolks. His classical training at catering college failed him that day, and he scrambled the eggs before the chef’s disapproving eyes. In his moment of failure, it taught him to persevere if he were to master his craft. It took him months to finally produce the perfect sauce, while acquiring the nickname “blue shoulders” from the number of punches he got every time he made a mistake. Fellow chef and writer Alex Guarnaschelli also had her story of humiliation. Working under the celebrated Joël Robuchon in Paris, she mistakenly added too much acidity to her beurre blanc turning it into a horrible brown slime. A sympathetic sous-chef tossed it in the bin before the anyone else could see it.
While both Guarnaschelli and Ripert are classically trained, their baptism of fire in the kitchen helped to prepare them for the industry. Through training in the best restaurants, Ripert learned to become a serious chef. To this day, he follows a highly disciplined work regimen. No breakfast, no dinner, but only one meal a day. With his sous-chefs, they taste everything and assess. From there, they determine the level of vibrancy and consistency and how capture the right moment when flavors peak. Little misses his attention when meeting with the front of house and kitchen brigade, always with an inspection of the mise en place. For him, it’s about being fair, not nice, and always focused on motivating the boys in the kitchen.
In spite of Ripert’s phenomenal success as a master chef and TV personality. His childhood memories of taste still continue to inspire him. The snap peas, aubergines and tomatoes from his dad’s garden and the aroma of his mother’s delicious warm apple tarts still happily linger in his thoughts. Rather than reinventing the wheel, he has put his own stamp on traditional French favorites like Croque Monsieur but with a luxurious twist of decadent caviar and smoked salmon – one of Le Bernardin’s signature dishes.
It isn’t always about looking back to find inspiration. Living in the U.S. and his travels to East Asia to countries like Japan and South Korea have further shaped his palette and brought new ideas to his repertoire including: gourmet Vietnamese nems or egg rolls and the addition of Japanese flavors and Korean kimchi spices to newer dishes.
We may never know when Ripert and Guarnaschelli will retire, but both are driven by their upbringing with quality food and working in the some of the toughest environments, ultimately to achieve perfection.
Following the end of the talk at MOFAD, guests queued to chat with the chefs and purchased signed copies of Ripert’s book while enjoying beer and hors d’œuvres.
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