Chef lives through flying knives and failed sauces


Eric Ripert writes of profound loss, a tumultuous childhood, and physical and mental abuse in his memoirs. Photo: aveceric.com

Since opening in 1986, Le Bernardin in New York City has been one of the most lauded restaurants in the world, and Eric Ripert, who has helmed the kitchen for the past 25 years, one of the most well-liked and respected chefs in the industry.

His memoir, 32 Yolks (Random House), may not be what you’d expect from a charming, Emmy-winning chef and cookbook author. There are, of course, scenes of elaborate meals both eaten and prepared. But Ripert’s story is for the most part one of profound loss, a tumultuous childhood and abuse, both mental and physical.

We spoke with him by phone about why he decided to write the memoir, the moment he became a real chef and all those egg yolks.

Why write a memoir? And why now?

I did five cookbooks, and I wanted to kind of leave an inspirational legacy. I think I am the right age now, being 50-plus, to be ready for that.

I wrote the book with Veronica Chambers. We worked together for two and something years because it’s not like I micromanage, but I was very involved in the details for credibility reasons. Because the book at times is – not controversial, but there are kind of sensitive subjects and therefore I wanted to be ultra-precise.

str2_tns32yolks_jg_1Why choose the time frame you did, from a young age to just before you come to America?

So this was an idea from Random House to start when I was very young. And for some reason, I have amazing memories from age 3 and 4, and during my youth and so on. And the idea was to stop when coming to America, stop at the airport when I’m about to enter the plane. Random House said the rest is pretty well documented, so let’s focus on your early career, that’s what’s interesting to us. Because we want to know what triggered in you a desire and the passion for becoming a chef.

The attention to detail in the book is impressive. Did you keep a diary?

I have this incredible memory because I didn’t take any notes, no diary, no nothing. There is one scene where I’m throwing brain across the room using a spoon like a catapult. I was 3, and I remember this moment vividly.

The book gets very personal quickly; you talk about abuse in many forms. Was that difficult for you?

I’m very open about it. I never talk about it because I think it will be odd for me to start conversations with friends and say, “Oh, by the way, I was abused by a priest.” It’s not the kind of thing you bring up. But I never hide it. If the subject comes up I’m very open about it and during the process of the book it was not a painful psychological setback. But when I read the memoir in full when it was finally done, suddenly everything came back. I was like wow, my childhood was challenging. It’s not like I don’t know that, but I didn’t realise how intense it was until I saw it on paper.

You talk a lot about the influence of your mother’s cooking in the book. Which of her meals do you still make today?

Three dishes that I really love from my mum I make at home sometimes: The souffle that she used to make for me was amazing. The second one is steak au poivre, and the tarte tartine. And the Vietnamese spring rolls .... If I visit my mum I ask her to do it as well. I see her at least once a year.

Chef Eric Ripert
Chef Eric Ripert

You discuss a lot of mishaps in the kitchen; why choose your experience with 32 yolks as the title?

Because it’s a defining moment in my career. I went from a young cook who thinks he’s a cook to a real professional, a young professional who can handle three-star Michelin kitchen, which was a standout at the time. The 32 yolks are that moment of not mastering hollandaise, then being able to do it. It was a very important moment because physically I was not able. I was not strong enough, not able to handle the heat on top of not having enough strength in my arms. I didn’t have the knowledge to do 32 yolks in a zabaglione or make hollandaise. I thought I had it, but it was more theoretical at school. Thirty-two yolks was the pivotal moment I went from believing I was a cook to being a cook.

You write of the elation you felt being part of the team that helped Joël Robuchon earn his first three Michelin stars. How did it compare to when you earned your first three?

At the time I was young and Michelin in France was an obsession in every restaurant that was striving for perfection. And we knew that we had the potential, and that was the ultimate reward. When it happened the team went crazy. When Michelin came to the United States, I knew the impact obviously; I lived with it, I grew up with it. It was something new for America. I had to explain to the team that it was a big deal at the time. As soon as we got the three stars we celebrated like crazy. I think we celebrated basically all night. There were magnums of Champagne and cans of caviar.

You talk at length about working for Robuchon. Are you worried about what he will think?

I sent him a book and wrote in the book for him that I’m very grateful for him, and if I am today where I am it is mainly because of his influence, and I consider him a mentor. He helped me in my career a lot. Obviously, the book saw that he was extremely demanding on himself first and then on us the team. You know in the 1980s, the way kitchens were run, it’s what we call the old-fashioned way. I think he has changed also with the years. I don’t know if he’s going to be happy with the book, I hope so. And what is important is that it was a big difference between dealing with him and some other kitchens where violence was very common in France. I’m talking about physical violence. Pans were flying, and blades. To me it’s the Middle Ages, and I never understood why my industry was in the Middle Ages when everyone else was evolving. And I am almost sure that today things have changed.

What’s next?

Right now, Le Bernardin is my top priority all the time. – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service

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