There’s a good argument to be made that Eric Ripert is among the preeminent seafood chefs in world. Certainly in the world of Western cuisine, though I’m virtually certain he would disclaim any such accolade. His flagship restaurant, Le Bernardin, in midtown Manhattan, has been at the top of the seafood game for decades—its three Michelin stars make it, by at least that one measure, among the very best restaurants in New York City.
Owing both to his own substantial success as a chef and his connection with the late Anthony Bourdain—their friendship was featured in caricatured form over more than a decade on the late chef and TV host’s shows—he has achieved a level of fame to which most of the world’s top chefs will only ever aspire. Which is why when this landlubber (pirate sic) had the opportunity to sit down with Ripert at the Ritz Carlton in Grand Cayman—home to his other seafood-forward joint, Blue—to talk food, fish, and more, I leaped at the opportunity.
Seafood holds an interesting place in my life — I grew up in eastern Oklahoma and although my father is an excellent cook and a seafood lover, and I’ve since lived all over the world, mostly near an ocean, the gene seems to have skipped a generation. I’ll almost always reach for anything but an animal that once lived in the water. But when Eric Ripert is excited about something it’s very easy to share that buzz — so I came at him ready for a very seafood-focused chat.
One more note — at the time of my interview with Ripert, I’d spent the morning kayaking around the mangroves accessible right outside the back of the Ritz. I was late coming back, so I ran to my room for a lightning-fast shower and shave, then ran down to the bar to wait for the chef who found me sitting at a table with my notepad, dabbing vodka on my neck.
I know this looks really weird. I don’t have any aftershave, so I just bought a shot of vodka and … well, that’s why I’m dabbing a shot of vodka on my neck.
Old traveler’s trick….
How was your afternoon?
My afternoon is good. I was just in the kitchen and came up to see you.
Do you have a favorite knife?
[Long pause.] No. I do not. I have many different knives that I enjoy very much. But knives are very different depending on what you are doing, depending on the use. So I have some Takamura knives, which are made in Japan by the Takamura brothers, where I went to take my knives from the factory. It takes them three to four years to make a knife. The blade is all sculpted. So those knives could be my favorite, but they are not, because I don’t use them that much — though they are very special to me.
I use a lot of a brand called MAC. It’s Japanese, made in Japan as well but it’s designed for Westerners. The way Western chefs use the knife is very different from the Japanese. The cuts are different. I like MAC a lot but at home, I have some Wüstoffs for the family and myself, which I think are my favorite to share with the family. And again I have many, many different obscure Japanese names, so… I have a lot of knives.
What is your process for creating a new dish, evaluating progress, and coming up with ideas?
Creativity is very difficult. It’s not difficult in itself, but it’s very difficult to know when you can be creative and when you’re not gonna be creative. I mean, you cannot push a button and say, “I’m creative” and push a button to say “I’m stopping to be creative.” So you basically have to create a certain soil for creativity where your ideas are going to come out, like seeds.
I have the luck to live in New York, which is, as you know, a melting pot of cultures. It’s basically the UN in the street. And I interact with a lot of chefs from other countries. I see different products from other countries. I learn different techniques; new flavors. And I have the luck to travel. I go to Asia or the Caribbean or Europe. I was in Italy this summer. I basically absorb a lot when I go in the streets. I don’t necessarily force myself to come up with ideas. It’s the period when I’m absorbing.
And when I come back, I carry a paper with me very often, or next to my bed, and ideas for me come whenever they want. It’s a visual flash for me. It’s hard to say that I see the flavors and I see the dish—it comes as a visual flash. And a lot of friends of mine have a different way of getting creative. Some of them are very particular and very organized and take notes on plants. And me, I wait for the flash.
Can you describe that visual flash in detail?
I’m gonna describe for you something interesting. I was in Sweden a long time ago and I was eating with a friend of mine, who is creative too, he is a chef, and we were eating in a restaurant and they gave us, I remember, deer, rare, cooked very rare. And it was flat on the plate and it was an appetizer, and I had a flash of tuna carpaccio with foie gras. But it hits me in the head so strongly that my friend could feel it. And he told me, he said, “I know what you’re thinking of?”
I said, “What am I thinking of?”
He said, “You’re thinking of tuna carpaccio.
I said, “How do you know!?”
He said it was so strong. He said, “I’m gonna do it before you.”
At the time he was a chef in San Francisco, at Aqua, a two-star Michelin.
And I said, “Well I’m gonna do it before, I know how to make it. I had the flash.”
So I took some notes and went back to New York, and in one shot the dish came out. Sometimes I have a flash and the dish never comes out because it’s a mediocre idea—intellectually it makes sense but when you put it on the table or start to work with the ingredients, it doesn’t work. Sometimes it takes me years and years from the idea to create the dish. Sometimes it takes a week. Sometimes in one shot. But that one was one shot and that is exactly the perfect description. And that dish became a signature dish of Blue and Le Bernardin.
What do you like to cook for your friends and family?
Depends on the season…
Or I should start by asking, do you like to cook for your friends and family?
Yes, haha, I do. I do on the weekend because during the week I am at the restaurant. And I try to always go out one day and the second day I cook. So like I said it depends on the season. I have a country house in Long Island. Two hours from New York, next to Montauk. We have a lot of farms there in the summer, so I have a tendency to go to the farm stands in the morning and buy way too many things. My cooking is a lot about vegetables. And I do a lot of different preparations and recipes.
We put it in the middle of a long table and we invite friends. It’s very convivial, we share. It’s casual but very, very vegetable oriented. In the winter, a lot of braised meats, and coq au vin, chicken braised in red wine. And sometimes I just want to cook fish like at the restaurant. But my cooking is very different from at the restaurant — it’s never like fine dining type cooking, it’s more like home food. Home cooking.
Speaking of vegetables, I wonder if you feel like a vegetable stock can ever achieve the depth of a—
of a meat stock?
Yes. absolutely. Absolutely it can. You have to use ingredients that have a lot of umami, or that brings a lot of flavors that are, like, coming from the soil. For instance, if you do a broth and you want to have meat flavors, a little bit of soy sauce, some mushroom, dried, fresh. And then if you really want to make it even richer and really seal those flavors and make it meaty, you put a little bit of lentils. The starch of the lentils and the iron that is in the vegetables—the lentils have the characteristic of bringing some artificial, natural obviously, meaty flavor, like coming from a beef flavor. So you can do that, absolutely.
Maybe a somewhat related question. Has Buddhism influenced your cooking at all? Or influenced you as a chef?
Yes, in many ways. Also it’s a conflict for me because I have a seafood restaurant so we kill animals to feed happy people, but I decided that I have two possibilities. I go completely vegan with the restaurant, and I believe it would be very challenging for us to do that after being so famous for seafood, and we could take the risk of closing and not making a difference in the world because nobody would care. So what I did, I created a vegetarian menu that changes with the seasons or when we have good ideas.
I also did a book, a cookbook called Vegetable Simple to basically compensate a little bit for what I’m doing with the rest of the ingredients, which are many seafoods. So I’m a little conflicted, but yes. Buddhism has changed the way I cook. Because I understand more the meditative process when I’m cooking, which is to be in the present, not think about the past, and not think about the future. It’s very much in this moment now. And the respect of cooks for all animals the respect for the planet and even plants and so on. I have much more appreciation today than when I started my career when I was not a Buddhist. And also cooking at the restaurant is different than cooking by myself, and Buddhism helps me to interact with my team, and—in a very secular way, I’m not trying to convert the team to Buddhism, that would be wrong—but whenever I think it’s something that makes us a better person or makes a better ambiance for a person to blossom, I basically used the teaching, find ways to deliver the message in a different secular way and that has changed my way of also cooking with my team.
The stereotype of a kitchen is that there’s a militaristic, regimented hierarchy; a lot of negativity from chefs, anger, throwing pans around, and that sort of thing.
Yes. Until you realize that anger is not a quality, it’s a weakness, you’re in trouble. And your team will not like you and will not enjoy their experience. If you come by tonight at Blue, come by at any moment at your leisure, you’re gonna see a kitchen that is very peaceful. [NOTE: I did. It was.]
Doesn’t mean that we don’t have stress, because of course we have stress, but we manage it. We make sure that the ambiance in the kitchen is good because even if you are just selfish and you want your team to be very efficient, a cook who is shaking like that and is afraid is not gonna cook better than a guy who is very precise and inspired and enjoys what he’s doing. Yeah, kitchens are by definition a hostile environment because sometimes it’s wet it’s very humid, it’s very hot, there are a lot of sharp objects, but we are in this field because we love what we do and with all the adrenaline and the rush that we have during the service and so on. You can be in this environment and direct a kitchen in a kind way. When I say in a kind way, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have to be firm. And it doesn’t mean that if someone burns the fish three times you gonna say, “Listen it would be very nice if you don’t burn it.”
You have to be firm, you are in the leading position as a chef but it’s understood that it’s a lot of kindness between us, a lot of respect, and obviously compassion. But compassion doesn’t mean that you have to close your eyes and accept everything. A compassionate attitude is a respectful attitude and thinking about the well-being of the cooks or waiters.
I grew up in Oklahoma, in the middle of the United States, not eating very much seafood and for the longest time, I just thought I didn’t like seafood at all. There’s that fishy taste in particular that some fish has that to me is extremely off-putting. But the other day here at the Ritz in Grand Cayman I had this red snapper that is, I think, local to here, and I’ve had it at every meal since, and it’s like a revelation.
So, fish, first of all, should never smell fishy, and should never taste fishy. When fish is very fresh it’s basically like smelling—it’s almost like smelling, but also in the form of eating, it’s like high tide in the ocean when you are walking, and it’s like pure waters, and it’s windy, and you walk and the salt and the wind brings the smell of the ocean to you. It’s very pleasant. That’s what you should recognize in a fish.
As soon as a fish starts to get older fishiness increases and very fishy fish is a very old fish. So very often people don’t have access to very fresh fish, so, therefore, they think fish is fishy but fish is not fishy.
What is fresh to you?
It all depends. Usually fresh is within 24 hours — when you catch the fish and keep it in very good conditions. Keeping it in good condition means understanding that it has to stay cold temperatures and many other techniques that we use to make sure that in a quick manner we process the fish and it’s served to you. But some fish, like if you eat skate, for instance, you eat the muscle of the wing. If you eat it too fresh, they are too tough, you cannot eat them, so you have to let them relax for a few days.
But most of the time within 24 hours.
Is there a particular fish that you like to cook?
It’s like asking a father what’s your favorite child. So I do not really. Every fish has different characteristics. I love lobster. I love scallops. Those are not fish but they are in the seafood category. I love tuna, but the snapper you had is delicious. I don’t really.
Is there something at Blue, in particular, you’d be excited about me experiencing?
Tonight I want you to try the carpaccio of tuna with foil gras. Make an effort. If you don’t like it we’ll give you something else. But that way you can relate to my story. I think you should take that shot.