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Eric Ripert: The Philosophy of Balance

Chef Eric Ripert, famously, puts all of his energy into one restaurant: Le Bernardin.
Chef Eric Ripert, famously, puts all of his energy into one restaurant: Le Bernardin. By Courtesy of Nigel Parry
By Thomas A. Ferro, Crimson Staff Writer

Antibes. 1965.

Mornings in Antibes start early. The sea winds that roll through the narrow streets of the old French town warm quickly under the heavy sun. The growing light sinks into the chipped stone houses and their earthen rooftops, warming with the day. Big-bellied pots, also terracotta, host blooms of Indian laurels, hyacinths, and lemon trees and line the narrow streets; the leaves rustle in the fragrant winds.

An old church sits on the sea’s edge.
Lapping waves caress the tall seawall.
Dried salt collects on the windows of the old town.

Chef Eric Ripert was born in Antibes, though he now lives and works almost 4000 miles away from the old sea town. New York City — the condensed island of concrete that stretches toward the same yellow sun — is very different from the south of France, and it’s also where Ripert’s restaurant, Le Bernardin, made its mark.

On the back wall of Le Bernardin’s dining room hangs a large panel depicting a dark, foamy, moving sea. Not the same pale blue waves that crash into old Antibes, but ocean waves; grayed-green swells that hint to the treasures that live beneath; a world out of our reach. A large wavy sculptural installment — alluding to seaweed — adorns another wall.

Other than hosting these subtle reminders of the other world, Le Bernardin resembles a classically Western fine-dining establishment: carpeted floors, low leather chairs, tall ceilings, white tablecloths; reminders of the past, perhaps, though this restaurant seems to exist outside of the normal standards of time and space.

“We are first of all a seafood restaurant.”

At Le Bernardin, “the fish is the star of the plate,” said Ripert in an interview with The Harvard Crimson.

And he’s not exaggerating either. Every component, according to Ripert — whether sauce, vegetable, meat — is meant to “elevate the fish to the next level.”

Ripert’s menu — which is divided into “Almost Raw,” “Barely Touched,” and “Lightly Cooked” ­— speaks to more than just the restaurant’s pescatarian emphasis. Le Bernardin is a shrine to fish, and Ripert has found his own way to demonstrate his reverence for the ingredients: by leaving them alone. His world-famous dishes hardly touch the fish — “the star of the plate” — at all.

While Ripert is a poissonier — or a chef charged with cooking fish — he does not exclude any ingredient from his menu and currently offers a filet mignon, a roast guinea hen, and a truffle pasta, should fish not be of a customer’s taste.

“When you are a chef, you have to love cooking everything. You can’t be selective and say, ‘Oh, I like to cook only this ingredient, and I don’t like those ingredients,’” he said.

“If you have this kind of a state of mind, suddenly, you will not pay attention and respect to the ingredients that you don’t necessarily like.”

Cooking is not an art that serves the chef, but one that serves the ingredients: It attempts to pay homage to nature’s gifts and elevate them to their utmost potential. “You have to like all of the ingredients equally and then apply different techniques to elevate each ingredient.”

Though, Ripert admits, this pursuit of liking to cook everything equally is a difficult one — even he doesn’t entirely follow this philosophy. One thing Ripert doesn’t do, for instance, is pastry; but, he said, “Pastry is very different than cooking, yet it’s much more scientific, in a sense. You really have to follow the recipes carefully because, if not, you don’t get the results.”

Whereas, in cooking, there’s “a lot of improvisation,” Ripert said. “It’s a little bit like playing jazz, if I may, and you can express yourself in many different ways.”

If that’s the case, Ripert has a talent, then, for improvisation — for playing jazz. In his almost thirty years as chef of Le Bernardin, Ripert has maintained the restaurant’s astounding three Michelin Stars, as well as its four New York Times stars (the highest awarded). Just last year, it was ranked as the best restaurant in the world by La Liste for the third time.

Le Bernardin is known around the world for its unforgiving excellence, its icy commitment to perfection.

Le Bernardin is fine dining.

Beginnings.

Though the names Ripert and Le Bernardin go hand-in-hand, Ripert did not start the world-famous establishment. Maguy Le Coze — the co-owner of the restaurant with Ripert today — started the restaurant in Paris in 1972 with her brother, Gilbert Le Coze. With her brother handling the kitchen and her handling the dining room — and the business itself — Le Coze had high aspirations for Le Bernardin.

In a New York Times article, Le Coze recalled her desire to open a restaurant in New York: “To me it was a vision, a spiritual thing, if you believe in those things.”

Le Coze’s vision became reality fairly quickly, and just 14 years after Le Bernardin’s conception in Paris in 1972, Le Coze and her brother moved the restaurant to New York City. The accolades would follow almost immediately.

Then, Gilbert Le Coze suddenly passed away in 1994, and Maguy Le Coze appointed a young Ripert, who had worked with Gilbert, as head chef of Le Bernardin. Since then, Ripert has made Le Bernardin’s kitchen his own.

“I am in the kitchen every day, five days a week, lunch and dinner,” he said.

Food.

Despite creating intricately evocative dishes that maintain the restaurant’s prestige, Ripert has a very simple view on the role of food in the community. “First of all, food is very important because you have to nourish people,” Ripert said.

Ripert is the Vice Chairman of City Harvest, a nonprofit independent organization that combats food insecurity in New York City. City Harvest’s website notes that, “Nearly 1.5 million New Yorkers now experience food insecurity, including one in four children, according to a 2021 analysis by Feeding America.”

Recently, City Harvest started hosting “mobile markets” in food deserts in New York. “So, twice a week, we have a market where we bring — let’s say — four different vegetables and we bring two or three fruits, and people who have a special access card come to the market, and they pick and choose what they need to feed their family.”

“So, therefore, they can cook at home and have the family together around the table,” Ripert said. The importance of food — while based in simple nourishment — builds community; it brings the family to the table.

City Harvest operates with Feeding America, an organization which helps pair the charity with farmers with a surplus of food or food that will soon expire, Ripert explains. Sending trucks to bring the surplus to their facility, City Harvest organizes, sorts, and stores items carefully, before distributing the food. Ripert also notes that City Harvest is financed without government aid, which allows the organization to make its own decisions and move very quickly.

According to Ripert, City Harvest delivers to 400 food pantries and about 100 million pounds of food, per year, in New York City. “Food, first of all, has that function to make sure that people are not hungry and do not become ill and sick and, of course, die of starvation,” Ripert said.

On an ethical and sustainable side, “good practices with food are very important,” Ripert said. “You want to support local farmers as much as you can — small farmers as much as you can — if you can afford to buy organic and local.” But, as Ripert pointed out, that’s often unaffordable. “Because sometimes it's too expensive and you may not have the budget to spend and therefore you cannot do that. But if you have that luxury, I think it's very important to support people who have good practices."

Ripert adapts his menus per season to maintain his emphasis on local produce as much as possible, though there are difficulties presented by the pursuit of locavorism. “We try to use ingredients that are coming in the winter — like root vegetables — but you cannot run a restaurant only with root vegetables, so we have to import during the difficult season.”

And, of course, Ripert does everything in his power to support local fishermen, again putting sustainable practices at the forefront of his model. Most of the species that are served at Le Bernardin, Ripert describes, are from the East Coast. However, some exceptions are made: Some species are caught off the West Coast, and some are flown in, overnight, from Japan.

“We don’t buy fish from factory boats,” Ripert said. “We try not to buy fish from farms either because fish farming has a lot of challenges still, that I dislike, in terms of sustainability, in terms of flavor for the seafood. Also in terms of comfort for the animals — I mean they are packed in those tanks and I don’t really like that. Very often they have antibiotics injected and so on, and even they are genetically modified,” Ripert said.

Besides its most fundamental purpose and the importance of sustainability, personally and culturally, food serves a very different role. Ripert said, “And when you are someone like me, you teach younger generations your culture or you teach them how to be creative. You teach them how to be respectful and it’s a way of educating. It’s a way of also preserving the culture and what has been done in the past.”

Learning how to cook — really learning — is taught by those who have come before; there’s only so much that can be learned in a recipe book. Cooking is passed down from chef to chef, from person to person, and with each new generation, the recipe changes; tweaks are made, focuses change.

Ripert remembers his grandmothers: One who was from the north of Italy and one who was from Provence, in the south of France. “Both of them cooked different type of food. Very similar, Mediterranean style.”

They cooked “soul food — home food but with a lot of soul from their region,” he said.

First and foremost, food carries culture with it; and people carry the food. Inspired by both grandmothers — who cooked different cuisines ­­— Ripert understands the cultural significance of the food he ate and the experiences in which he partook.

Then, the world of gastronomy changed.

“It was the beginning of what we call nouvelle cuisine in the ’70s. Chefs in France were starting to become celebrities as well.”

Ripert’s mother became interested in this trend: “She was creating meals for me that were very sophisticated and delicious as well, but very different than my grandmother.”

"My grandmother didn’t really care about presentation and about how refine[d] the china has to be, or what we call l’art de la table ­­— the way you decorate your table — and so on. My mother really did care about that.”

“Exposed to both styles at a young age,” Ripert described how his passion for cooking developed first from eating what his grandmothers and mother made, watching them make the food, and then eventually cooking himself. From attending different schools and moving around as a child, Ripert’s first formal introduction to cooking was at a culinary school in Perpignan.

Ripert grew up in the kitchen, starting at La Tour d’Argent — the legendary restaurant in Paris that was founded in 1582 and frequently visited by Henry IV. Following his years at La Tour d’Argent, Ripert moved to Jamin to work under the world-famous Chef Joël Robuchon.

“Joël Robuchon was considered one of the best chef[s] in the world in [the] ’80s and in the ’90s.”

Even in a restaurant with a roughly 3:5 cook-to-client ratio, Ripert noted the long “15 to 18” hour workdays and the obsessive dedication that was required to satisfy Robuchon’s exacting standards. “Joël Robuchon was a very demanding chef, with himself and with his team,” Ripert said.

“In the mid-’80s in France, kitchens were rough. The chef was a little bit of a dictator and young cooks were verbally abused and sometimes physically abused. You were being kicked in the butt or punched in the shoulders, or they would throw plates at you or pots and pans.”

But, “Joël Robuchon was very different.”

“He will use words to hurt you instead of breaking plates on the floor or punching you.” This strategy was extremely difficult to endure, and, ultimately, Robuchon was able to inflict the same level of pain on his cooks as chefs who were physically violent, Ripert said.

“For instance, if you had a passion for creating sauce, he [Robuchon] would say to you, ‘You know, you don’t care about the sauce. You have no passion. You will never be a saucier. Just give up. Just do something else. You will never make it in fine dining, so you should quit.’”

Though Robuchon would forget about his words by the end of the day, according to Ripert, the damage would have already been done. That stays with you. “That was really Joël Robuchon’s style, but, again, I never experienced, in his kitchen, violence — physical violence.”

THC: Would you have done it again, knowing where you would eventually end up?

Eric Ripert: “Yes, I will go back. I mean, if I had to go back, I will go back, because I achieve[d] in my life the dream. I wanted to be the chef that I am, with the team that I have, and the restaurant where I am.”

“[There] was no choice at the time. It was in the culture; it was like that. Today, if you scream at your cooks or if you are abusive, you probably end up with a lawsuit, and you lose your cooks. At the time, it was accepted. It was something that was everywhere.”

Despite the hardships, Ripert recalled that he learned much under Robuchon’s wing; in his memoir, “32 Yolks,” he wrote, “As terrified as I was of Robuchon, I stayed at Jamin, and returned for a second tour, because I knew that he was teaching me more than I could have learned anywhere else.”

Focus.

Ripert, famously, puts all of his energy into one restaurant: Le Bernardin.

Other talented chefs have not followed this same career path. Thomas Keller has 10 establishments, though three of his restaurants ­­— The French Laundry in Napa Valley, Per Se in New York, and The Surf Club in Miami — are his primary focus. Daniel Boulud has twenty establishments, though his flagship restaurant, Daniel, is in New York.

Ripert has partnered with his sommelier from Le Bernardin, Aldo Sohm, in the Aldo Sohm Wine Bar in New York City, which is a casual establishment that serves wine with light food. “It doesn’t really request much from me.”

Ripert also has a restaurant, Blue, in Grand Cayman. The restaurant “is luxurious — similar to Le Bernardin, much smaller. And it’s in a Ritz Carlton Hotel. And, it’s basically like a licensing-consulting agreement that I have with them, which means that we basically dictate the menu and overlook the quality, so I send a team there and I send a team to be also trained in New York.”

“And, myself, I go twice a year, or three times a year, but it’s not really demanding. Basically, most of my time is dedicated to Le Bernardin; it’s what I want to do.”

One restaurant. One focus.

“I am not anti developing businesses,” Ripert said. “And the chefs who are developing many concepts, restaurants, and so on, very often are very good friends, and I respect what they are doing. But, I don’t have any pleasure in doing that.”

Ripert notes that Le Bernardin is a quite financially stable business as well. They serve roughly 100 lunches and 150 dinners per day, in addition to the private events, which allows Ripert and his “employees to have good salaries, good compensations,” he said. “And I am fairly content with what I have in terms of compensations.”

“I can feed my family, I can live comfortably, I will probably retire comfortably as well. And, therefore, I don’t see the need for myself to focus on other places.”

Above all else, Ripert is an artist, an artisan. He cooks because he loves to cook, to create dishes, to bring people happiness and give them a special experience. “I like to be very hands-on. Today, at my age, my main job is to mentor a younger team, but I like to be with my team. I like to be in the walls of Le Bernardin,” Ripert said.

Artists do not create art for the money: They create art to express themselves, to grasp at different ideas and explore the world in new ways. Ripert’s medium, as a chef, is, of course, food, and he knows the importance of evolution.

THC: In the many years you’ve been at Le Bernardin, how has your menu evolved or adapted? Where do you see yourself moving in the future?

ER: “We try to not have too many signature dishes because, if you have too many signature dishes, then you do not evolve anymore; you are stuck with your signature dishes. But, if I can make an analogy, it’s like the Rolling Stones not wanting to sing ‘Satisfaction.’ You expect that from them. Therefore, we have a couple of signature dishes because they are strong statements from us.”

Perhaps Ripert’s dish that is most like the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” is one of the simplest ones; paper thin tuna over a thin toasted baguette with foie gras. It’s simple, straightforward, and yet, this dish is known around the world. Though it incorporates different ingredients, it has one purpose: to elevate the fish to the highest possible level. That’s the goal of Le Bernardin. A goal that has – one can safely say – been achieved.

“It’s also a very personal approach,” he said. Ripert draws from his experiences traveling to different countries, bringing inspiration back to Le Bernardin. He notes proudly that he has traveled to every continent. Yet, the city also inspires him. “The creativity comes from my experience of being a New Yorker, which means I’m exposed to different cultures, different techniques, different ingredients.”

In addition to being inspired by places and cultures, Ripert, of course, is also inspired by many chefs. “I was in Paris, for instance, in December, I went to eat at Guy Savoy twice, and I had twice an amazing experience. So, Guy Savoy was a great moment for me and an inspiration.”

Though everything — whatever is learned — has to support the restaurant’s purpose: Le Bernardin’s “model is about seafood, elevating seafood,” Ripert stated simply.

New York City is one of the major centers of the culinary world, and “I have the luck to go to many other restaurants, interact with chefs,” Ripert said. In a city where so much gastronomic innovation happens every day, it must be very easy to see certain trends emerge in the culinary world.

However, trends, Ripert said, “are very difficult to predict, and trends do not last, usually.”

THC: What do you think the future trends of the culinary world will be, how food and dining will change in the future?

ER: “We are seeing a generation of cooks coming now with a certain awakening, if I may, about the wellbeing of the planet, about the wellbeing of the animals, about the wellbeing of the consumers. And I think that is probably very important because it’s really changing or imposing on certain industries different principles.”

Yet, despite the evolving focus, “fine dining is fine dining,” Ripert said.

“We have different, very different, models of fine dining. But, you create an experience that is ultra-luxurious. That’s the definition of fine dining.”

Luxury. From the sharply dressed waiters to the delicate porcelain dishware, Le Bernardin definitely exudes luxury. Though, fine dining can take many shapes and forms: a behind-the-counter sushi restaurant, a Western establishment like Le Bernardin, a long family-style table, a trendy restaurant with loud music and ambiance, Ripert notes.

“It’s hard to predict the future because you will always have people who want to go party, you will always have people who want to have a luxurious experience, the traditional way,” Ripert said. “But again, what is important is the mindset about being aware of what’s going on on our planet.”

In the kitchen, Ripert asks his team and sous chefs to take Le Bernardin’s model, standard, and inspiration “and, in these parameters, to create.” Yet, he is there; he is in the kitchen. He makes sure that each dish is made under “the philosophy of Le Bernardin.”

Devotion. Commitment. Balance.

THC: “Outside of the kitchen, who are you in life?”

ER: “I am the co-owner of the restaurant and the chef of Le Bernardin. So, when I come here, I wear my chef jacket, and I play the role of being the leader of the restaurant and the kitchen; and it’s a big job. And then, outside, I am Eric.”

After many years of working in kitchens — including his experience with Robuchon — Ripert knows the painful atmospheres some kitchens can promote. Yet, Ripert learned from these moments of hardship, stress, and obsession. He understands the importance of taking that step back, of finding the balance, of finding peace — of living his life in a different way.

“I have discipline, and I make sure that I don’t overwork and don’t dedicate too much time to the restaurant, because I think you need to find balance. And, I find balance by spending time with my family, spending time on my own.”

“By taking time for yourself, you take distance,” Ripert said. “You take distance to think and reflect and see what you can do that is going to be positive for everybody. And, that’s my way of living my life.”

Ripert’s love for cooking, love for his ingredients, and unwavering sense of peace and satisfaction are clear to anyone who meets him. Ripert is a chef; that’s who he is. He’s a chef who has devoted his entire life to one thing: cooking seafood at Le Bernardin.

He is a chef. He is a poissonier. And, he’s one of the best chefs in the world; Le Bernardin is one of the best restaurants in the world.

While the Indian laurels, hyacinths, lemon trees, terracotta rooftops, and sea-swept stone houses in Antibes couldn’t follow Ripert on his arduous odyssey, the sea could. And did.

—In his column “The Vanguard of Global Cuisine,” Thomas A. Ferro ’26 explores the personal philosophies of chefs and bakers from around the world that have made lasting contributions to food culture. He can be reached at thomas.ferro@thecrimson.com.

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