If your vision of Eric Ripert is a severe, white-clad, toque-wearing chef glaring at underperforming assistants in the kitchen, you are seeing only the public face of this supreme chef. To know Chef Eric, take a trip into his personal history. His culinary roots reach deep into French soil and his passion was ignited there as well.
By his own admission, the most commonly repeated phrase in master chef Eric Ripert’s kitchen is “hello chef.” All of his staff know and greet him and he knows and greets them. This is not an entirely common experience in the kitchen of a top flight restaurant. Often kitchen personal would rather avoid any attention from the chef as that attention is more often anger and scorn than polite greeting. But Chef Eric’s path has culminated in this physical and professional space and he took charge of his route to get here.
Learning that Food is Important
Eric Ripert, long before anyone called him “chef” in reverential tones, was born in France in 1965, but was raised in Andorra. If fate had leaned in a different direction, he may have grown up to be a businessman. However, young Eric was blessed with two excellent home cooks in his mother and grandmother. Through their intense interest in preparing superior food for their family, he was exposed to the idea that food was important. Scouring the village for the best, freshest ingredients, working long, uncomfortable hours to create pleasing meals; this example of investing time in food preparation for exceptional results was a constant reminder and example that food was more than sustenance. It was an expression of an artist and an offering of love.
Longing to Cook
There are no stories of Chef Eric Ripert lying in the grass of his Andorra home, dreaming of becoming a chef. He was not visited in a dream and told to work in the kitchen and no spiritual visitor pointed a translucent arm, directing him to the gallery.
However, he had learned to love and respect food from his family. He absorbed some of the character of a chef from the cookery in that home. When, as a result of an overabundance of animal spirits common to young men, his traditional educational institution invited him to seek his fortunes elsewhere, he enrolled in culinary school.
The culinary school he attended in Perpignan was, by our standards, brutal. Long hours, uncomfortable conditions, student belittling and even corporal punishment were daily occurrences. This was in line with the traditional culinary education in France at the time. Though the students were little more than older children, standard procedure was harsh treatment to instill a strong work ethic, endurance of difficulties and perhaps to provide a peek into their futures in kitchen work. Many, many kitchens are places of anger, verbal abuse and general unhappiness.
Though nearly cruel by our standards, Perpignan accomplished its task. It took the soft clay of young adolescence and created a chef. Upon graduation, he immediately found work in La Tour d’Argent, a famous Paris restaurant over 400 years old. His culinary progress was interrupted by him military service, but he lost no time after serving in returning to the kitchen.
He moved to the United States and continued honing his skills working in the best restaurants in New York, Washington DC and Philadelphia. He earned his first four star at the age of 29 for his work in Le Bernardin. Not long after receiving this honor, he was awarded the maximum three stars from Michelin Guide.
Over time, Chef Eric developed a strong affinity for seafood. As he came to run his own restaurants, seafood became his forte. His flair for minimalist presentation, accenting but not dominating sauces and uniquely prepared seafood has made his name synonymous with his strong suite. There is only rarely any meat on his menus.
Riding the Celebrity Chef Crest
Charming, attractive, successful and French, Chef Eric was naturally swept up in the celebrity chef tornado. His media appearances are numerous. He was a regular on Top Chef, stars in Avec Eric where he travels the world researching food and returns to create masterpieces incorporating the new items he has learned. He has made many appearances on No Reservations and Parts Unknown.
Part and parcel of the celebrity chef career path is exploiting your fame for riches and additional restaurants. Chef Eric followed this path as well. For a period of time, he was constantly traveling among New York, Washington DC and Philadelphia, spending more time in conveyances than in the kitchen or at home.
With these demands on his life and time, Chef Eric discovered that he was unhappy. He looked at his kitchens and found that the other people in the kitchen also unhappy. It was difficult for him, but he soon admitted that he was the cause of his own and his restaurants’ unhappiness.
In his kitchens, he had followed the example of many great chefs and culinary instructors. He yelled loudly and often. He produced excellent food, but no one in the kitchen was happy. He made a great deal of money but was not happy.
Creating a Different Model
Since following the celebrity chef interstate did not make him a happy man, Chef Eric took the next exit and founded a balance that worked for him.
Not instantaneously, but gradually, he divested himself of all but his New York restaurant. With less daily stress, he was able to teach himself to reduce his shouting. He found that his teams could produce food to his exacting standards without his yelling at them all day. Neither does he coddle his employees. The bar for his cuisine is set extraordinarily high and he will not suffer it to slip. However, using his position of Chef and speaking directly and with concise terms, he discovered he can communicate his message without raising his voice.
Striving for Personal Peace
An accident in an airport book store led to another substantial life change. Rather than purchasing the thriller he intended, he purchase a book on Buddhism. Entirely impressed, he read more and in time began to study Buddhism. It was a match for him.
He incorporated meditation into his daily life, started accepting that much was outside his control and that was ok, and that he could be both successful and happy. This interest led him to additional paths, but this time he found charity rather than a charcuterie.
He chairs the New York City Harvest’s Food Council by fundraising and improving the quality and quantity of food donations. He presides over a foundation to encourage understanding of and appreciation for quality ingredients in young chefs. And in tribute to his recent conversion, he hosts the Tibetan Aid Project. This project seeks to preserve and increase availability of Tibetan language publications. Thus far, they have distributed almost two million traditional Buddhist texts.
Eric Ripert knows that he is not making as much money as he could, but he is ok with that. He turned his back on the millions his brand could earn to create a life he could love. With his books, restaurant, philanthropy and family, he has perhaps established a path others can follow. Doing what he loves, enjoying his family, serving the under-served and sacrificing slightly less cash might work for more than just Chef Eric.