Eric Ripert, mountain man.
In a mud-splashed anorak, with a dusty rucksack on his shoulders and a day's worth of stubble on his chin, the boyish Ripert doesn't much look like anyone's idea of a four-star New York City chef. Instead of emerging from the kitchen at Le Bernardin impeccable in crisp chef's whites to charm a customer--over a glass of Champagne--Ripert is impaling trout on umbrella ribs, smoking them in front of an open fire and reliving his teenage experiences exploring the mountains of northwestern Andorra.
Ripert, 35, grew up in this tiny spit of a country wedged in the Pyrenees between France and Spain. For Andorrans--swamped by over 8 million visitors every year, who come mainly for the tax-free shopping--getting away to hike, fish and ski is a national obsession. Every weekend from the time he was 12 until he left home at 18 to apprentice at the Tour d' Argent in Paris, Ripert trekked with his family and friends in the mountains. In those peaks and valleys, foraging for wild herbs and mushrooms, chasing baby frogs and picnicking on grilled lamb and just-caught fish cooked in the smoke of burning rhododendron branches, Ripert developed the palate that informs Le Bernardin's menu today. Though infinitely more refined, Le Bernardin's specialties, such as poached lobster in lemongrass-ginger bouillon and Spanish mackerel and caviar tartare, show the same ultrafreshness and minimalism as those Andorran campfire dishes.
Ripert's parents, both passionate eaters, not only toted Dom Pérignon and martinis on their forays, they hauled rounds of country bread, slabs of bacon, pints of cream and olive oil too. In late spring, they would flip up blankets of snow to uncover the first tender dandelions of the season, then toss them with a hot bacon dressing; in summer, they'd make pa amb tomàquet, Andorran bread that's been toasted, drizzled with olive oil and rubbed with cloves of garlic and tomatoes. "My palate," Ripert admits,"got well trained."
Last spring, after a 16-year lapse into city life in Paris, Washington, D.C., and New York, the chef returned to his old mountain haunts accompanied by a couple of friends and his mother, who now lives in France. There was only one hitch: after so many years away, Ripert no longer remembered even the basics of mountain life. "I forgot how to light a fire, how to put up a tent. I'd lost it," he recalls. "I didn't know how to do a hook, I didn't know where the best mushrooms were, or the dandelions."
But a call to Roger Pradal, a friend and retired fishmonger, who had organized most of the trips of Ripert's youth, solved everything. "I hadn't talked to him in years," Ripert says, "but I called and told him, 'Take me back to the mountains. I want to do exactly what we used to do."
Together, Ripert and Pradal planned an itinerary and created a menu that was a step back in time: hiking in the Madriu and Incles valleys, fishing in the Madriu River and feasting in all the traditional Ripert-family ways, with everything from pa amb tomàquet to chocolate fondue.
As it turned out, Ripert's fears that he had forgotten how to camp were exaggerated. Once in the mountains, the memories came back immediately. He saw himself as a teenager, in the fall, toting sticks to camp for the grown-ups to make the fire. He flashed back to winters, when he would stick sealskin to the bottom of his skis so he could climb up the mountains. "I knew where everything was," Ripert says. "Nothing had changed."
While some in the party ventured out to explore, Ripert stayed in camp, preparing the picnic and reveling in the flavors of the Pyrenees. He had forgotten the intensity of Andorran garlic, rosemary and mountain-raised lamb. "In Andorra, the soil is black, and the fruits and vegetables taste of terroir, just like with grapes and wine," he says. "You don't have to do anything to the lamb, because it tastes like lamb. Even a stupid potato tastes great."
Ripert heated a piece of slate and cooked the lamb on it Andorran-style--rubbed with olive oil, garlic and rosemary. (Slate is one of the country's most abundant rocks; it's ubiquitous, appearing in everything from roofs to barbecues. Ripert even used it for a time to prepare dishes at Le Bernardin.) The combination of the earthy slate and the aromatic herbs gives the lamb a deep, rich flavor that is difficult to re-create anywhere else.
When Pradal brought the trout back from the Madriu River, Ripert cleaned them, speared them on umbrella ribs and left them to cook in the smoke from the fire for 45 minutes. He toasted slices of the country bread on an old grill from an abandoned campsite, then rubbed them with garlic and tomatoes. And while the potatoes may have tasted great because they were Andorran, they got help from Ripert. He wrapped them in foil and buried them in the ashes near the edge of the fire so they would get crispy, with a hint of smoke in their jackets--then topped them with crème fraîche and scallions.
Then there was the distinctly non-Andorran dessert of dark-chocolate fondue heated in a pot on the slate--eliminating the need for a double boiler--a favorite recipe Ripert discovered in a cookbook as a child. "Growing up, I was a freak for sugar," he says. "For me there was no way to have a picnic without some sweets."
The trip under scored Ripert's appreciation of the minimalist approach. "I was convinced before that simplicity is the right way to go, but during the trip I got even more convinced," he says. "When you start to cook, you make mistakes and think the more ingredients, the better."
As far as chef Ripert is concerned, Andorra is as much an influence on his cooking as his time working with chefs Joël Robuchon in Paris and Jean-Louis Palladin in Washington, D.C. "I don't cook fancy, like Charlie Trotter. I don't use exotic ingredients. I'm not ashamed of my origins at all."
Indeed, as an homage to his homeland, Ripert added a Le Bernardin-by-way-of-Andorra dish to the menu: monkfish roasted with rosemary and garlic and served with dandelions in a black-truffle vinaigrette. "We heat the vinaigrette and pour it hot on top of the greens, just like in the mountains," he says. "People love it."
Eileen Daspin, a Manhattan-based food writer, consulted on Le Bernardin Cookbook (Doubleday).