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."