Eric Ripert Sustains a Matsutake Epiphany, Is Loved by Koalas in New Season of Avec Eric

© Michaela McKee
By Abbe Baker Posted February 26, 2015

Kangaroos, and crocodiles and monks are just a few of Eric Ripert's new friends in the new season of Avec Eric, which premieres this Saturday at 9:30 a.m. on The Cooking Channel

Kangaroos, crocodiles and monks are just a few of Eric Ripert's new friends in the new season of Avec Eric, which premieres this Saturday at 9:30 a.m. on The Cooking Channel. Food & Wine went behind the scenes during filming to talk to the Le Bernardin chef about funding his dreams and garlic's lurid reputation among monks. 

You took a long break between the second and third seasons. Why? 
In between the second season and now, we filmed On the Table. The idea was to have a guest and cook together, so it would be a different vibe and ambience [than Avec Eric], allowing me to interview guests in  a different way. I was interviewing chefs in the Cayman Islands, and the chefs were talking to me like how they would talk to a friend. We thought, why not try something like this in the kitchen and see what happens? We did it, it was fun, and now we are back to Avec Eric and back to traveling. We may do [On the Table] again; it was a lot of fun.

What's the theme of this season?
I travel for inspiration, which in real life I do as a chef. You visit New York and different neighborhoods, and you get inspired. In my private life, I cook recipes that are much simpler and more homey, which is what we do in the studio. We bring the viewer to the country or area we visit and inspire them to cook something from the experience. 

How do you choose the destination?
It depends on where I would like to go—and, obviously, the budgets. This season, we went to Korea and Australia. If we can finance the experience, we do it, which is what happened with Australia. It’s not easy to just go there and shoot, so we had to find some funds for me to live my dream and visit; I probably wouldn’t have seen it the same way had I traveled there on my own. There’s another destination, but we don’t want to talk about it until it’s done.

Can you share a highlight, person or a dish? 
When I went to Korea, I was fascinated by temple food and the philosophy behind it. We stayed in a monastery with nuns and monks; that was really powerful. They want to be sustainable and have a better diet. The idea is not to enjoy the food necessarily—it’s to have the right food to become enlightened. It’s a vegan diet because they don’t want to kill any animals. And no onions or garlic, because onions supposedly give you nightmares, and garlic makes you...horny, for lack of a better word. So as you can imagine in a temple, it’s not a good idea. They put a lot of compassion and love into the food. It’s a process, a meditation. I was talking to one of the nuns, and she said, “I’m so advanced in my practices that when I taste foods today, I know exactly who cooked what and know that the person is stressed, happy or sad. I’ll go to the monk or nun and say, ‘What’s happening? What can we do? I can feel it in the food.’ ” So, the idea is to have food that’s very good for your body and for your soul. Before winter, they eat a lot of foods that have been exposed to the sun so they have the sun’s energy; most of them are never sick in the winter. They’re very healthy—they look young although they’re not, they have beautiful skin. And it’s the result of this food. And once they master this idea of putting compassion and love into the food, they go into the field and do the very same when the plant is a seed. It’s more important to put love and compassion into a seed than the final product. 

It doesn’t mean that other experiences weren’t interesting, but it’s a memory that’s very special to me. In Australia, many places were amazing—you’ll see episodes and you’ll say, “Wow, he’s lucky that he’s able to do this and see the crocodiles so close in the wilderness or touch the kangaroos.” 

What did you eat in the Buddist temples? 
A lot of dishes with different vegetables prepared in different ways with dips and sauces and rice. There’s no alcohol, just teas and water and juice. When I was there, it was matsutake [mushroom] season, and a nun put the matsutake in the leaf of a pumpkin, wrapped it, put it in the fire, removed it from the leaf and topped it with rock salt and a little seasoning oil. I had an epiphany—the matsutake was the best I ever had in my life. But the idea of temple food is to not create food that is so delicious that you become attached to it. You don’t eat to the point where you crave it. 

If you go to a country with a heavier dish, do you try to lighten it up for the home cook? 
Most of the world is not obese. So I don’t have that problem. I’m not a doctor, and I’m not in charge of your well-being at home, but my cooking is generally healthy and in moderation. Therefore, it’s very unlikely you’ll have a heart attack from cooking one dish from Avec Eric

Any bloopers with animals in Australia? 
The animals like me! Crocodiles, I’m not so sure… They probably like me, but not in that way.

Related: 12 Sensational Recipes from Eric Ripert
Treasured: Eric Ripert's Culinary Library 

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