Eric Ripert On the Restaurant That Changed the Game For Him
An excerpt from Eric Ripert's new memoir, 32 Yolks: From My Mother's Table to Working the Line.
When I think of Eric Ripert, I think of one of the world's most charming and debonair chefs; I also think of outstanding, inspired seafood, the kind he serves at his inimitable restaurant Le Bernardin in New York City. (I also think of this: He and his good friend Tony Bourdain are sometimes mistaken for each other. Bourdain will pretend he's Ripert and say that in reality he's a really bad cook. It's the opposite of the truth about Ripert, but funny to think about.)
I'm learning a lot reading Ripert's wonderful new memoir, 32 Yolks: From My Mother's Table to Working the Line. For instance, that one of his touchstone dishes was chocolate mousse (it's my favorite, too). "Chocolate mousse has been a favorite since I was a kid," says Ripert. "For one thing, it's convivial—you never make just one portion, always a big batch for sharing." Also that one restaurant experience, even if not's remarkable to anyone else, can change everything.
F&W has excerpted a chapter from his book. Read it all the way through to hear what one of the world's great chefs has to say about an early restaurant experience that changed everything for him, the place that featured his beloved dessert. Here, from the chapter First, Dessert: Chocolate Mousse.
Two things happened the year that I turned eleven: my father died and I became friends with my first professional chef, a guy named Jacques.
My mother, distressed at my sadness over the loss of my father, tried to cure it with the one thing she knew I still loved: an extraordinary meal.
"It's almost impossible to get a table," said my mother, smiling conspiratorially. "But why don't you and I go, just the two of us?"
Chez Jacques was rustic and simple. There were maybe twenty seats and an open plan kitchen, which was unusual for the time. There was no menu, just a set meal for the night. You ate what Jacques prepared, and you paid a hefty price for the pleasure.
From my seat I could see Jacques at work in the kitchen: short and muscular, he wore a white chef's jacket with short sleeves and sweat with the force of a man who was all at once: chef, sous-chef, and dishwasher. Watching Jacques cook for an entire restaurant, alone and happy in his kitchen, was like going to the circus and watching a master juggler spin a hundred plates. I was mesmerized.
When the dishes arrived, it was clear that we were being presented with more than a meal: This was a gift. The salad was composed as if Jacques had spent the afternoon in the garden, picking each green leaf himself. The coq au vin was so rich and satisfying that I had to resist the urge to lick the plate when I was done.
When the meal was over, Jacques sent over not two small bowls of chocolate mousse, but nearly a tub of the stuff. My eyes widened at the heft of it, then I quickly and happily polished the whole dish off.
The next day after school, instead of heading to the stock room above my mother's boutique, I went to Chez Jacques.
My mother loved great food and we had dined at Michelin starred restaurants all over France before that fateful first dinner at Jacques. But it was who Jacques was and how he cooked that would set the stage for my career as a chef. People were going for the food, but also for the show – the antics of a man who liked it that everyone thought he was gifted, creative and maybe a little crazy. It was very glamorous in Andorra to go see and be seen at Jacques. I was just a kid so I experienced it all in a very Zen way – I was very present and in the moment; I wasn't calculating or analyzing anything. But when I look back, all of these years later, I can see how rare it was to be inspired on a daily basis by someone who had such a passion for what he was doing. He was really an artisan. It was a small space, a small kitchen and it was pure craftsmanship that I was being exposed to.
Is that kind of magic possible now, at a restaurant, in this day and age? Even with all of the corporate pressures we face in the business, I think so. I hear it from people who are regulars. Maybe they don't live in New York, but they travel here and they come to Le Bernardin maybe once or twice a year. Sometimes they say, "Three years ago, we came and it was our anniversary. We were celebrating and we had that dish with the caviar that's not on the menu anymore." They start naming dishes and sometimes I don't remember. As cooks and waiters and the team, it's our life everyday and it's happening so fast. Our job is to make the best food and to create the best possible conditions for the meal to be memorable. But the magic is really in the mindset of the client, those moments – like I had with Jacques – only happen, if you're open to it and everything in the restaurant is coming together, miraculously, almost to perfection. Then you have that moment of epiphany, "Wow, that night was really unbelievable." And the meal will stay with you, for months, for years, maybe your entire life.
All the time that I worked for Joel Robuchon in Paris and even when I moved to America and began working in restaurants here, it was my vision and my ambition to someday open a little restaurant like Jacques – someplace where I could serve people the highest quality of food, but also get to know the clients. I imagined that I would open a place a la Jacques' in Spain, which has always been a special place for me. During my first week at Le Bernardin, Maguy Le Coze who owned the restaurant with her brother, Gilbert, asked me what I wanted to do with my life. "What does the big picture look like?" she asked. I was twenty-five years old. I said, frankly and without hesitation, "I'm staying at Le Bernardin for a maximum of three years. Then I'm going to open a small restaurant, someplace like my friend Jacques.'" It is to her great credit that she let me hold onto that dream and she did not see it as an indication that I would not accomplish much at Le Bernardin because twenty-seven years later, I'm still here.
Proust had his madeleine and because of Jacques, I have my mousse. More than anything, chocolate mousse is the taste of being welcomed; of Chez Jacques where, for me, the door was always open.
Adapted from the book 32 YOLKS: From My Mother's Table to Working the Line by Eric Ripert with Veronica Chambers. Copyright © 2016 by Ripert Enterprises LLC. Reprinted by arrangement withRandom House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.