The Michelin starred chef and quiet star of Netflix’s Chef’s Table shared a totally different way to think about the way we eat.
On June 22, Eric Ripert entered the dining room of his three Michelin star restaurant, Le Bernardin, to say a few words about Jeong Kwan. Kwan is a Buddhist monk and celebrated cook, who had cooked at Ripert’s restaurant once before after an invitation from the French chef and devoted Buddhist. Ripert had befriended her while studying temple food—the vegan dishes traditionally served in Buddhist monasteries in Asia. This time she had come to New York City to educate and inform the public on Korean culture, ahead of the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang.
Ripert called meeting Kwan a “revelation,” the “most compassionate person you will ever meet in your life.” Then he explains that “love and compassion are prayed into the seeds” from the moment they enter to the ground so that when the plants arrive on your plate, fully grown, the food is full of “good energy”—Ripert’s common refrain when he speaks about temple food.
He told the assembled group, eagerly awaiting a taste of Jeong Kwan’s now-legendary cooking, that Buddhist cooking is an exercise in “mindfulness and meditation,” but at the point the energy in the room was taut with more frenzied expectation. We wanted to eat.
“That food is designed to make your mind very clear and your mind very strong,” Ripert told me earlier in the week over the phone.
Though he is Buddhist, Ripert has made his career working in the hectic, chaotic world of New York City kitchens. He says that he doesn’t necessarily apply the tenants of Buddhism in the kitchen at La Bernardin – he doesn’t want to convert any of his staff, a point he makes clear again at lunch, when he promises he’s not trying to convert us either – but he does try to keep the basic tenants of his Buddhist practice in mind when he’s cooking.
For one thing, treating his ingredients with care, and being “mindful” – there’s that word again – of where the ingredients came from, from the soil to the kitchen to the table, are essential to how Ripert practices Buddhism in the kitchen.
“I’m putting the good energy in to the food for the person who is going to receive the food,” he says. “I try to find a secular way to teach [Buddhism], like the idea of being grateful for the food that we have and cooking it with respect,” he says. “I try to teach the cooks that we are not going to spoil these ingredients. We should be grateful for the food in the front of us.”
To that end, during the meal he and Jeong Kwan asked the diners only to take what they could finish, so that there were no leftovers, out of “respect for the planet,” as Ripert put it. We devoured fried seaweed, braised shiitake mushrooms, and deodeok root, careful to clean our plates of every morsel, barely hiding our delight at flavors that most of us, living in America, were probably experiencing for the first time.
Although the environments where they cook and make their lives are drastically different, Jeong Kwan and the French chef are close friends.
Over the phone, she stresses to me that she what she shares with Ripert is much deeper than a simple swap of cooking techniques.
“[We] share a peaceful connection, a spiritual energy,” she tells me through a translator.
She says that she prepared the menu for this lunch in particular with the Olympics in mind, the ideal time for a moment of East meets West cultural connection over impeccably crafted food (Yes, the hype is real). Her way of cooking is about “feeling a connection with the ingredients, and of how the ingredients got to be where they are,” and in sharing her food with Westerners she hoped that we would feel “peace and harmony,” while eating.
That good energy that she and Ripert hoped to impart to us was palpable in the meal. When she appeared during the last course – a traditional monastic meal called Barugongyang – to perform a final Buddhist ceremony, we were all drawn to her presence in silent awe. She banged her bamboo instruments together three times, and we bowed our heads and gave thanks.