Compared with his fellow megachefs, Eric Ripert has always come off like a bit of an iceman. A tall, tanned, silver-haired Buddhist who manages to look cool even in close proximity to a blazing range, he reigns over New York’s famed Le Bernardin with a calm confidence that makes Gordon Ramsay and the rest of the apron-clad screamers seem like three-year-olds in dire need of a nap. When a judge on Top Chef, the cooking contest show on which Ripert has guest-starred, referred to him as Obi-Wan Kenobi last season, the analogy between the wise Jedi Master and the 44-year-old culinary whiz seemed apt.
This fall, however, foodies will get to glimpse Ripert’s untethered side when his own TV series, Avec Eric, debuts on PBS. A far cry from the cutesy quick-cook shows that dominate the airwaves, each episode opens with a behind-the-scenes look at one aspect of Le Bernardin—the haute seafood eatery’s saucier station, for instance—and closes with Ripert creating a masterly but manageable dish in a home kitchen. In between, Ripert travels in search of inspiration, and it’s on these trips—whether to slurp oysters straight out of the sea off California’s Hog Island or to hunt wild boar in Chianti, Italy—that his suave facade begins to erode. Standing in the Tuscan forest in a thunderstorm, his camouflage jacket pulled over his head like a babushka, he practically leaps out of the shot when the burly creature streaks past. Even eight months later, sitting in the cookbook-crammed conference room of Le Bernardin, he seems shaken by his close encounter with the big pig. “Eee was coming right at us!” he says, his French accent so thick it sounds almost put on. “We were looking for a tree to climb! Eee ad these beeeg teeth on the sides!”
Avec Eric represents Ripert’s first regular foray onto the small screen. Though he certainly doesn’t lack for presence, and though his culinary chops trump those of just about anyone else on TV—he has held on to his four New York Times stars for 14 years, longer than anyone else now cooking in the city—he has been slow to pick up the toque of celebrity chef. He’s doing so now, he says, because he believes his seasoned team is up to the task of handling the restaurant during his absences. “You don’t become a chef to become famous,” says Ripert, who enrolled in culinary school at 15 and landed in the kitchen of Paris’s La Tour d’Argent two years later. “You become a chef because you like cooking.”
But running Le Bernardin, which Ripert has co-owned with Maguy Le Coze since 1994, when Le Coze’s brother and cofounder, Gilbert, died, also means acting as manager, talent scout and marketing machine. Ripert, who lives on the Upper East Side with his wife and young son, does a remarkable job of juggling, says chef–turned–writer–turned–TV host Anthony Bourdain, a close friend. “I’ve never seen him freak out under any circumstances. He’s a great advertisement for Buddhism.”