Ripert credits the religion, which he began studying in his 20s, with teaching him kindness—as a young chef, he was a bit of a hothead, once throwing a plate at pastry chef François Payard—but it hasn’t exactly turned him into a type B personality. In his new memoir, Born Round, New York Times food critic Frank Bruni recalls that while many chefs posted his photo so servers could spot him, Ripert took it a step further, digging up videos so his staff could also study his mannerisms. Ripert seems embarrassed by the story but admits it’s true. “We have standards, and we do everything possible to meet them. If that means having Bruni on video, then that’s what it is,” he says. “But by the way, the videos were legal! They were Frank Bruni reporting from the White House!”
Meeting those standards in the current economy has, of course, meant making hard choices. With many New York restaurants down as much as 30 percent, just about every eatery has reacted by offering some sort of deal. Ripert saw his own business plunge in the first month of 2009, and, he says, “we had to make a decision: Either we lower the price, in which case we cannot provide the quality that we want, or we stick to our standards.” The answer, he says, came to him while he was walking down Madison Avenue: “I saw one designer store where everything was 90 percent off, and it was empty. And then there was Hermès, nothing on sale, and the place was packed.” He chose the Hermès strategy, on the logic that “nobody remembers a bargain but nobody forgets a bad meal,” and insists that it has been successful, with business rebounding almost entirely by early spring.
Thus far, acting on instinct has served him well. “I never pressure myself to do something I don’t want to do,” he says. It’s a philosophy he applies even to Buddhism. While vegetarianism is the karmic ideal, for example, Ripert has no problem cooking up creatures. “The way I see it, you don’t take the life of an animal for something meaningless,” he says. “If I have a beautiful ingredient in front of me, I’m going to pay homage to it. I’m not going to f--- it up.”