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.”
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.”