Eric Ripert. Photo by Nigel Parry.

Le Bernardin Chef Eric Ripert Shares Professional Advice with ICE Students

Photo by Nigel Parry.

“When you search for perfection you realize perfection is very subjective. Perfection does not exist. So what is exciting is not the perfection, it is the search for it; the journey.”

Executive Chef and Co-Owner of famed New York City restaurant Le Bernardin Eric Ripert recently stopped by ICE’s New York campus to talk about his latest book, "Seafood Simple," his approach to recipe development and advice for students just starting their journey as culinary professionals.

Chef Ripert and Le Bernardin, the restaurant he’s helmed since 1991, have accumulated a long list of impressive accolades through the years, including seven James Beard Awards, decades worth of recurring four-star reviews in The New York Times while consistently holding three Michelin stars and regularly being named on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. 

With that kind of resume, it’s hard to imagine Chef Ripert’s first days as a cook, where he “started in the kitchen at 8 a.m. and by 8:05 had already cut my finger.”

Or his being afraid he would be fired after simply being asked to retrieve chervil from the walk-in. Having gone to a poorly-funded government culinary school, he had never seen chervil in real life and wasn’t confident he would recognize it.

It was the latter example that prompted Chef Ripert to sing the praises of an ICE education, explaining how the hands-on nature was a much more practical education than his own culinary school experience, which he described as “20 students gathered around one rack of lamb.”

Chef Ripert’s appreciation for an ICE education goes beyond words and into action. While on campus, he brought Le Bernardin team members to recruit students and recent graduates.

There's a legacy of ICE students at Le Bernadin — the current Executive Pastry Chef is none other than ICE graduate (and recent commencement speaker), Orlando Soto. Chef Ripert called Soto “the best pastry chef in the galaxy,” a description he also used previously to describe former Executive Pastry Chef at Le Bernardin, and current ICE Creative Director and mentor to Chef Soto, Michael Laiskonis.

While addressing student questions, Chef Ripert expanded on what exactly he looks for when hiring, and it’s not as simple as having a great education under your belt.

“We need someone who’s a team player, who’s curious, who's disciplined, who’s clean, who has knowledge," he says. "Knowledge comes from experience from schools like here, someone who’s humble and knows how to accept positive criticism and learn. Those are the criteria we have.”

Be ready to work hard, be humble and be curious.

In the same vein, Chef Ripert's advice to graduates just starting out in the industry is all about attitude.

“Be ready to work hard, be humble and be curious,” he says. 

This advice doesn’t only apply to culinary professionals just starting their career. Chef Ripert reflected on how he holds those same principles for himself to this day.

Chef recalled wisdom passed down from his own mentor at Le Bernardin, Gilbert Le Coze, who once said, “You may be lucky and have good reviews, and you may also have bad reviews. If they’re good, read them once and never look at them again; if they’re bad, read them everyday.”

Though Chef Ripert’s personal ethos is vital to the top-down leadership in a legendary kitchen such as the one at Le Bernardin, he is quick to credit his team and purveyors for delivering the consistency and excellence the restaurant is known for.

“The only way to create consistency is to invest in a team, to invest in equipment, to invest in the quality of the products and to create systems that will allow the team to succeed and deliver an experience that is very similar dish after dish, lunch after lunch, dinner after dinner [and] day after day, 365 days a year,” Chef Ripert says. 

Le Bernardin uses over 50 different purveyors (some of whom specialize in only one item) and their current menu includes over 40 different varieties of seafood, fish and shellfish. So where do all these fish come from? Mostly straight from the boats of fishermen in Portland, Maine.

Chef Ripert’s philosophy on ingredient sourcing is simple.

“Without good purveyors, without good farmers [and] without good connections with fisheries and fishermen, you don’t have the best products," he says. "It doesn’t matter if you’re a genius in cooking, if you start with [a] mediocre product you end up with a mediocre dish.”

The process [of creating a new dish] is collaborative, repetitive and inspired by experience.

And a mediocre dish Chef Ripert does not produce. When asked about his approach to developing a new dish, he's almost reverent in his explanation.

“The process is collaborative, repetitive and inspired by experience,” he says.

Using scallops as an example, he elaborates.

"Our approach is to say ‘Okay, what is a scallop in terms of flavor and consistency, and how does it react to certain aspects of cooking and how can we elevate the scallop? How can we make the scallop the star of the plate?' So we have to apply different techniques — there is no such thing as a versatile fish, [you can cook a lot of fish in many different ways] but there’s only maybe one or two techniques that will elevate [it] to create the best dish you could eat,” he says.

For Chef Ripert, this thoughtful, methodical approach is not confined to the kitchen. Several questions from the audience were about Chef’s approach to balancing the potential for chaos, burn out and mental strain that comes with a life spent in kitchens.

As a well-known practicing Buddhist, it comes as no surprise that Chef Ripert is reflective and intentional about his day and how he balances his time. After sharing his morning routine — which includes a 6 a.m. wake up to meditate, practice religious rituals, check the news and spend time with family before walking to the restaurant to begin his work day — he encourages those beginning their careers to find their own balance and commit to it. For Chef Ripert, the three pillars are time spent with the restaurant, time spent with family and time spent with yourself.

According to him, while the restaurant will take as much of your time as you are willing to give, if you don't spend the time needed to cultivate the love of a family you won’t have that support to lean on when you need it, and if you don’t take time for yourself and rest you start to lose perspective and “have a distorted vision of things.”

Carrying that thought, Chef Ripert's final words of wisdom for those in attendance were poignant.

“When I spend time for myself, I am on the top of the mountain and I can see the whole valley, he says. "But when I am in  the valley, it’s all I can see.”

Watch the replay of Chef Ripert's entire discussion below.

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