It’s difficult to picture Eric Ripert, a devoted Buddhist, throwing hissy fits and breaking plates in front of his kitchen staff. But that’s exactly how he acted when he first became a chef at Le Bernardin -- a Michelin three-star restaurant 11 years in a row -- at the tender age of 24.
Ripert, now 50, isn’t proud of his once temperamental leadership style, which he says was bred from his classical chef training in France.
“I was trained in France, from a very young age, in the kitchen. And the way they were teaching me at the time was what they called the ‘old-school kind of teaching’ -- which was verbal [and sometimes physical] abuse,” he says.
In 1994, at age 29, he took over the kitchen as executive chef and part-owner of Le Bernardin after the sudden death of Gilbert Le Coze, who had opened the New York City seafood hotspot with his sister in the late ‘80s. Ripert has since adopted a calmer, kinder approach. With his signature shock of white hair, Mediterranean tan and five cookbooks under his white chef’s jacket, the James Beard award-winning chef from Antibes, France, is surprisingly soft-spoken, exacting in his movements and well-loved not only among his professional equals, but among his staff.
“He is the sensei master,” one of his sommeliers recently said. “He is truly tranquil. I’ve worked for other celebrity chefs, and he is completely different.”
Ripert’s transformation began at 29, shortly after Le Bernardin received the first of its four-star ratings from the New York Times. Ripert should have been happy; he wasn’t.
“One day, I don’t know what happened, I was thinking, ‘Why am I so miserable? Why is everybody leaving?’ I realized it was all about me -- all about being angry and scaring the cooks, scaring the employees and making them miserable,” he recalls.
He decided to change his leadership style completely, leaving behind the old system of ruling through fear. Certainly, his Buddhist values have helped guide him; Ripert, whose teachers include the Dalai Lama, meditates daily in the Upper East Side apartment he shares with his wife, Sondra, and their 11-year-old son, before heading over to Le Bernardin everyday.
“Buddhism is a way for me to learn and apply the principles in order to become a better person and have a better impact and inspire people,” he says.
Today, his kitchen reflects his belief in peace and kindness. There is an absence of the shouting, clatter and music that is typical of busy kitchens in award-winning restaurants, and the staff has been taught to treat each other with the highest respect.
“The focus is the food,” says Ripert. “If someone flips, which can happen under pressure, then that person has to apologize in front of everyone for not being nice.”
A life of crossroads
Ripert, who left his parents at the age of 15 to be trained as a chef, is surprisingly superstitious.
“Each time I have seen a black cat, within two or three days, it’s bad news,” he says.
As he tells it, when he was 13, his mother sent him to a fortune teller who described the first restaurant he worked at in Paris exactly the way it was before he even knew he’d be working there.
“She basically said you’re going to be extremely successful and then described where I will work and said, ‘You’re going to end up in a city surrounded by water. And you’ll be extremely successful there.’”
The fortune teller then gave him a metal cross to protect him from physical violence. He’s worn it every day since. (The one day he didn’t wear it, he was mugged.)
Of course, Ripert hasn’t let fate decide his every move; he knows what’s important to him and tries to stick close to that vision. These days, he’s driven by the pursuit of balance -- a pursuit that has actually led him to scale back the development of his culinary empire. By 2008, he had four restaurants in total: Le Bernardin and three restaurants at various Ritz Carlton locations -- 10 Arts in Philadelphia, Westend Bistro in D.C. and Blue in the Grand Cayman Islands. Eventually, he ended his partnership with 10 Arts and Westend Bistro, despite their success -- after deciding to focus on Le Bernardn and his quality of life at home in New York City.
“I didn’t really enjoy spending my life in the planes or trains. Having extra stress. Not being able to focus on my family. Not being able to give 100 percent of my professional attention to Le Bernardin. I had no time for myself as well. Money cannot buy those kind of things. Being content with what I have is very important.”
Ripert is extremely well-traveled; his Emmy award-winning show Avec Eric has afforded him the opportunity to visit destinations as far-flung as South Korea and Australia. His work has given him celebrity status -- he’s cooked pasta with actress Drew Barrymore and traveled on tour with Pink Floyd. Perhaps the cherry on top is he’s been granted a number of prestigious awards, including the Légion d'Honneur in France, which is akin to being knighted.
However, when he sees a nice article or photo of himself, he says, “I always think of Gilbert [Le Coze] who said to me, ‘You will probably see yourself in magazines and see yourself on TV and be successful in that aspect. Let me give you advice. If you have a good article, read it and never look at it again. If you have a bad article, keep it on your desk and read it everyday for a long time until you correct the mistakes.”
If he had to do it over again, he says he’d tell his younger self to “be kind.” “Being yourself is very important. Not following the trends every five minutes. And be secure.”
But, as Ripert says, life is about the learning.