Jim Poris / March 2004
Silver Spoon Food Arts presents the March 2004 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Eric Ripert, whose silken touch with seafood has maintained Le Bernardin (New York City) as one of the most eminent restaurants in the United States. Since stepping into the breach as a 29 year old following the sudden death of Le Bernardin's founding chef/co-owner, Gilbert Le Coze, in 1994, Ripert has grown into the very definition of a modern urban chef—the combination of pitch-perfect taste, vast knowledge, technical skill, business acumen, and public persona that's required to insinuate a restaurant into a city's cultural bloodstream.
Despite fistfuls of awards, stars, and accolades—including every James Beard award a chef or restaurant can reap—Ripert deflects credit and praise, saying only, "I have the utmost resect and gratitude for the people who taught and inspired me, because without them I would never be where I am today." His list of mentors inclue Joël Robuchon and the late Jean-Louis Palladin, who recommended Ripert to Gilbert Le Coze and his sister, Maguy (Le Bernardin's other co-founder and present-day co-owner), to take over as executive chef of the five year old restaurant in 1991. In 1996, Ripert joined Maguy Le Coze as a co-owner.
"With Robuchon in Paris, I became a technician," recalls Ripert, a Frenchman raised in the Andorran Pyrenees. "But with Jean-Louis at the Watergate [Washington D.C.], I learned how to be creative. He encouraged me to experiment, to be sensual with my cooking. And of course, Gilbert gave me the freedom to do what I wanted, as long as I respected Le Bernardin's style." Ripert has added a radiant lyricism to that style—a groundbreaking, stripped down classicism that showcases finned and shelled creatures nakedly raw or flash-heated—while adamantly resisting the whims of culinary couturiers. "I never liked to eat gelée before it was fashionable, and I don't like it now," says Ripert. Sparing the ridiculous, he dresses his seafood dishes in the sublime—wasabi/lime for thin slices of raw geoduck, foie gras/truffle for shrimp ravioli, and lemon/paprika for roasted monkfish.
Ripert has also resisted come-ons to clone Le Bernardin elsewhere or create a diverse restaurant portfolio. Instead, he recently started Ripert Consulting, which so far has shaped restaurants in California and Florida, and, most notably, the food at Geisha, a Japanese fantasy in New York City (see Birth Announcements). He's written two well-received cookbooks—Le Bernardin Cookbook (with Maguy Le Coze) and A Return to Cooking (with Michael Ruhlman). He is also the chair of City Harvest's food council and serves as president of the newly formed Jean-Louis Palladin Foundation, which intends to transmit the late chef's legacy to young foodservice professionals. "You can't be greedy about your own success and not give back," he says. "It's your duty."
"Eric is the soul of Le Bernardin, its creator and director," says Maguy Le Coze. "He took my brother's place, not just for the business, but for holding a special place in my heart."