"I am an artisan": Chef Eric Ripert on meditation, demystifying seafood and his next chapters

"Whatever I do in my life, it's driven by passion," says the acclaimed chef and author of "Seafood Simple"

By Michael La Corte

Deputy Food Editor

Published October 4, 2023 1:30PM (EDT)

Eric Ripert (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Eric Ripert (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Chef Eric Ripert is a venerable titan within the restaurant industry — and beyond. From numerous cookbooks and a stunning memoir to one of the most awarded restaurants on the planet, he's an icon through and through.

When I was honored to have the privilege to be able to sit down with Ripert, though, he spoke about more than his esteemed credentials. We covered everything from the importance of meditation in his life to the question of wild-caught versus farm-raised fish, his time on food television and the far-reaching importance of an organization like City Harvest. (Also, did you know the famed French chef is actually part Italian? You really do learn something every day.)

He also spoke about his next chapters, emphasizing the fact that he's very happy with where he is right at this moment. "I am an artisan," Ripert told Salon Food. "When I am in a kitchen with the team and I'm working with the cooks and the waiters and the team, that makes me happy." You can watch the full "Salon Talks" episode here or read a transcript of our conversation below.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

I'd love to hear about what "Seafood Simple" means to you. What do you hope that readers and home cooks get from the book?

We did "Seafood Simple" because I noticed over the years that a lot of people are intimidated by seafood. They don't know how to purchase seafood, when it's fresh, when it's not fresh. They're not very confident. Then they bring the seafood at home, they try to cook it. If it's not fresh, as you know, it stink the house and then it's really bad. Therefore, I wanted to help people, first of all, to learn how to shop for seafood. Then, we have all the techniques that are needed to be successful in cooking seafood. It's going from poaching, steaming, grilling, frying, baking.

Every category.

Yes, every category. Therefore, we really guide you very precisely. You just have to follow the directions and it's almost idiot-proof, you're going to succeed. It is not that difficult.

For those who are interested in going home and cooking some fish right after they watch this, what would be the entry gateway fish or dish that you would recommend for a beginner? 

"Whatever I do in my life, it's driven by passion."

Well fish, it's whatever you find at the market, or wherever you shop, that is of good quality. You bring that home. Then as you know, tuna is very different than lobster, which is very different than even a white fish like halibut or striped bass. We have chapters with different techniques that really are beneficial for certain species to be elevated. You do not poach necessarily tuna, but you will sear it. You can steam halibut, for instance. It all depends of what you find, and it all depends of the season for the ingredients that go with it.

The easiest technique, the simplest technique is probably broiling or baking. If you are cooking for six or eight people and you're not very confident, I suggest that one. You go to that chapter, you open the chapter, you look at it, read it quickly. Easy, and then you'll make eight people happy.

One of my favorite recipes in the book is the salmon strudel, which reminds me almost a little bit of a Wellington, but with phyllo instead of puff pastry. Was that a brand new recipe for this? Was that ever at the restaurant? What was the development of that dish like?

That dish, we had it at the restaurant in special sometimes long time ago. We were putting truffles in the middle of the salmon and it was a bit more sophisticated, but we noticed that it was very quick, very fast to prepare and to cook, and that we actually loved it ourself very, very much. Actually, whatever we don't love doesn't go on the menu.

Oh, interesting. That's important.

It's important. If you don't love what you give to the clients, it's not good. But anyway, salmon in the phyllo is delicious. It brings texture and it's easy to make. 

It's beautiful in photos.

You're right, the pictures is beautiful. The photographer is very talented.

Every photo is gorgeous, really.

Yes. I have to say, I pay homage to his talent. His name is Nigel Parry, very famous for doing portraits of famous people. Then, he was amused by the project and he basically took actually portraits of the seafood.

This might be a tricky one, but if you had to pick your favorite dish in the book or your favorite technique, your favorite category, whether that's broiled, baked, I like sauteed, would you be able to pick one or is that too tricky?

It's not too tricky. I will pick the one that is right for the moment. For instance, if I am in summer in the backyard and I have access to the barbecue, I may want to grill the fish, because why not? It's the summer and I will do maybe a tuna, that is in the book. That in a book is seared, but we could grill it and then serve it with a salad and a balsamic vinegarette. That could be perfect for August 15.

Moving forward, let's suppose we are now in October or November and it's starting to be cold and you're starting to have root vegetables. I will change the recipe for maybe a red wine stew, which we have in the book, inspired by cacciucco, which is an Italian braised seafood dish with red wine. It's their version of bouillabaisse, but a bit different.

So, the seasonality is most important to you.

Seasonality is very important, that for sure, because it change your, not habits, but it change your taste. You're not going to eat in August something very heavy and rich. You feel like you want to eat something light. In January, you don't want to be grilling in the backyard.

Not at all. I'm going to go back a little bit for this one. "32 Yolks" is one of my favorite books, and you mention it of course in there, but I would love to know just a little bit about your earliest memories of food, fishing, cooking. Anything else that led you to where you are now.

"If you start with mediocre ingredients, the outcome will be mediocre. You cannot change that."

I was very lucky to have two grandmothers. One was from Provence, one from Italy, and my mother was an excellent cook inspired by modern cuisine and by big names in the industry like Paul Bocuse and Michel Guérard that were very famous in France. So, I had access to Italian soul food with grandma, and then Provencal soul food, and then with my mother, we were having those very elaborate breakfast, lunch and dinner at home. I was exposed at a very early stage in my life to all those type of cooking and enjoyed it very much.

I was allowed to go to the kitchen, because I was very young, I was four or five years old, but I was allowed only to watch and taste. They didn't want me to cook anything because they were afraid I will mess up the kitchen, and they were right. I had to wait for much later on to be able to help. But, it's how I developed my passion for cooking. It was first because I love good food. I thought if I'm in a kitchen, I'm going to eat great food. Then I learned the passion for the craftsmanship and so on.

In the intro of the book, you mentioned pounded tuna as one of the signature dishes at Le Bernardin. I'd love to hear about the history of that dish, what it is, and what it means to you.

Today at Le Bernardin, the pounded tuna that we have is fairly sophisticated. It's a toasted baguette, a piece of foie gras on top, and then the carpaccio of tuna. That dish didn't make it to the book because it's not that simple. But, we have the carpaccio that was originally created at Le Bernardin in 1986 when Le Bernardin opened. 

Seafood carpaccio didn't exist at that time, and I think Cipriani in Venice created the beef carpaccio during the Carpaccio exhibit, I don't remember which year, but it was way before. Carpaccio was a painter, a famous painter during the Renaissance. In Venice, they had this exhibit and they invented the dish. People were very inclined to order. The carpaccio was very popular in the '80s. 

Gilbert Le Coze, the chef of Le Bernardin at the time with his sister  Maguy Le Coze, were thinking about opening Le Bernardin, and what could they do? They ate beef carpaccio and Gilbert said, "I think I can do that with tuna." Then, the technique is very different than making a meat carpaccio, but we explain in the book how to make it. It's not complicated, and the carpaccio was born. It's thin layer of tuna, olive oil, salt, paper, chives, lemon juice.


Cannot be simpler than that.

Is there a fish, or any type of seafood, that you maybe don't love or you don't love cooking or working with? 

Well, I like quality ingredients. If the ingredients that I have in my hands are wild or even farm raised, if it's of good quality, I'm happy to cook it and potentially eat it. But, if it's something that is of poor quality, for sure, I will not touch that product. Because I think it's very important at the beginning to pick and choose excellent products, because even if you are a genius in cooking, if you start with mediocre ingredients, the outcome will be mediocre. You cannot change that.

Do you think that home cooks should ideally have a focus or a preference when it comes to farm raised or wild caught? 

"Today we have to think about sustainability."

Well, I think today we have to think about sustainability because we have no choice and we know that some species in the wild are under stress. We don't want to eat farm raised fish that is polluting the region where the farms are. We have to be educated. As chefs, of course we try to educate ourself as much as we can. As a consumer, I really encourage everyone who purchase seafood to know where it's coming from, to know if it's a species that is about to disappear or it's something that is not endangered.

Again, if it comes from a farm, I think you want to research a little bit to find out the practices of the farm. Some farms are really, really amazing in terms of being clean and not polluting the water, and so on. Some farms, they don't really care. If you can research a little bit, it's a good idea. Now, I know it's hard to go to the market and to know where the fish comes from exactly, but if you have a good fishmonger, you can have a dialogue with him and say, "Hey, do you know where it's coming from?" He may say, "It's coming from Maine," and you may find out a bit more about who catch it in Maine. Is it a day boat? Is it a long liner? Is it a factory boat? A lot of questions you can ask.

You had mentioned also about certain species that might be endangered or certain fish that maybe you should steer clear of. Would you say there's anything that home cooks should perhaps not purchase from a sustainability perspective?

It all changed so quickly. Years ago, at one point we realized the swordfish was in danger because the fish was smaller and smaller and smaller at the market. There was a campaign to protect the animals and saying do not buy swordfish right now, give them a break. The population came back. 

I think that one of the most successful story in America is about the striped bass on East Coast, right here. I think the stock of striped bass in the early '90s collapsed total, completely, and there was no more striped bass, almost extinct. They took some drastic decisions. Today, striped bass is plentiful. You have striped bass everywhere. It's all changing quickly and you have to, again, be aware of what's happening. At one point, also, the Chilean sea bass, suddenly it was so popular, it was endangered, and we had to give a break to the fish. Today, that population is slowly coming back. We had orange roughy, that was a fish that takes 25 years to become like this. Suddenly everybody loves the name, it's a great fish, everybody buys it. They had to stop completely catching the fish to let the population grow. We are still waiting. It remains to be seen.

I'm a huge "Top Chef" fan. You were a guest judge and appeared often. Do you still watch the show? Do you have any favorite memories or dishes or things that you can recall from your time on the show?

I have been many times on "Top Chef," as you mentioned. I think I started to be on "Top Chef" on season two when they were in Los Angeles. Probably I have been 20 times on "Top Chef," at least 20 times over the years. The last one, my last episode with them was the finals when Buddha won the competition. That was not too long ago, and I still go when I have time. But you're right, it was especially at the beginning of the existence of "Top Chef" that I went. 

I have a lot of memories, of course. It's really fabulous to see all those young talents compete and create, I mean, under pressure, some delicious dishes. It's definitely impressive. I have to say, when we shot the last episode with Buddha, I was very impressed with his talent, and his dessert was gorgeous. He made some trills and they look like maple leaves, and it was fabulous.

I know that I've read a good amount about you outside of food, about how important meditation is for you both professionally in the kitchen as well as personally or in leisure time. Can you tell me a bit about that philosophy?

"I don't want to open many restaurants. I have no interest in doing that. I'm very happy with Le Bernardin."

Meditation is, it's an exercise that is not necessarily related to a religion. It's basically going to the gym for your brain. Usually your mind has a lot of thoughts passing by every second, every minute. You either way thinking about the past or you're thinking about the future. You're rarely in the present. You basically have your brain controlling yourself. You're not even controlling your brain. Meditation is an exercise that helps you to be the boss of your brain, and decide, and therefore it helps you a lot to be in the present, to be focused. 

Then when you are focused, when you are in the present, you can decide which topic you want to think about and go in depth with that topic. It's very helpful to me in my life at work, and also at home. Because it allows me, again, to be taking care of tasks that need a lot of attention, and the meditation has trained my mind how to take care of those tasks in a very organized way.

You've done some work on the board of City Harvest in New York City. It's been a challenging year for food insecurity. Are you aware of what endeavors or goals there might be to help mitigate that and lessen the impact going forward?

Well, New York is a big city, and as you know, is the financial capital of the world. However, we have in New York City 1.5 million people living under poverty level, which is defined by making less than $75,000 for a family of four. It's a lot of people who are living in poverty and a lot of people who are food insecure. To give you a good number, it's one child out of four doesn't know when he's going to have his next meal when the school doesn't provide the meal. 

For New York, City Harvest is essential. City Harvest, rescues food that will go to waste, with volunteers and also employees that work for the organization. That food is distributed to shelters, to food pantries, and also City Harvest has mobile markets in different areas of New York, Manhattan and the Bronx and the Queens. Every borough has a market, and people who have a special authorization can come and they can pick up a few vegetables that, for instance, right now you have on the market squash, cauliflower, potatoes, leeks. Then because it's the season, they may find some oranges, pears, and apples or something like that. 

City Harvest delivered last year 90 million pounds of food. Which is basically 90 million meals to people in need. During COVID, they stepped up to 270 million pounds of food during the crisis when New York was in lockdown and the businesses were closed and so on. City Harvest is a New York organization that is very successful. 27 trucks all the time on the road. Some trailers that go where food is being available. Let's suppose you're a farmer, you are far away from New York, and you have potatoes that you cannot sell. City Harvest comes, pick it up, bring it back and then distribute it.

They do really, really amazing work that's necessary, too.

They have their boots on the ground.

You oversee one of the most lauded restaurants in the world. You've written amazing books, you've appeared on tons of television shows like we talked about, and now you have this great new book out. Going forward, what might be next for you down the road?

What may be next? Well, it's simple. I don't want to open many restaurants. I have no interest in doing that. I'm very happy with Le Bernardin. I am an artisan. When I am in a kitchen with the team and I'm working with the cooks and the waiters and the team, that makes me happy. When I do books, I am very inspired to do my books. I'm very involved, and brings tremendous pleasure to me. 

Therefore, whatever I do in my life, it's driven by passion. Right now, my passion is to promote the book, and also to take care of Le Bernardin. Go into cold season and change the menu, be creative with the team. It's almost like someone who's working in fashion that creates collection for the spring and the summer and the fall and the winter. When I change the menus, it's a little bit like that. It's very creative, and I will say, this is my future.

By Michael La Corte

Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, he worked in restaurants, catering and supper clubs before pivoting to food journalism and recipe development. He also holds a BA in psychology and literature from Pace University.

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