At the PSFK Conference New York 2008, Michelin star chef Eric Ripert (Le Bernardin) explains how he seeks inspiration for his menu, service and brand. To gain further inspiration from speakers like Eric, why not attend PSFK Conference San Francisco on July 17? More details here: www.psfk.com/psfk-conference-san-francisco. Topline transcript: JUSTIN: I’m Justin Barocas, founding partner […]
JUSTIN: I’m Justin Barocas, founding partner of Anomaly. His biography is quite spectacular. There are handfuls of great chefs in the world. Born in Chef, classically trained. Worked in legendary culinary temples in Paris and New Work, and of course, Le Bernardin. Earned 4 stars from the New York Times at 29, which he holds to this day. Been named the number one restaurant. Classified as the best food in NYC by Zagat for the last 7 years. It’s also been given 3 Michelin stars since they brought it to the US. You’ve seen him on Letterman, Charlie Rose. They say stars are easier to get than maintain yet you’ve maintained a consistent level of quality. How are you able to do that?
ERIC: Not sure that it’s simply to manage your staff and level of quality. It’s definitely a lot of work and passion into what we do. When you get the awards ad review, in my industry it’s the highest compliment and very tough to get it to begin with: it’s not that difficult in NYC because the fact is that your competition keeps you on top. If you’re not really on top of your game and very focused and not inspired, someone is going to push you away. I love that aspect of the city. It makes you want to keep up and be better. To maintain a restaurant, I’m not doing it by myself. I’m not cooking every carrot in the kitchen, every piece of fish. It’s a team. You have to motivate the team, make sure they’re inspired, want to stay with you, helping you to succeed the level of quality that you envision.
JUSTIN: Marketing industry also competitive. NY raises the level of anyone’s game.
ERIC: If you don’t have competition, you’re content with what you’ve accomplished. Competition keeps you in many ways young in your mind. Keeps you creative, makes you want to be better than you are. No one is tired of what he’s doing.
JUSTIN: French cooking and chefs known for their refinement and finesse. I had an expectation of what a 4 star chef would be – you defied all those expectations. Approach was more classic and fresh. What makes your approach unique?
ERIC: The French cooking culture is very strong. Long history about eating, very traditional notions. When you go to restaurants, the chefs in charge of the kitchen teaching you give you a very rigid eruptional. If you put meat with salmon, it’s a no no. Also in French culture, we teach you by reinforcing you positively. No one tells you you’re doing a good job. If you can survive that you will become a champion. In terms of creativity, you don’t’ have too many people who want to be creative because of the education they got. If you’re from the south of France you’re supposed to cook with that style. NY is a melting pot, different ethnicities from all over the globe. In 20 minutes, from China town to Arab markets. Uptown, Latin influences. As a chef, I’m inspired by my surroundings. Because I’m in NY, I’m inspired by whatever I found and I found so many things. I can bring up new techniques and new flavors and work on it. It’s really NY cuisine. I’m lucky enough to travel quite a bit and can always bring back something into our restaurant.
JUSTIN: Talk about creative process of where you get your ideas from?
ERIC: It’s not like you push a button and from 8-9you’re creative. Creativity comes sporadically and in waves. Sometimes I’m extremely creative when I’m in a plane. Not because of the food, but because I’m relaxed (when I travel the world and the US for fun and business reasons) – I just came back from India and so far, nothing. Not like the food wasn’t interesting. I try to not force my mind to create when I’m not feeling it. Lately our menu is very Asian. I went to Hong Kong and Japan a few years ago. And from day one, it came in very subtle ways. 80% of the main course is Asian influenced. 10 years ago 80% was Italian. I storage ideas, feelings mixed with the food and then it comes back and it bombards me. Sometimes it’s in the middle of the night. I always have a pen and paper and make notes, then I make listings of those notes, and then from those ideas we test it. Most of the time we discard it and end up with a small percentage.
JUSTIN: Talk about one dish in particular. The calamari?
ERIC: About 18 years ago in a Vietnamese restaurant, I ate the spring roll. I thought it would be a good idea to do a stuffed calamari. I tried and tried and tried. For 17 years I didn’t’ find a way for me to be happy or our team. Finally last year it clicked and I found a way to make the calamari I wanted. The idea came from an experience that struck me 17 years ago.
JUSTIN: Tell us about something that didn’t work out but applied in a productive way.
ERIC: There are many things like that. At one point we decided to create a partnership with a famous brand, managed by Marriott, very dedicated to deliver a great product to the public. We thought we’d have a great partnership. After decided to work together, I realized they wanted to use our brand, have Le Bernardin associated with them but wanted to control the brand, to think like them, to deliver a product that they would deliver itself. It was a big struggle and fight to impose our views. You chose us because you didn’t’ want us to be a Marriott employee. Do not try to impose on us your view and make us a puppet to execute your views and food. You don’t’ know how to run a restaurant. You have to be yourself and defend your ideas to the end. We have four restaurants with them, very successful.
JUSTIN: When does cooking approach an art form? Its seems very minimalist and simple.
ERIC: To me, don’t see the interest, the art form in putting carrots in the right or left side of the plate, or recreating food which is tall or flat. If you think it’s an art, it’s more than the interpretation of the chef, more than an egoistic vision. If it’s an art, to me it’s sacred. Before the Renaissance, painters and scriptors were assigned and dedicated to show that life is sacred. If cooking is an art, our way of being artists is to thank the gift of earth of what god is giving us and to pay homage to the bounty that we are living in. When we serve a lobster it’s alive in front of you. You’re going to take his life away. He’s going to scream at you. You’re taking a life. Therefore if you create a recipe, you have to be very dedicated to elevate the lobster and make it good and tasty.
JUSTIN: Walk between creativity and commercialism?
ERIC: Used to be very concerned when I was creating about the operational side of the business. We’re gonna need 3 cooks dedicated to that one dish, going to cost a lot of money. Today I ignore the practicality of making that dish. I have a lot of freedom. I’m creating a beautiful dish. Have to make it in our physical world. Therefore, we work with the team. They come up with the solutions to create the vision I have. If you’re in an artistic place in your business, you have to watch your vision and at stage two, you’ll find those solutions. But you have to separate it.
JUSTIN: What trends might be available on the horizon in food. We’ve focused on organics and sourcing and aquaculture.
ERIC: Organic and sustainable is going to stay a strong trend. We were focusing on developing our own business, never really thought about the planet. Now we’re self-conscious. We’re abusing it in many forms. Today, I see a big trend, trying to create some business models and farmings keeping in mind that the planet is fragile. We have to have a certain sensibility about it. Organic and sustainable doesn’t mean that your product is good. An organic cheese 10 years ago was inedible, like rubber. An organic apple doesn’t mean that it’s good. What we’re going to see is a development of products that are sustainable but something which is going to be, people want to eat something good, but they want to eat something good when they eat.
JUSTIN: We’ll no longer have to make that choice.
ERIC: Hopefully not. And we’re already in that trend already.
JUSTIN: We’ve been working on a project where we’re creating recipes made in a toaster oven, elegant and refined by simple. Talk about that experience.
ERIC: I live in a NY apartment and many are very condensed kitchen. Mine is tiny and not necessarily well equipped. My oven became storage for pots and pans. Doesn’t really bother me. I eat at the restaurants. But my wife cooks for my son and myself, finds it very inconvenient. She doesn’t know how to cook well. She’s OK. One night I came home early. She was cooking some chicken tenders in a toaster oven. I said: what are you doing? She said, wait, it’s delicious. Olive oil, chicken tenders, it’s tender, it’s delicious. This is a great idea. Not a big production, don’t have to keep your oven a long time waiting for the temperature to be right. I thought it would be a good idea to create recipes for the family at home and then we decided to develop recipes which are about 5 or 6 minutes, 10 minutes with the prep time. Yesterday we had Greek tomatoes, sliced it in 3 pieces, fresh herbs, olive oil, 5 minutes later we had a tremendous tomato.
JUSTIN: The last question. Where do you buy your groceries?
ERIC: I live on the UES. A mom and pop store, you find Greek products. They’re very nice. And they always add things in my basket to try.
JUSTIN: It must be nice. Any questions?
QUESTION: What does a 4 star restaurant mean? Culturally in NY?
ERIC: It’s a restaurant combining luxury – the décor and on the table – great service and great cooking. When I say luxury, it’s also a restaurant that can provide wine list for people with a passion for wine. Don’t necessarily have them in any other restaurants. Combining luxury, beauty, quality of service, and good food.
JUSTIN: There are only five 4-star restaurants in NYC. It’s also ridiculously expensive.
ERIC: All because of the euro!
QUESTION: To what extent do you rely on patron’s feedback for new creations?
ERIC: When we create new dishes, we test it among ourselves, then some friends. It is true that the client is the important one. My industry is about hospitality. But when I think about a dish, I never think first about the client. It comes second. Not in importance, but the creative part is disconnected from the eventual feedback from the client. It gives me more freedom to create something. I don’t’ want to sound pretentious – I’m not cooking what the client wants, I’m cooking what I want, and the client comes to see what I did. When someone comes to our restaurant, it’s a menu which is reflective of what we’re doing today. And people are coming to have that experience.
QUESTION: It takes a long time, bringing your patrons along. When it’s finally there, when is it time to let it go and move on?
ERIC: That’s very easy. Those dishes have been successful and suddenly you become states. You rely on your success in the past. Your staff becomes bored. It’s not inspiring for anyone. Even the signature dish, the standards will be lower and lower. Would be exceptional because of all the care you put in it, it just becomes OK because it’s not fresh in our minds anymore. We try to change the menu as much as we can but not for the heck of changing something. We have something that we believe is better than the previous dish. Sometimes it’s on the menu for a few seasons because we didn’t’ come up with something better. Thank you very much.