Eric Ripert Talks Survival, Inspiration and Anger Management in his Memoir
Eric Ripert is no stranger to media. The chef/partner of New York City’s revered Le Bernadin has written five cookbooks, won Emmy awards for his PBS show, Avec Eric, and is a frequent guest on his good friend Anthony Bourdain’s various shows. But Ripert’s recent autobiography, 32 Yolks: From My Mother’s Table to Working the Line, shows a side of the famed chef that even Bourdain didn’t know; sharing the history of his turbulent, abusive childhood and equally difficult time navigating the kitchens of La Tour d’Argent and Jamin, for Joël Robuchon. We talked with Ripert about the book and his personal story when he visited Chicago on his book tour; here’s an excerpt of the conversation.
Having read On the Line, which was more of an insider look at life as a chef, I was surprised at how deeply personal your memoir was. And yet, you seem like a private person who does not dwell on the past. Why did you decide to tell these stories now, after years of keeping them to yourself?
A lot of what I’ve done with books is about my life since I came to America, but I looked into my childhood, and my life before America, and realized I had a lot of interesting stories to tell. It was a very slow process to do this. I took a lot of time to go through the details of the book and write this book, because I wanted it to be precise, and I didn’t want anyone to come back and say, ‘Hey, it was not like that.’ Years later, it’s ready, and I’m very proud of it.
One of the most striking things about the first part of your book is the strength of your sense memory, even as far back as a toddler. You talk about the sound of your father playing Louis Armstrong on the trumpet, of smelling his aftershave, smelling the “metallic odor of blood” that helped you find the butcher at the market with your grandmother, the smells and tastes of the food from various kitchens. Have you always remembered these things well, or did the process of writing the book bring them back?
So, my memory. Long-term is amazing, short-term is very damaged. But that’s not for the book (laughs). But I have this incredible memory. When I went back to think about my childhood, I have vivid memories of being two and a half years old—and I know I am two and a half because I am in the high chair—and I remember we had a large kitchen at that time. My mother was trying to feed me brains, because at that time in the 60s and 70s, it was considered that if you fed your child brains, you would make him smarter. And I hated it so much that I would take my spoon and throw the brains at my mother. I have those scenes in my mind that are very, very powerful.
And I can remember everything by the smells. In Provence, I would go to the market, and we could smell the produce, the strawberries; you could smell everything at the market, even the ground.
You had quite a temper when you were growing up from flinging calves brains at your mother to fighting regularly with your parents, and terrible fights with your stepfather. Were you aware of being angry so often?
I had a very bad temper. I was a very difficult child and a very difficult teenager. And when I came to America, I carried that temper with me. When I was in kitchens, I alienated some of my mentors because of it. I was very mean chef, abusive in the kitchen. Nobody wants to work for someone who is not inspiring them, who is mean to them. I was very angry in my life. Then one day I sat down and said, ‘What is happening?” And then I realized you cannot mix anger and madness with the creative process. I started to change, I found a therapist to talk to me and changed my attitude in the kitchen. And over time, I changed the attitude in the kitchen. I couldn’t do it before; I was impatient. Today, in the kitchen and the team is very happy and inspiring. We can do our best with our passion for cooking. It’s been a process. The good news is that I changed my way of management several years ago, so it’s better.
Your mother was a fantastic cook; you talk about gorgeous meals of crab soufflé, tagines, tarte tatin. You wrote that, “My mother was never more expressive of her love than when she was in the kitchen.”
She was divorced and a very successful businesswoman. She would get up at four or five in the morning, and create our lunch and dinner, which was an appetizer, main course, cheese and dessert. She served it on different china for lunch than for dinner. There were candles at the table at night. For me, it was a happy moment, and a peaceful moment. My mother had remarried, and my stepfather fought with me, in arguments and physically. The only peace we had was around the table.
You found a father figure in Chef Jacques, who owned a local restaurant and was clearly very important to you, especially as a refuge from your stepfather. Looking back, did food and love become the same thing for you?
I always wanted to cook, but my mom was like, don’t touch anything. Jacques was famous where I grew up, in Andorra, which is a very small place; everyone knows everyone. He was eccentric, and an amazing cook. He was always there in his restaurant, cooking for 20 people. People would come to the restaurant and he would say, ‘Who sent you?’ And if you said, ‘it was the minister of finance,’ he would say, ‘Get out of here!’ He would welcome people who came for the food like kings. I guess he saw something in me. He would invite me back to watch him cooking, and he would feed me chocolate mousse and tarte tatin, and talk to me while he cooked. I started to learn the craftsmanship and artistry of the kitchen from him. He was my first mentor, and very inspirational to me at the time.
You aren’t afraid of sharing your mistakes from culinary school and your early days cooking. Dumping drinks on a colonial and his wife during service in school—three times. Electrocuting your chef when you were an intern. Cutting yourself the minute you started working at La Tour. Burning 24 ducks to a crisp. And then you burned yourself significantly with boiling lobster stock. You say that you messed up so many preparations in every way possible, and can explain how to a young cook. Are you able to remember those moments when they happen to others at Le Bernadin?
I learned that you have to learn from your mistakes, and have a good leader, and good teacher, to guide you. That’s important to me as a chef now. I think a good chef, a good leader, has made mistakes, has done these things. That’s how you know when your cooks are making mistakes, when they are hiding it from you, and sometimes lying—actually all the time lying to you. When I ask a cook when he made the sauce, and I want the sauce to be very fresh and almost à la minute, when he says he just made it, and I know it’s the sauce from lunch. He looks at me like, ‘How does this guy know I did that?’ but it’s because I used to do that myself. It’s the only way to really understand how mistakes can happen in the kitchen, because I made mistakes. It’s part of the experience, for sure.
A little more than halfway through the book, you announce that you were being sent to hell when you got a job at Joël Robuchon’s Jamin. Two chapters later, it’s titled “The Taste of Terror.” You wrote about the incredible tension, the “fight-or-flight” instincts, what it was like to watch others go down, the dread you felt all day Sunday, knowing you had to go back in on Monday, the constant fear of being noticed, because being noticed was to be reprimanded, to the point of cruelty. What pushed you to continue in that environment? Did you ever think you would get it right?
It goes back a little bit to the 80s, the kitchen environment then. I mean, cooks got abused in kitchens all the time; it was common practice. Almost every kitchen, it was accepted. It was part of the education. The French education, especially in the kitchens at that time, the philosophy was, every take these young individuals, and turn them into champions. The kitchens were extremely violent.
Working for Robuchon, the kitchen was very different. There was no violence, no screaming. He was considered a genius, the best chef of the decade. He was this very rigorous, serious chef, extremely demanding, almost irrational in what he asked us to do. It was borderline impossible.
We would start at 6am and work until 1am, so we would have five hours to go home, have a shower, go to sleep and come back. It was very intense. We were 25 cooks for 40 covers, and we still couldn’t make it. The precision of the plates and decoration, but especially the combination of flavors, was extremely unique, and we knew it. Sometimes he would send back the plates three, four, five times. It was not a pleasant experience.
You note that Robuchon set the same punishing standards for himself, and that even when he pushed you and the other cooks to the edge, he did the same to himself. You wrote that “every criticism he hurled at us, he had hurled at himself a hundred times.” Did you have that kind of insight while working for him, or is it only in retrospect?
Joël Robuchon was extremely demanding of himself first, and then of his kitchen. He was trying to achieve perfection. As we all know, that’s very subjective, and perfection actually doesn’t exist. But the process can be very interesting, and he was pushing himself very far, and us with him. We could see that when he sent the plate back, we could see his face, and we could see the pain on it if it wasn’t perfect to his eyes. We’d see him, thinking about it, holding the plate in his hands and he was cleaning the plate and cleaning the plate and cleaning the plate and we were thinking, ‘Don’t send the plate back, please. Please.’
And he was looking at the plates after they went out. When plates came back from the dining room, he would inspect every plate, and he would see a piece of food, a tiny piece left on the plate, and suddenly he would just … it would kill him. He would say, ‘I don’t understand. How can you send food out that people don’t like, that they want to eat?’ There was no response except, ‘Yes, Chef, I am sorry.’ He would do that all night long. At midnight, he would still inspect the plates as they came back for any food remaining. He would talk to you about it for a week. Sometimes, he would say, ‘How is the lobster?’ And you would say, ‘Chef, the lobster is perfect.’ And he would say, ‘Oh, really? Remember last week, when you said the lobster was perfect?’ He would go on and on and on about it, and it was very stressful. He couldn’t accept the fact that we could send something to the dining room that was anything but perfect. Anything on the plate could trigger his frustration.
The book ends with you flying to America to work with Jean-Louis Palladan with just one suitcase, thinking your time in America might be as short as one month.
I didn’t speak any English at the time, and I thought since Jean-Louis was French, that he would speak French to me. Absolutely not; he spoke only English. It was a very different experience for me to come to America. It was a different challenge for me, and the language was part of it.
Does America feel like home to you? When did that happen?
I am an American. I have an American passport. Of course I am French and will never forget my French roots and where I come from, but I have been here for a very long time, and am extremely happy in America, and a proud American, for sure. With a French accent.