We Create a “Smart Fusion”
between Japanese Ingredients and Ours
Eric Ripert Born in Antibes, France in 1965, Chef Eric Ripert attended culinary school in Perpignan, and in 1982 moved to Paris to work at the renowned La Tour D’Argent. Ripert came to the United States in 1989 to work as sous chef at Jean Louis in the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. In 1991, he moved to New York where he worked briefly as sous-chef under David Bouley until he was offered a job by siblings Maguy and Gilbert Le Coze as a chef at Le Bernardin. In 2003, he received the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef of the Year.
Eric Ripert is partner/chef of Le Bernardin, a four star French restaurant specializing in seafood. He constantly explores new ingredients and cooking styles with enthusiasm for the purpose of creating dishes which fully utilize them. After encountering Japanese food, he began to adopt many of this cuisine’s aspects. He spoke with Chopsticks New York about his culinary philosophy and the influence of Japanese cuisine.
You have French cuisine as your base, but you incorporate ingredients and preparation methods that are different. What is your trick for successfully mixing these other ingredients and styles?
French cuisine is the base of our cooking, but it’s about creating harmony. Though it’s never perfect, if you search for balance between flavors and consistencies you find success in your cooking and people like what you do. Obviously, you need the right techniques and the inspiration, which for us comes from traveling and interacting with other countries’ cuisine, because New York as you know is a melting pot.
How about the incorporation of Japanese cuisine, which is plentiful here in NY?
We create what I call a “smart fusion” between Japanese ingredients and ours. I love the fact that we can play like that. We don’t always succeed, but when we do it’s something new. I had a lot of friends from Japan and I love Japanese cuisine, but the Americanized kind. I think I go to Japanese restaurants the most out of all cuisines. I absolutely love Masa, and go often to Yakitori Totto as it’s close to my restaurant and Sushi of Gari as it’s close to my home. I finally had the chance to go to Tokyo last year. Because I had never been to Japan before, the negative side was that I had been ignorant about Japanese food, but the positive side was that it gave me freedom to use the ingredients and do it my own way, without knowing what would be the traditional way.
So what were your impressions when you went to Tokyo?
I didn’t want to leave! I stayed a week, but the next time I want to go for at least two weeks and I want to go to Kyoto and other parts of the island. But Tokyo was a revelation for me, it was incredible! I went to a sushi place where I had the best sushi of my entire life. I didn’t know it but the Michelin guide had given them three stars. It was simple, down the subway stairs and a counter with just 12 seats, but they had the most amazing fish. Something I noticed in Japan was a lot of the chefs are so passionate, and this is what they work for. It’s not for money or celebrity. They work and live for the craft, and they do things that money would never make them do. Like if they know that at the fish market Tsukiji there will be a guy there at 4 a.m. with fish that they need, they will go to buy these ingredients which they will later prepare to please someone.
You use a lot of Japanese ingredients. Which ones in particular do you like?
Shiso, wasabi, dashi broth (which we make with both kelp and bonito). Those kinds of ingredients are important to us because they’re very friendly to seafood. Yuzu is the most incredible discovery of my life! I exaggerate but it’s a fantastic citrus. We have been very influenced by those products, because each time we have access to them it gives us vast new territory in which to imagine new combinations.
What are the Japanese aspects of your preparation methods?
We think in a very Japanese way when we treat fish, because I think that they believe the fish is delicate and that it needs very little to make it great. We are not as extreme as doing sashimi, but in our raw preparation and cooked preparation we are extremely careful not to overwhelm the qualities of the fish. The fish is the star of the plate and whatever we add is supposed to elevate it. Though I respect lots of Japanese chefs, especially Masa, I never worked directly with one. But I worked for Joel Robuchon, who received a lot of his inspiration from Japan throughout his whole career. He is the most Japanese French chef!
What are the similarities between French and Japanese cuisine?
I noticed in Tokyo that there’s an incredible respect for tradition and it’s almost ritualistic the way Japanese chefs cook. The French in France have a little bit of that as well. It’s fantastic because of the respect for the food and for cooking, but here in NY we can do things that the chefs in Tokyo cannot even conceive of. They would say, “Are you crazy? You can’t work like that. For 100 years we have been like this…” This is the same mentality they have in France.
On the other hand, what are the differences between the two cuisines?
Well, the ingredients are very different, with France being in the heart of Europe and Japan in Asia. Also, I think we are not as daring as the Japanese at promoting simplicity. It’s slightly more complicated, but I’m getting there! I like the purity of the style. We believe like the Japanese chefs that when the product is beautiful, you don’t have to do much. It’s beautiful by itself. But we still have a little bit of a French twist. However, at the end of the day it’s about harmony and pairing the best ingredients to create the best experience. It’s a lifestyle around food, where the French love food and Japanese obviously love food as well. It’s an entire dynamic around the meal, bringing family and friends together. It’s a way of socializing but it is also a borderline obsession. Maybe “obsession” is a bit strong, but for sure it is a passion.
What are the special features of your summer menu?
We have a lot of Japanese influence on our menu right now. In fact, six months ago we opened the menu and realized that 80% of it was Japanese influenced, so we had to cut back some and add a bit more French. [laugh] I had been getting excited about new ingredients and got carried away! But you can still find dishes largely incorporating Japanese ingredients such as Kanpachi Tartare topped with Wasabi Tobiko, White Soy-Yuzu Marinated Fluke and Mahi Mahi with Shiso-Matsutake Salad.
You are known to get new ideas and ingredients when you travel, but what have your recent sources of inspiration been?
I was recently in the northern part of India near Kashmir, so that was a big inspiration. The way it influences me is that it is like immediate inspiration, and sometimes I need to digest and it comes back later on. I don’t want to force things and the way I work is to let it happen naturally. When it comes, it comes. So India was my last trip and we now have a dish with tandoori spice. But the Indian influence does not overwhelm the menu, as I like to introduce things little by little.
What does the near future hold for Le Bernardin?
We have a new restaurant in Philadelphia that just opened in May. It is more broadly based than the NY location and more casual as well. I also have a cookbook coming out in the fall. We have published two already, the first one being about the history of Le Bernardin with recipes and the second one was an experiment between a writer, a painter, two photographers and myself in discovering the four seasons in four locations and living together in a house. The current book we’re doing is a documentary of Le Bernardin, like a snapshot of the restaurant, so that will be something to look forward to.
———– Interview by Stacy Smith
155 W. 51st St. (bet. 6th & 7th Aves.) New York, NY 10019
10 Arts by Eric Ripert
10 Avenue of the Arts, Philadelphia, PA 19102