Q & A With Eric Ripert, Part 2: Celebrity Chefs, Spago's Spies + The Identity of Ruth Bourdain
A. Scattergood Eric Ripert at the Chateau Marmont
In the first part of our interview with Eric Ripert, the French chef who is chef-partner at New York City's Le Bernardin, the author of four cookbooks, the host of his own PBS show, Friend Of Tony, and (lest we forget) recipient of France's Legion d'Honneur, the chef talked about a lot of stuff at a swank table at the Chateau Marmont.
In part two, he talks some more, about his opinions on the role of celebrity chefs, cooking at the Watergate Hotel (yes, Nixon's Watergate), and his take on the identity of Ruth Bourdain. So turn the page, and be sure to check back later for Ripert's recipe for roast chicken. A little something to make while you watch his show.
Squid Ink: You're in a unique position to comment on this next question, both in terms of yourself, and given the amount of time you spend with Anthony Bourdain: What do you think about the idea of the chef as celebrity?
Eric Ripert: Well, obviously I think it's a good thing, to bring attention to my industry. I mean, 30 years ago we were called by the waiters "the white rats." We used to call them "the penguins." And the media created the celebrity chefs. Emeril Lagasse, you know the names. I see that as a good thing, because it's inspiring people to potentially eat better, to know more about food. It's creating an entire economy. I'd rather to eat in a restaurant from Jean-Georges [Vongerichten], out of the 35 restaurants that he has, than an obscure dirty place, because I know what to expect.
And then for the young generation, obviously they can dream and so on. But we have to be cautious because my industry seems to be glamorous, but as soon as you enter the kitchen there's no more glamor. It's hardcore physical long hours, tough, it's hot, it's humid. Physically it's painful; mentally it's stressful. And you know that Mother's Day, Father's Day, Christmas, New Year's Eve, Easter, whatever, you're in the kitchen. So when I talk, I do some talks sometimes in schools, I say, Make sure you that you test your passion, because if you overcome those challenges you will have amazing rewards. There's a lot of gratification in what we do. But it's not about becoming famous and it's not about becoming rich. Because in that case you're in the very wrong industry. And I always say to them -- actually we're in LA, it's very LA -- it's like if you want to become an actor because you want to win an Oscar and be in People magazine, well, you miss the point.
SI: Great analogy. Because it's brutal.
ER: And the school's are expensive. If you go to Harvard, it costs you that much, but when you come out of Harvard, your salary is more or less consistent. But when you come out of culinary school you make $5.75 an hour, you peel carrots in the back of the kitchen.
SI: That's an important message to tell kids.
ER: A lot of them don't get it. I see a lot of people who change careers in the middle of their life and they think it's a good idea to come in the kitchen. I see them, they're 47 years old, and I think [sighs], Watch out. You don't know what you're doing.
SI: It's one thing for Bill Buford [author of Heat and staff writer for The New Yorker] to do it.
ER: Bill is writing a book; it's okay. And at 40 years old you don't take the same criticism, physically it's killing you, when you don't have the habit. Cooks build muscles; we can stand all day long on our feet and not feel the pain. Actually, for me it's more painful to sit down. But for someone who's coming like that and suddenly to spend 12 hours, and the heat and everything else, it's really challenging.
SI: So you cooked for awhile at the Watergate Hotel?
ER: Yes. [Laughs.] It was my first job, in 1989.
SI: Nixon's Watergate Hotel, right?
ER: That one. Haha. With the same security guys.
SI: Always wondered if there was something on the menu, like Nixon's Favorite Omelet.
ER: No, because the chef was Jean-Louis Palladin, who was a French chef.
SI: You ran a foundation with him, right?