Famed French chef Eric Ripert, who has found massive success with his highly rated flagship restaurant Le Bernardin in New York City and as a judge on "Top Chef," has written a book, "Avec Eric," sharing his culinary adventures. He recently sat down with TODAYshow.com to answer questions from us and our readers. He dishes on what it's really like being on "Top Chef," his holiday traditions and, of course, his buddy Anthony Bourdain.
Q: Can you dish on your experience as a “Top Chef” judge?
A: We have really long hours! We take it so seriously, and purposely, we have no contact with the contestants outside of judging — we don’t know who’s good, who’s bad, who’s the traitor — we just see the food they present and judge what’s on the table today. We debate even the smallest details. One time we debated from midnight until 6 a.m., and I had finally had enough and had to leave to catch a flight at 7! All you see is the short, edited version on TV, but we really discuss everything and often don’t agree. But it’s fun to eat great food, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised about the dishes and creativity of techniques used.
Q: Do you have any special traditions when celebrating the holidays? And do you celebrate Thanksgiving?
A: I love celebrating the holiday with family — it’s all about good food, good wines, and it’s very convivial and warm. I celebrate Thanksgiving when I’m in the U.S., but if I’m in France then I don’t. This year I’ll be in St. Barts, so spicy lobster will be my equivalent to turkey. Overall, I don’t really like turkey — I find it too dry. Instead, I prefer roast chicken.
Q: What are the three seasonings (other than salt and pepper) that you can’t live without?
—Question from Dan Scheeringa
A: Herbes de Provence, Madras curry and nutmeg.
Q: If you could only eat one dish made by another chef for the rest of your life, what would it be?
—Question from Heidi Richardson McHugh
A: It would be an old signature dish from chef Joel Robuchon: braised pig head with mashed potatoes. I was working in his kitchen at the time. He braises the head … takes the tongue, cheeks, different parts of the neck and presents them on a plate with the braising sauce, which has so many spices and a lot of flavor. And it’s paired with the most silky, smooth mashed potatoes you’ve ever had in your life.
Q: What is your best creation?
—Question from Tamara Ashford
A: That’s a tough one — we create a lot here, and the menu is always evolving and changing. I would say the salmon-caviar croque monsieur. A croque monsieur isn’t upscale, but making it with caviar and smoked salmon makes it ultra-luxurious, and makes a strong statement.
Q: How do you relax after a long day in the kitchen?
—Question from Carrie Brown
A: I go home, pour a glass of scotch — single malt on the rocks — and listen to music. I’m very open to different types of music, except for hard rock and punk. Sometimes I just look at concerts on Blu-ray. Last weekend I blasted a Pink Floyd concert.
Q: What’s the worst kitchen disaster you’ve faced?
—Question from Amy Kristine
A: It was graduation day — in France, for your first year in school, you spend half your time as a waiter and half your time as a cook. My teacher thought I was an excellent waiter, but all I wanted to do was cook. We set everything up for our parents to come see us, and I was chosen to be the sommelier — my teacher said I would be able to shine and show off to my mom. I was bringing cocktails on the tray, when it tipped and I spilled it all over a French colonel’s head. I went back to the bar to bring the drinks back and make it right, and as I was walking back, I slipped on an ice cube from the previous spill, fell, and spilled the drinks on the same colonel’s head again. My teacher just shook his head and said, “Next year, you’re going to stay in the kitchen.”
Q: On “Avec Eric,” you travel the world looking for culinary inspiration. Has there been any location or ingredient that has surprised you?
A: I’m surprised everywhere. I like to have the eyes of a 5-year-old so that I can have the experience of discovering a lot. I love the food of the Caribbean, particularly Puerto Rico — there are such amazing flavors. Lately, I’ve been fascinated, almost to the point of obsession, with Japanese food culture: the reverence and ritual they have around food, the high quality of the products and precision of their cooking techniques.
Q: People are fascinated with your “bromance” with Anthony Bourdain. He’s talked a lot about how much he admires you — what’s your take on the relationship?
A: We became friends after he wrote “Kitchen Confidential.” I called him up and invited him to lunch [at Le Bernardin] — I was just happy he didn’t trash me! He’s a very smart man who has a very sharp mind. He’s a loyal friend and very generous. We’re very different in our way of thinking — our relationship is kind of like “The Odd Couple.” We have tremendous respect for each other, and though it’s a sort of an absurd relationship, it works.
Q: You’ve received so many accolades for your work and have found great success with your restaurants. What lessons have you learned that you’d pass on to up-and-coming chefs?
A: It’s important not to think about the accolades; it’s important to focus on your true passion for cooking, and think about being creative, a good teacher and mentor to others and just making great dishes. There’s no glamour in the kitchen! A good analogy is, if you were an actor and you only go into acting because you want the Oscar, you’ll never win. You have to be hardworking and disciplined, and in time success will come.
Q: Has the celebrity status of chefs nowadays eroded quality in the industry?
A: No. It’s a blessing for the industry for chefs to be recognized. Forty years ago we were in the back of the kitchen peeling onions and carrots for $1.50 an hour, and now people actually know who we are. But I don’t want to mislead young people. Very few reach that level — and luck factors into that.