Photography By Sasha Israel
“THE FOOD THAT SOMEONE MAKES AT HOME WITH LOVE HAS A
DIFFERENT DIMENSION. YOU MAY NOT BE ABLE TO DESCRIBE IT, BUT
IT CAN BE BETTER THAN EVEN THE BEST RESTAURANT IN THE WORLD,” acclaimed chef Eric Ripert explains to us over seared yellowfin tuna freshly caught off the coast of Montauk just a day prior. He continues, “The love in the food can’t be quantified in ounces but you can feel it.” Firstly, the thinly sliced tuna he prepares for us over a bed of greens is without a doubt the best tuna we’ve ever tasted. Secondly, we are sitting in the private dining room in Le Bernardin, one of the most elegant restaurants in New York City discussing the power of energy and the power of love as it relates to cooking, as well as the principles of Buddhism and how Chef Ripert applies The Wheel of Dharma to daily life in a restaurant kitchen. Wow.
With three Michelin stars, his television show Avec Eric, and regular appearances on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and Parts Unknown, the busy author and chef finds balance through making time for his family and himself. “Thirty percent of my day is for my family, thirty is for the business, and thirty is for myself. This is my journey and I find balance like that,” Ripert confesses. Our conversation journeyed from Ripert’s boyhood years in his grandmother’s kitchen through monasteries in Korea, experiencing temple food at it’s finest and finally to his home in New York where he discovered Buddhism and now has the opportunity to cook for His Holiness Dalai Lama when he is in town.
If you were to sum up your philosophy on health and wellbeing, what would that look like?
You have to apply food to your well being. If you don’t have discipline in your diet you see things happen like obesity, diabetes, heart disease; a lot of illnesses are linked back to the food that you eat. Lucky people have the possibility to have choices, people coming from humble neighborhoods don’t have as much choice. If you can dedicate a good part of your income to nourishing yourself and your family with good, wholesome food, that will create wellbeing in the home. Your family will be healthy, they will be in a better mood and you will have better interactions with the people around you. It triggers a lot of positive, and it comes from the quality of the food. Making the right choices when food shopping, trying to choose organic. Buying food with no antibiotics, no hormones and no pesticides. What you are putting into your body should be fresh and pure. The act of eating in society is very important too. Sitting down to a table to enjoy your meal, you create exchange of ideas and you nurture relationships. If you go with your pizza in front of the TV or you sit down to eat fried chicken in front of the computer, you don’t create the experience that is actually nourishing you.
In your personal life, do you try to do mostly organic or vegan?
Le Bernardin is a seafood restaurant, so I eat fish. I like meat in small quantities. I eat mostly vegetables and fish, some cheese and yogurt and a little bit of meat. I’m not putting pressure on myself and saying no red meat or no pork, I try to eat within reason. I make sure the animals we are using when we cook are humanely raised.
So is grass-fed important to you?
At Le Bernardin we have duck on the menu for people that don’t eat fish. The ducks come from Liberty Farm and they have the label ‘humanely raised.’ That label is a new label for animals, and it means that the duck was living the life of a duck. He was going into the water and out to the field, he was eating what he’s supposed to eat and he was in the sun and running around. Of course then they nix the duck, but he had a happy life until that happened. Which related back to the energy the duck has. Here I eat a little bit of everything because it’s my job as a chef. At home I make sure my quantities are right without being obsessed about it. I just make sure I’m not overeating or eating something too fatty, too oily or too starchy. I use my instinct when I eat. Luckily, I’m a chef and I’ve been trained to understand food and nutrition. We could all use our instincts more when making the right choices in the quality of the food, the quantity and diversification of what we are eating.
What does a typical day look like of you?
I wake up not grumpy but I’m not in a great mood until I have my coffee. I do the Buddhist rituals before my coffee and then after I have my coffee, I meditate. In my apartment I have my own mini meditation temple. After my meditation I study a little bit then I shower and I walk to work from 72nd street through Central Park to Le Bernardin on 51st street. I do that walk everyday of the year, rain or snow doesn’t matter. When I get here, I say hello to everyone I see and then I go to work. My life is between the kitchen and the offices, and being an ambassador of the restaurant to make sure we are viable and send the right message. In the summer I walk home at night. I relax at home or I go out with friends. What I think is more important then breaking down the day in hours, is my decision to take my day and say 30% of my day is for my family, 30% is for the business, and 30% is for myself. This is my journey, and I find balance like that.
What about meals?
I eat one meal a day. Four cookies with my coffee and then I eat lunch and I don’t eat at night. However, I do taste a lot of food during the day, I’m always tasting. We have tasting spoons all over the kitchen that we dispose of immediately. They are made of cornstarch so they dissolve, they are biodegradable. At the end of the day, I probably eat a lot but I can’t say I eat three meals sitting down. I only sit down for lunch. Very often it’s vegetables and sometimes there is a bit of meat or a bit of fish. I eat more vegetables with a little bit of protein. That has changed because my body changed and I follow my instincts.
What type of indulgences do you have?
Dark chocolate everyday. I think it’s so bad to feel guilty about eating something. There is nothing wrong with feeling pleasure from eating food. You should feel happy to eat. You feel guilty when you eat too much, or something that is really not good for you. Processed food, something like that. Even if I over indulge, I acknowledge and take responsibility of it. I don’t allow myself to feel guilt, because I did it consciously. I think if you feel guilty about eating, you won’t digest the food properly and your organs won’t get what they need from the food. That is what can lead to diseases later in life.
How did growing up in France influence you palate?
I was very lucky to have my entire family obsessed with cooking great food for the little boy that I was. They were cooking for me all the time because they knew it was my ultimate pleasure. I was in the kitchen all the time and I was the only boy.
So since you were a small boy you’ve been interested in food?
First, I was solely interested in eating. Then I began to have an interest in becoming a cook. Obviously you realize it’s a job and a lot of work. It’s physical and it can be stressful. I developed a passion for the craftsmanship and a passion for the taste and creativity and mentoring my team. It’s a good story for me. From my grandmother’s kitchen to today, my passion has grown for cooking and eating food.
Was there one dish that stays in your mind that she made?
My grandmother’s apple tart. Nobody makes a better apple tart. I would take a plane now and fly eight hours to have the apple tart and come back.
Can you pinpoint why it is different, why it’s so good?
I strongly believe that she put so much love into that apple tart, that it’s half love and half technique. She did everything by hand, and you can feel the energy going into it. You can feel she was happy to make it and put that happiness and love into it. You won’t find that with an apple tart fabricated in a factory or in a giant store. The food that someone makes at home with love has a different dimension you may not be able to describe but it can be better than even the best restaurant in the world. It’s like umami flavor, we can’t describe it yet, but we know it’s a sensation we feel. The love in the food can’t be quantified in ounces but you can feel it.
When you cook with love, does food taste better?
I can feel the love that my grandmother puts in her cooking and nothing compares to her food. I was in Busan, Korea visiting a convent with nuns and the head nun said to me that she could tell which nun cooked the food and what her energy was when she cooked it. If she was in a bad mood or a good mood. She was in charge of the monastery and they learn how to cook first before they move on to harvesting and caring for the land. I asked her why they start with cooking and she said it’s more powerful to put love into the seed then love into the food you are cooking, so they have them work backwards. She also told me they work with the moon and the stars, and the water is from the sacred spring. Everything was sacred, it was really incredible.
What was their diet like?
The diet was really amazing because they eat everything they grow on their land. The nuns eat healthy, lots of fermented foods in the winter and then a lot of foods that have been exposed to the sun, so you get the energy of the sun.
What part of Korea were you in?
Seoul and Busan.
Is there a cuisine in the world that is exciting you?
As far as inspiration, I’m very curious and I want to travel the world. I’m going to Japan with Nobu this year, which I’m really looking forward to. I’d love to go back to Korea and film the experience of temple food with the nuns there.
How do you transfer that energy into the food you make in a New York restaurant?
I make sure the kitchen is zen. We keep the kitchen quiet and peaceful, by focusing on the dishes and making sure the guys are not stressed, that’s how we do it.
When did you begin practicing Buddhism?
It began when I came to America. I began to have an interest in Tibet. I was reading books about Tibet and I was interested in the spirituality of it. I read books by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and then I went to see him in New York when he was here. Since then, he has been here every year, so in between the physical teaching from him and reading and studying a lot, it gave me the perspective from a Buddhist point of view on the food and life and about everything in general. So the way I see things, it’s definitely influenced by the teachings. In the restaurants I don’t bring in a lecturer or anything like that, I don’t teach Buddhism in the restaurant, I don’t think that would be right. What I do is apply the principles and I mentor my team without telling them that is where it’s coming from. When you talk about respecting the life of animals for example, that is something universal. It has changed the way I live my life.
What is one principle of Buddhism that you try to abide by everyday?
It’s funny because today is the anniversary of Buddha giving his first teaching after being enlightened. I’m going to give you a quick brief. After becoming enlightened, Buddha realized that life is suffering, unless you have inner peace. Suffering has an origin. So each time I’m suffering, you must ask where is the origin of that suffering? He realized that most of the time the origin of suffering comes from us. It comes from attachments, desires, cravings, selfishness and so on. So then he said, ‘Ok if I know the origin, and I disconnect from the origin and the pain, I will not suffer.’ It’s not enough because I may have other desires. What I need to do is follow a path, the teaching of Buddha. This is called the Formidable Truth, the center of Buddhism. He went around to different villages and depending on who he was talking to, his teachings were more esoteric or basic. He went to a village of farmers and he drew a wheel in the ground. He drew eight branches and he explained how to liberate yourself, which the Buddhists believe you do through reincarnation until you become enlightened. He said, the first thing you need to learn is my teaching, then after learning you need to have positive thoughts, then if you think positive, you should have positive speech. In that case, your actions from the thoughts and speech should be positive not negative. If you have thoughts, speech and actions your job and mind should be in line with what I’m teaching. Everyday you have to make the right effort because it’s a long journey to become enlightened one day. Then he said you have to be mindful, which means in Buddhist terms to be in the present, and meditation is essential because it trains your mind to be in the present. It’s not a religious exercise, it’s like going to the gym or doing yoga but for your mind. Being mindful is being in the present and making sure you are not hurting other people at the same time. The last wheel of Dharma is concentration, you have to cultivate and train your brain to go very deep in analysis in philosophical aspects of life to focus and follow a solution. So I try to bring that into my everyday.
Have you ever cooked or dined with His Holiness the Dalai Lama?
I cooked for His Holiness a few years ago, and I’m cooking again for him this year.
What did you make him?
A wild salmon from Alaska. We wanted to raise money for him so we closed Le Bernardin and had a fundraiser. I asked if I should make something vegetarian and they told me His Holiness is a monk and will eat anything you serve to the other people. He is not picky, whatever you give him he will eat it. At the time I gave him fish. Now I know he is following a vegetarian diet, so this year we are going to do vegetarian for him.
Are you doing it here?
Probably across the street in the new private room.
Do you get nervous before you cook for someone like that?
I don’t get nervous, I get serious. I focus and make sure that I’m putting love into it.
For Chef Eric Ripert’s Green Apple Click HERE