Ever wonder what it takes to launch a fish-only restaurant, by owners new to the US market, and turn it into a first-class dining destination? A talented team with a stubborn streak? Or resolute dreamers?
When Le Bernardin opened its doors in 1986, brother and sister Gilbert and Maguy Le Coze wanted to change not only the way Americans viewed French restaurants but also the way they ate fish. To say that they accomplished their dream is an understatement; they made it to the top and have stayed there for over twenty years. Three months after it opened, Le Bernardin received a four star review from The New York Times. Over the years, it is the only New York four-star restaurant that has maintained its status of excellence for several years. In 1994, Chef Eric Ripert took control of the kitchen. In 1998, Maguy Le Coze won the coveted James Beard Award for "Outstanding Restaurant" in America, and in May 2003
Eric Ripert was named "Outstanding Chef" by the James Beard Foundation.
in Guide, in its first ever Guide to New York City honored Chef Ripert and
with the award of 3-stars (its highest rating) and Le Bernardin has retained their 3-stars ever since.
So how exactly did Le Bernardin accomplish this level of success? In his new book, On the Line, Chef Eric Ripert takes the reader behind the scenes of this extraordinary success story. The book details the operations of the restaurant including with illustrations of the kitchen, interviews with the Maitre de and the chefs and more. While the tone of the book is light hearted and humorous, the details provided make it an essential read for anyone with dreams of opening their own restaurant. And the icing on the cake – the book includes stunning photographs and 50 recipes from one of the most accomplished chefs of our times.
I talked with Chef Ripert by phone in his office at the restaurant about what makes Le Bernardin so magical.
- How do you execute 150,000 meals a year –perfectly? What does perfection in meals mean to you? How to you keep your staff motivated to produce this perfection?
You have to think “one at a time.” Obviously you have to have the right talent and organization to be able to produce high quality meals on a consistent basis. When we hire the staff we are looking for talented, very motivated and passionate people. Then our own passion for excellence is very contagious. For instance a meal isn’t just about the food. We start with the ambiance – the setting has to feel right – the guests have to feel relaxed and pampered. Then there is the service which has to be non-obtrusive but attentive and efficient. It takes a lot of training, meetings, work and dedication to create surroundings like that. Then of course, there is the food. We work hard on finding the best ingredients on a consistent basis – you see, consistency is the key, you have to have the best ingredients all the time. And then they have to be cooked perfectly with just the right touches so that every time a guest dines here, the food offers not only an excellent taste but a element of surprise and uniqueness. The guests have to have a good experience – that to me is perfection.
- In the book, you mention that a driving motivation of yours was to be a star, to be recognized – could you elaborate on that a little bit?
I wanted to be recognized for my passion and commitment to deliver excellence. It was less about narcissism for seeing myself in magazines, it was about having the recognition serve the purpose of motivating me and bringing my vision to life. You see when I joined them, the restaurant was already doing well. Implementing my vision here has be
a work of progress over 18 years – it has been a slow and subtle process but very effective. For example – One of the things that I wanted to improve, change was that there was a bit of a stuffy ambiance here. I wanted to make the place seem relaxed, so we had to train our waiters not to be so stiff, to smile a little more and to appear more relaxed. The restaurant also had a very masculine feel and so we worked on adding candles and fabric to give it a feminine feel- I wanted it to feel warm and fun not like a formal club.
- Reviews are a restaurant’s lifeblood – agree or disagree?
Of course they are. Every opinion counts and as an overall the reviews reflect the perception of the public. Opinions matter. It is interesting today to see the blogs. Some are credible and good but many are just entertainment – they don’t know much about food but they offer up atrocious criticism. Like I said, they are entertaining, but sometimes not in a good way.
- Do you let food/wine trends drive you or do you drive them?
No trends influence me. My inspiration comes from my life experience, from eating, traveling and interacting with people at the source. For example, last year I went to Japan. I admire their culture and food very much and I wanted to learn as much as I could about their cooking. Well, I learnt that the way I make Dashi, a light broth, was not the way the Japanese make it. They make it as a dish on its own – it has very subtle flavors and is very light. When I made it, I was adding very strong flavors to it. So I learnt how not to kill the flavors of the dashi but how to enhance them and create a really light and flavorful dish that can stand on its own.
- Complete this sentence – In my view, the most important role in the kitchen is that of a _______________. Why?
There is no such a thing—of course the chef is important because he is supposed to have the vision, the wisdom and the talent. However, a chef without a well trained team is nothing. See, sometimes we forget that restaurants are really about eating. The food has to be good! For example -one important role for us is the expeditor, the guy who makes sure that the pace of the meal is right so that the tables are getting their appetizers and entrees in the right order and the tables are all being paced properly. In our kitchen, they also taste the food – there is no point working hard all day and then getting a meal together in the evening and the seasoning is a little off – see, every point is critical. Every role is important to create a the perfect experience for the guest.
- The book mentions that the kitchen of Le Bernardin is very low tech. Why haven’t you adopted all of the latest equipment and techniques? What do you think of chefs who have?
I’m not a high tech guy— I feel like my cooking is instinctive cooking. I like to work with fire and heat therefore with a powerful stove we can cook the best meals. Like I said, I am very instinctive in my cooking, which means that the team and myself have to be very close to the product and that drives the style of our cooking. I feel that sometimes technology disconnects us from the aspect of what I consider, the real techniques of cooking. Let’s talk about modern cooking that uses a lot of technology, for a minute. To me, that cooking is about the technique not about the food. Their food may be cooked perfectly but it has no soul. I don’t know how to describe this really – their focus is on the technique, the technology, my focus is on the cooking and the ingredients.
- To what do you attribute the phenomenal success of Le Bernardin?
I’m the wrong person to answer that question—since I’m not a good salesman! I know we are passionate and I know we have a great team. The core of our clientele has always been very supportive. Our mantra has always been that the fish is the king (or queen) of the plate and that everything else that goes on the plate needs to elevate the fish. I guess you could say it is very focused cooking, very no-nonsense cooking. We focus on our food and our food has soul. Lately I see a lot of chefs who are so proud
of their complex dishes where they put together unusual things – what may be edible is not always a good thing! One year, I was determined to make wild strawberry juice work with fish. I came up with a dish, it was edible but you know what? It was not genius, it did not work. So we did not use it. I focus on what works and what tastes great and what elevates the fish.
- If you had one piece of wisdom to share with someone who is thinking of opening a high-end restaurant, what would it be?
It’s not about the money. It really isn’t. It is about passion and being generous in sharing your passion with your guests. Don’t get me wrong, it is not that we don’t want to make money, we do, but that is not the motivator, and should not be for a high-end luxury restaurant. If you are a chain or a fast food place, you can apply a formula for what you sell and how much you will make. But for places like ours, there is no formula. There is no way to say that if you invest X dollars, you will get a profit of some sort, there is no way to predict that. It is all about creating a great experience for your guests. That is important.