Eric Ripert on Being Kind in the Kitchen
At 16, Eric Ripert walked into his first professional kitchen. Within minutes he watched the chef take a pile of platters and throw them at a maître d’, knocking him down, before storming out. “What the hell is this place?” Ripert remembers thinking. "It was very scary, especially for a young teenager."
At Le Bernardin, one of America’s most beloved and esteemed fine-dining establishments, the experience for a young cook could not be more different. At a restaurant that gets over 2,500 résumés per year, the hiring process is not taken lightly.
“We choose who is going to be mentored, someone who has the potential to do good work.”
The lucky few who are plucked from that mountain of applications are asked to come in for an interview. Winnowed down further, those that make the cut are asked into the kitchen to observe a service.
“While they’re observing us, we’re observing them,” says Ripert. “We’re not asking them to do anything. They just have to look at the way the kitchen is working, but it gives us a sense of the personality of the person. If you have someone with his hands in his pockets, against the wall, yawning all night, you know, it’s not going to be the right person for the team. If you see someone who is very curious, very interested, you can see some potential there. And then after that, if they decide to come with us, we start them usually in the very easy stations, which are the canapé station or the cold appetizer station. And they stay there for a while until they master the techniques, and they understand the flow of the kitchen.”
Chefs doing it right spend about three years at Le Bernardin, Ripert says, and the optimum stay can be up to five.
Ripert went to culinary school in Perpignan, France, where he graduated with honors. “In a culinary school, you’re not experiencing a real kitchen. You never have the pressure of serving an entire lunch and [being] responsible for a section of a kitchen,” he notes.
He expects these young cooks coming in to have limited knowledge. This is their first experience in the real world.
“I guess it’s the same thing for any industry. When you learn journalism or something like that, you come out of the school and suddenly you end up in the newspaper. It’s a very different experience. But I don’t know much about mentorship in other industries. I know in my industry it’s a tradition.”
When Ripert started in the 1980s, kitchens were populated by young people, mostly men. “People who didn’t do so well in school were sent to kitchens.” Here they learned not only the craftsmanship and basics of the trade, but also how to behave.
In his book, 32 Yolks, Ripert talked about the traumatic experience of working for Joël Robuchon. He recalled seeing his fellow cooks crying, having anxiety attacks or shaking with fear. In a New York Times article, Ripert himself admitted to still having recurring nightmares about Robuchon.
The tradition of mentorship allowed a certain kind of leadership style to exist for a long time; chefs passed their young cooks to other chefs, and they were mentored until they became chefs and mentors themselves, and patterns of behavior became normalized.
It has taken many years—and chefs like Ripert—to break from that tradition. During service at Le Bernardin, the sous chefs are in charge of teaching the young cooks, while also controlling the quality and flow of service.
“Without screaming, without intimidating,” he explains. “I call it ‘The kind approach.’ They are firm in their orders because you need to have a certain authority, but I don’t see our cooks scared or shaking. They look focused and dedicated. That is something we have worked at for a very long time and we are successful at it.”
During a cook’s tenure at Le Bernardin, they are observed every step of the way, and their movement through the kitchen’s hierarchy is strictly controlled. The cooks begin on cold appetizers and only move on to hot appetizers once they have fully mastered the station. The nature of youth is to rush headlong and Ripert admits to being like that when he started out.
“I thought I was ready, but my chefs were like, ‘Put your head down and shut up. We’ll tell you when you’re ready.’ Thank God I listened to them because I would have missed learning the basics, which are so important to your career.”
Ripert notes the differences in the industry since he came into it as a teen. “The media makes chefs glamorous and gives the illusion that you are going to become famous or rich. If you come into the industry with that in mind, you are totally wrong. There is no glamour in the kitchen. As soon as you push open the door of the kitchen, it is all about craft and teamwork. It is very physical. The media has attracted a lot of people to our industry, and they lose a couple of months or years of their lives before realizing that we are not movie stars in the kitchen.”
The changes he’s seen extend to culinary schools as well. “It costs sometimes $30,000 to $40,000 a year to go to a culinary school, and people have an expectation of getting a return on their investment right away. I don’t want to name any culinary school, but very often the school makes the people believe that when they graduate that they are very close to being a chef. It’s a bit of misleading here, and then they realize obviously that it takes maybe 10 years more after the graduation before you start to call yourself a chef or have the title of a chef in a good restaurant.”
Early mentorship to learn the craft makes for a strong chef in the end. The road to being a chef is long, and it requires on-the-job experience. Skipping a few steps won’t fly.
“You won’t be respected by your staff because you won’t know what you’re talking about. If you cannot show them the right way, then they will have no respect for you.”
The industry would grind to a halt without mentorship, not only because it trains the next generation of chefs, but because it also keeps the current chefs and mentors on their toes. For Ripert, mentorship is not a one-way street. When asked if being a mentor keeps him from becoming stale creatively, he agrees wholeheartedly.
“Definitely. It cultivates creativity. It is almost like going to the gym for your muscles. This is like training your brain in a certain way.”
All of the training that one accumulates over the years, the lessons from solid mentors, the sauces and knife skills, the things that can’t be learned from a book, the management of a team, being firm without being abusive, earning the respect of a team—all of these things come together at last, and a chef is born. It’s monumental, the amount of work required, the dedication of young cooks and the chefs who mentor them.
Ripert never forgets his own mentors. He notes each one, and what they taught him, with fondness—even Robuchon.
“I started in La Tour d’Argent, which was a very traditional restaurant in 1982. The chef was Dominique Bouchet. He taught me the classic techniques. Then at 19 I went to work for Joël Robuchon at Jamin in Paris. I knew the classics already, so he taught me precision, and rigor, and discipline. And, of course, excellence in the details. And then I came to America at 24, and I worked for Jean-Louis Palladin at the Watergate Hotel, and he basically taught me how to become creative, to free myself from the pressure of the style of my previous mentors and to become myself. You have to make mistakes; you have to open your mind; you have to create. And so, he helped me tremendously how to become creative. Then I came to Le Bernardin, and Gilbert Le Coze taught me to manage a kitchen and how to be responsible for many aspects, including, obviously, the financial aspect, which is very, very important in a restaurant. Those were great mentors of mine.”
It took Ripert 12 years to become a chef. He often reminds young cooks of this, when he feels they haven’t yet mastered a station and need to spend some more time on it. “In 10 years, having to spend another six months or three months on a station will have no impact on your career, except the fact that you add some very strong basics, because we didn’t let you go too fast.
“If you don’t have strong basics, then at one point in your career you cannot go to the very top. You will always be limited.”
Through the Eyes of the Student
How Jae Jung trained to become a great chef under Eric Ripert
In 2009, Jae Jung moved from Korea to New York State to attend the Culinary Institute of America. When she graduated, she moved to New Orleans for four years, but Le Bernardin was always in the back of her mind. She applied and in 2015 she was hired.
“I have a lot of experience. I cooked for five or six years before, but that’s not all. You have to come several times and watch their service, see how they prepare. Most important—you have to know you really want it.”
She remembers a talk Ripert gave to the crew that has stuck with her ever since. “He told us we have to use our instinct to become a really good cook. It is rare to find a chef like that these days. Chefs don’t use their instinct that much when everything is controlled by machines and sensors.”
Le Bernardin has a 30-year-old kitchen; they still use cast iron pans.
“It is very old-school. Everyone needs to use their senses and instinct and heart. For me that makes the restaurant really special.”
She watched Ripert in the kitchen, where he is every day when he is in town. “He would come through and taste every single thing twice a day. Not just the sauces, but the vegetables, everything. It was very inspiring.”
Even with all the inspiration and heart, it is still a working kitchen, and the pressure is intense—possibly more so at Le Bernardin, where the kitchen may serve upward of 250 covers on a Saturday night.
“It’s a very friendly kitchen, but it could be really chaotic, I would get yelled at sometimes if I undercook or overcook the fish. They want to make sure you are doing it right and show you the way. I never took it personally, I wanted to learn.”
Most newbies at Le Bernardin take three years to go from cold apps to saucier, but Jung did it in two. Now she works at Nomad and just finished a pop-up that was covered by Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, and “CBS This Morning.”
The example set by Ripert is one she tries to emulate. “He is very calm, but he is also very strict. He’s open-minded but he pushes you. I want to be a chef like that, a great chef.”