The Graceful Evolution of Eric Ripert

The legendary chef discusses the pleasures of cooking simply and silver linings of the pandemic

This week on “Food with Mark Bittman,” I talked to Chef Eric Ripert, who began cooking at 15 years old and proceeded to do a number of things that by necessity include the word “legendary”: He went to work at the legendary La Tour d’Argent, and then he moved to the legendary Jamin, where he cooked with the legendary Joël Robuchon as the head fish chef (poissonier). 

In 1989, Ripert moved to the States, to the kitchen of the legendary Jean-Louis Palladin, at (you could say “the legendary,” but enough is enough) Jean-Louis at the Watergate in Washington, D.C. He then became David Bouley’s sous chef before taking over at Le Bernardin. Ripert has since firmly established himself as one of New York’s — and the world’s — great chefs. His cooking, as is so clearly represented in his new book, Vegetable Simple, is more modern than classic, minimalist, global, and squeaky clean, with no distractions. 

Eric is an old friend, a quiet, accomplished man, still young, still vibrant, still fun, as you'll see. Some excerpts — and the recipes featured from the episode — are below. Please listen, subscribe, and review! 

One more thing before we get to chef Ripert: The details on the cruise I mentioned on-air. If you’re among the people fantasizing about glorious travel, you might want to join me on this Regent Seven Seas Cruises trip from Lisbon to Barcelona next spring. This is a ten-night, all-inclusive, first-class cruise stopping at Cadiz, Funchal, Casablanca, and a couple of other ports. Shore excursions are included and I’ll be leading a couple, as well as doing onboard cooking classes, talks, gatherings, and so on. There’s a two-category upgrade for people who book before June 30 and significant discounts via Liz Nixon’s agency, so if this is your thing now is the time to do it. Cruise details here; discount details here.

Thank you, as always.

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On working for Joël Robuchon and Jean-Louis Palladin:

“When I came to the US, and I worked for Jean-Louis, I was coming from the kitchen of Joel Robuchon. They were two different universes. And, if I can make an analogy, it's like coming out of Catholic school and going straight to Woodstock. It was definitely a culture shock for me. But I learned a lot from Jean-Louis because he was so creative and so generous. And very interested by what we have in this country, which is beautiful products: from produce to fruits and animals. But we were working in that very tiny kitchen, and he was doing miracles every day with the team, because he was coming back from visiting a farmer or someone who was harvesting soft shell crabs and he would come at 5 p.m. and he would write the menu for the same night, and whatever you thought would be on the menu wasn't, and you had to redo completely everything, and it was complete chaos, and he loved it.”

On the beauty of seafood:

“I created a mantra at Le Bernardin that says, the fish is the star of the plate, which means: We don't cook with fish, we cook for the fish. And whatever is on that plate has a purpose, has a reason to be. Ninety percent of the fish [at Le Bernardin] comes from the East Coast, in between North Carolina and Maine. The benefit of that — we support the local fishermen in our region, and we have fish that's super fresh. I call Maine, I call Portland, before 6 p.m., and I'll get the fish … the next morning before 7 a.m. You cannot beat that.”

On cooking at home during Covid:

“Overnight I became the private chef of the family, and I was in charge of breakfast, lunch, and dinner ….Dessert, I usually don't take care of that, because I'm really lousy. The family refuses to eat my desserts.”


The following recipes and headnotes are from Eric Ripert’s new book, Vegetable Simple, with the exception of the final one Eric provided for us. (And if you’re trying to find that cracker recipe we mentioned on the podcast, here it is. )

Shaved Fennel, Parmesan Salad

Serves: 4

Fennel and parmesan make for a clean, beautiful, and uncomplicated salad. Fennel can oxidize quickly, so I recommend shaving it at the last minute for optimum texture as well as to keep its fresh, anise aroma.

Ingredients

  • 1 bulb fennel, trimmed (fronds reserved)

  • Fine sea salt and freshly ground white pepper

  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

  • 1 ½ teaspoon fresh lemon juice

  • 1/2 cup freshly shaved parmesan cheese (about 2 ounces)

Instructions

1. Using a mandoline, thinly shave fennel from root to top into a bowl. Season the fennel with salt and white pepper. Add the oil and lemon juice and gently toss to coat. Divide among four plates, garnish with shaved parmesan and a few fennel fronds, and serve immediately.

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— Recipe from Vegetable Simple by Eric Ripert


Grated Carrot Salad

Serves: 4

This salad has it all: It’s super simple, super healthy, and super tasty. The lemon and olive oil bring out the sweetness of the carrots. Use large, good-quality carrots, as they will be easier to grate. Growing up, I was told that eating carrots puts you in a good mood and I think this salad proves that there’s some truth to that.

Ingredients

  • 2 large carrots, each about 10 inches in length

  • Fine sea salt and freshly ground white pepper

  • Juice of 1 lemon

  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Instructions

1. Using the large holes on a box grater, shred the carrots and transfer to a bowl. Season the carrots with salt and white pepper, then add the lemon juice and oil and toss well. Taste and adjust the seasoning if needed.

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— Recipe from Vegetable Simple by Eric Ripert


Celery Root Soup

Serves: 4

Easy to prepare, this inexpensive soup brings big dividends in terms of flavor and presentation. Celery root (celeriac) is unjustly underrated, maybe because of its aesthetic, which is why I like to serve this soup in a hollowed-out celery root to showcase the whole vegetable. It’s striking and impressive.

Ingredients

  • 4 large celery roots

  • 1 ½ cups milk

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter

  • Fine sea salt and freshly ground white pepper

Instructions

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Place the celery roots in a large baking dish about as deep as the vegetables are tall. Add 1/2 inch water to the dish, cover it tightly with foil, and bake until the celery roots are easily pierced with the tip of a paring knife, about 1 hour. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

2. Use a sharp knife to slice an inch off the top of each root. Then, using a small spoon, remove as much flesh as possible without piercing the sides. Place the flesh in a medium-large pot, and reserve the hollowed-out celery roots separately.

3. Add the milk, 1 ½ cups water, and butter to the pot with the celery root flesh. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, then transfer to a blender and puree until smooth. Taste and season with salt and white pepper, divide the soup among the warm hollowed-out celery roots, and serve.

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— Recipe from Vegetable Simple by Eric Ripert


Merluza and Green Lentil Stew with Orange Emulsion

Serves: 4

In May, with World Central Kitchen and City Harvest, we worked together and Le Bernardin was doing 400 meals a day that were going to doctors and nurses that were staying in our neighborhood in hotels. They were here from out of state, to support the New York doctors that were either too tired, or sick by the virus. And then at one point all those doctors and nurses left, went back to their states, and we cooked for shelters. So we were cooking five days a week, 400 meals for shelters, from May to December.” –Eric Ripert

(Note from Mark: Ripert’s team generously shared one of the recipes they used during this extremely kind quest.)

Ingredients

Lentils:

  • 1 cup lentils de Puy, rinsed

  • 4 small shallots, peeled and cut in quarters

  • 2 medium or 1 large carrot, cut into 2-inch lengths

  • 1 rib celery, cut into 2-inch pieces

  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped

  • 3 sprigs thyme

  • 1 bay leaf

  • Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Orange emulsion:

  • 1 cup orange juice, strained

  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

  • 1/2 lemon, juiced

Fish:

  • Four 6-ounce merluza fillets (cod can be substituted), patted dry

  • 1 lemon for juicing

Instructions

1. In a sauce pot, combine the lentils, shallots, carrots, celery, and garlic and cover with 3 cups of water. Add the thyme sprigs and bay leaf and cook at a low simmer for about 1 hour, until the lentils and vegetables are tender.

2. While the lentils are cooking, preheat the oven to 400°F.

3. Pour the orange juice in a sauce pot and reduce by two thirds. Transfer liquid to a blender and gradually add the olive oil with the blender running. Season with fine sea salt and freshly ground white pepper, then add the juice of half a lemon. Set aside.

4. Once the lentils and vegetables are tender to the bite, discard the bay leaf and thyme, season with fine sea salt and freshly ground white pepper, and keep warm.

5. Season the merluza with fine sea salt and freshly ground white pepper. Place on a baking sheet rubbed with a small amount of canola oil and place in the oven to cook for 8 to 10 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish.

6. Divide the lentils and the vegetables between 4 bowls, squeeze a bit of lemon juice on the fish, and place on top of lentils. Spoon warm orange emulsion over the top and serve immediately.

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— Recipe courtesy Eric Ripert