A plate of food is set down: warm langoustine, seared over a salad of mache spinach, with buna shimeji and maitake mushrooms, white-balsamic and brown-butter vinaigrette, and shaved foie gras. Ostensibly, this is just lunch. But to the mastermind behind the combination—Le Bernardin executive chef and co-owner Eric Ripert, who is regarding his plate with poised fork and thoughtful gaze—it is an edible meditation on the Zen ethos to which he subscribes. (Story continued below...)
"The way I see life, everything is spiritual," he says. "We live on Earth, we are omnivores, the nature of human beings is to eat meat and fruits and vegetables, and therefore we have to kill animals. I don't have a problem with that. But it's a sacred moment."
"It's a gift of life," he says. And then he takes a bite.
Inexorable respect for food is the Ripert way—and following that enlightened path has landed him an incredible résumé for his 44 years. First four-starred by The New York Times at 29, Ripert is a published author of multiple books and a recognizable TV star, thanks to "fan favorite" guest-judging stints on Bravo's reality cooking series, Top Chef. There's also the small matter of the day job: a hands-on position at the helm of New York's Le Bernardin, one of the world's most hallowed cathedrals to food. This month he adds to the list Avec Eric, a PBS venture in which he stars; it's part ecotourist travelogue, part cooking show, and part behind-the-scenes documentary at the midtown Manhattan mother ship of his restaurant.
In the world of food TV—domain of egregious shorthand for extra-virgin olive oil, of bellowing curse words at your sweaty competitor chefs—a civilized, cerebral show like Avec Eric is about as normal as having Norwegian lobster for lunch. Unlike every other food show on television, his is not primarily instructive, and when it is, the how-to segments are deliberately "not A-B-C," Ripert says. The target is an intelligent, food-savvy viewer—someone who might recognize Meyer lemon vinaigrette on first taste or, perhaps, one day visit Le Bernardin. Because of this, Ripert says, "it's a show that only would have worked on PBS. I think they're very honest and authentic." The small matter of his deeply Gallic accent kept him from entertaining network options. He jokes that there might have to be subtitles in Texas.
It's hard to believe that a network president would dismiss someone so telegenic, but that really did happen a few years ago. His Mediterranean tan and Buddhist bracelets play second fiddle to (yes) the accent, his self-effacing manner ("I don't speak English," he ribs), and his hair, very possibly swirled by Dairy Queen. (The hair was by itself featured in GQ this summer). His demeanor is Type B: he says that he likes to live in "la-la land," to help him dream up the foodiest of all creative food-y thoughts, and he harbors a refreshing, good-humored disdain for obsessive connectivity: "I see people in the street who can't walk straight anymore because of this Palm Pilot or whatever it is called."
But if Ripert is intentionally aloof for cooking purposes, Avec Eric has a keen, steely focus. The series is produced by Geoffrey Drummond, the award-winning industry veteran behind PBS shows for culinary deities Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, and Lidia Bastianich. "And now, me," Ripert says with a smile. That pedigree permeates the show, which has a clear format: it begins in the Le Bernardin kitchen, to orient the viewer; it traverses to a remote location to directly source food (wild-boar hunting in Italy, for example); and it returns to Ripert's home kitchen, where he makes a humbler, more accessible version of, for example, wild-boar stew over rustic Tuscan pasta.
Unlike many chefs who branch into television, Ripert has no plans to retreat from restaurant-running minutiae. He can talk a little bit about television, though he doesn't really watch. But he could talk forever about where he finds the perfect soft-shell crabs; his qualms about pinot noir; the startling flavor affinity of salted caramel and fizzy wheat beer; how he gets the sauces at Le Bernardin just right. In case you're wondering, it has to do with cheese. All the sous-chefs taste every sauce daily, a part of the kitchen operations shown on Avec Eric. What's not shown: "We realized a couple of years ago that one guy was saying a sauce was bland, while another guy was saying, 'No, it's not bland,' " he says. "So to have the same palate, we buy some cheap, fake Swiss cheese full of artificial flavors. In terms of flavor, that cheese tastes identical all year long . . . so it give us a reference, and we can judge fairly."
So, too, is the case for his show. It's a crowded marketplace out there, choked with Kraft Singles. Most food TV tastes the same: it's bland, all year long. But against them, Avec Eric is a slathering of Époisse on a sliver of tart apple. Its methods of culinary seduction are restrained, yet explosive. It is different. It is artfully plated. And with the past as any indication, it will be just delicious.