Flying High on Four Stars

When The New York Times bestowed its fourth consecutive four-star rating on Le Bernardin earlier this month, the restaurant became one of only five in New York to win such an honor--and the only one to retain it for nearly 20 years. For chef Eric Ripert, who has been toiling in Le Bernardin's kitchen for more than a decade, the award was a great thrill, as well as a huge relief. (The loss of a star can have a serious impact on the restaurant's bottom line.)

Over a recent lunch that began with barely cooked bay scallops in champagne-shallot butter sauce, followed by poached lobster in a rich champagne and chives nage and thinly pounded yellowfin tuna with extra-virgin olive oil, Ripert discussed the achievement. As the starter plates were cleared for the arrival of the main courses (wild salmon and spicy-sour baked snapper), Ripert, 40, admitted behaving like a World Series champ when the rating was announced. "As soon as we knew, I came up in the kitchen and I sprayed the entire team with champagne. Then they sprayed me." NEWSWEEK's Julie Scelfo managed to put down her fork long enough to take notes. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How did it feel to earn four stars from The New York Times?

Eric Ripert: It feels good. We found out when the story went up on the Internet. We were waiting for it. As soon as we knew, obviously we were thrilled.

This is the fourth time Le Bernardin has earned the rating, and the second time under your stewardship. Which was more exciting for you?

The first time when I got the review in 1995, it was a very difficult time for the restaurant because [founding chef] Gilbert Le Coze just passed away. The industry was doubting a lot, they were thinking "it's gonna lose a star." When it came out, it was an amazing feeling. This time, I was very anxious too. [Laughs.] You take it seriously because the review is directly connected to the bottom line, and in the luxury business the margins are extremely small, very narrow. Basically, I feed my family and I feed the families of 117 employees so you feel that responsibility. It's no joke.

Do you think the ratings are about the restaurant, or about the chef?

I think it's 75 percent the chef and 25 percent the restaurant, although sometimes--like if the service is very bad and the dining room is ugly and loud and dirty--it may be 50-50. But usually The New York Times is really promoting the chef and the cuisine. And that's what the restaurant is about. It's about the food.

I only know enough French to order cheese or a chocolate croissant or take the train. What does "Le Bernardin" actually mean?

They were monks in Paris, in St.-Germain-des-Pres. In the Middle Ages, they were very famous for loving wine, good food and women. The Moines de Bernardin don't exist any more, but at the time they were an order of monks. And Bernardin was also a saint.

Does your clientele change as a result of the ratings?

For a while you get a lot of foodies. And then you get people who were kind of tempted to come but not necessarily coming because there's so many things to do in [New York]. And suddenly they see the review and they have the need to come and try. Your loyal clientele still come back and supports you, so you're adding layers on top of what you have already.

How come people are more likely to have heard of Jean-Georges Vongerichten or Thomas Keller than Eric Ripert?

I think it's a matter of personality. Jean-Georges has a lot of restaurants so when you have that many restaurants your name is much more out [there]. I think Jean-Georges likes the limelight and he's very social. I'm not saying I don't like it, but it doesn't do too much for me.

Do you ever think about opening another restaurant, launching products, doing the whole celebrity chef thing?

I'm not excited by opening another restaurant. It's a lot of work. I think you lose your focus. [A restaurant] is like a baby, you have to take care of it. One baby takes a lot of attention. It's the same for a restaurant, especially at this level. It's like being a mechanic and working on the engine of a Ferrari: you have to do tune-ups all the time. It's the same with this type of operation. You have to be very, very focused, very passionate and very into details. You know what, Jean-Georges would be terribly bored doing what I do. And myself, I would be terribly stressed and unhappy if I had to manage what he's managing. That's what matters at the end of the day. He's happy, and [I'm] happy.

You posed in the buff for an ad campaign a few years ago. Any plans for a side business?

Modeling? I have no plans in modeling. It was an ad for Vita-Mix, a brand of blender. Jean-Louis Palladin, who was my mentor, came one day [in 1999] and said "you know, I had an amazing day, I did a shoot today and I'm going to get a free page of advertisement in Food Arts [an industry magazine]." He said "Everything is here in this envelope, so if you say yes, you get a free page just for you. But you have to agree before you open the envelope." I knew he was wacky, but I said yes. So I open the envelope and I see him naked with a blender, and I was like oh my God! So it was a bet and I lost the bet.

You were only 29 when you got your first four-star review, and you're still going steady at the same restaurant. How did you not flame out like so many other young chefs?

It's hard to say what happened to them. I think I have such a passion for what I do. It's stronger than any other distraction, let's put it that way. I understand the importance of the media, but my ultimate goal is not to see my picture in the magazine. Although I'd rather see mine than someone else's! But it doesn't drive me. I came into the cooking industry because of the passion for cooking, not to become a celebrity, although I'm enjoying my status.

You were on Ellen DeGeneres's show recently. How was that?

It was fun.

Did you dance?

I didn't dance. If she would have asked me to dance, I would have danced. She dances a lot. When you go to a show like that, obviously it's entertainment, it's comedy oriented, so the product you're going to sell is a comedy product. For me it's a way of not taking myself too seriously. But when I'm done, I go back to what I am. I'm not a clown, I'm a chef. And I go back to what I am.

What's the significance of the blue and red strings tied around your right wrist?

In January, I was in San Salvador [Brazil]. They tie it around your wrist, and you make a wish. And supposedly when it's completely worn [off] the wish will be accomplished.

What were your wishes?

I cannot say it! It's not related to the restaurant. The restaurant is part of my life, but it's not my life.