Eric Ripert Opens Up About His Inspiration to Write '32 Yolks' & Why He Thought Everyone Went to Michelin-Starred Restaurants Growing Up

By Chuck Ansbacher | August 10, 2016 | People Feature

It’s easy to imagine that as the chef at one of the world’s most renowned restaurants, Le Bernardin in NYC; the host of a PBS series, Avec Eric; and now the author of a memoir, 32 Yolks, which he’s presenting at Authors Night, Eric Ripert would be a live wire. But as this exclusive interview reveals, he’s a calm, collected talent, and as candid as an open book.

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Western button-down, American Eagle Outfitters ($50). Bridgehampton Commons, 2044 Montauk Hwy., 537-0583. T-shirt, Polo Ralph Lauren ($65). 32 Main St., East Hampton, 907-0960. Denim pants, Lacoste ($140). Roosevelt Field Mall, 630 Old Country Road, Garden City, 516-747-7964. Overseas Automatic blue-dial watch, Vacheron Constantin (price on request). 729 Madison Ave., NYC, 212-317-8964. Anchor leather bracelet, Miansai ($65). Airstream at Navy Beach, 16 Navy Road, Montauk, 668-6868. Beaded bracelet and sneakers, Ripert’s own

While climbing a mountain in southern France, Eric Ripert had an epiphany. This moment occurs about halfway through his new memoir, 32 Yolks: From My Mother’s Table to Working the Line. He’s 16 years old.

To the reader, it would seem that up to this point Ripert has been in training since birth to become a world-famous chef. He’s dined at France’s Michelin-starred restaurants with his mother, Monique; spent endless days glued to the counter at Chez Jacques, watching his first mentor—a local toque named (what else?) Jacques—whip up countless soufflés, baba au rhum, and his absolute favorite, mousse au chocolat; and now he has abandoned academic pursuits, left home, and enrolled in culinary school in Perpignan, a French city not far from the Spanish border.

Yet here he is, making his way up Mont Canigou in the Pyrenees with his culinary classmates and his dorm master, Raymond, acting like a total teen. His competitive nature getting the better of him, he’s showing off, gloating, and promising he’s going to beat everyone to the top. But when he does reach the top (first, of course) and everyone has had a chance to catch up, Raymond berates him. In Ripert’s selfish haste, a slower classmate has been lost on the mountain. Because Ripert was thinking only of himself, someone else has been hurt. It is at that moment that Ripert sees the fault in his character, and he resolves to be more generous, more compassionate, and more at peace with himself.

Decades later, Ripert is a three-starred Michelin chef, a Buddhist, a family man, and a longtime Hamptonite. His particular brand of aplomb defies what most have come to expect from the exacting world of fine dining: He achieves perfection while maintaining humility. How he preserves this balance has been the stuff of food-world legend since Ripert became the chef at Manhattan’s Le Bernardin—one of the best restaurants in the world—in 1994. And now, with 32 Yolks, it also happens to be the stuff of a New York Times best seller.

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Western button-down, American Eagle Outfitters ($50). Bridgehampton Commons, 2044 Montauk Hwy., 537-0583. T-shirt, Polo Ralph Lauren ($65). 32 Main St., East Hampton, 907-0960. Denim pants, Lacoste ($140). Roosevelt Field Mall, 630 Old Country Road, Garden City, 516-747-7964. Overseas Automatic blue-dial watch, Vacheron Constantin (price on request). 729 Madison Ave., NYC, 212-317-8964. Anchor leather bracelet, Miansai ($65). Airstream at Navy Beach, 16 Navy Road, Montauk, 668-6868. Beaded bracelet and sneakers, Ripert’s own

What motivated you to write your new memoir?
I wanted to write something that was truly inspirational to people, not just write something about myself. I had to be authentic and say what was glorious and painful at the same time. The idea was, this is my life, I have nothing to hide. Divorce, sometimes, is a good thing for families. I’m not anti-divorce, but in my case, when my parents divorced it was really painful and devastating. So therefore I said, Why not write about it? Because maybe some people are contemplating the idea, and they should think about the potential consequences. Ultimately, the negative transformed itself into positive, but still, it was a process.

You had these moments—with the divorce, your time at boarding school, and the ups and downs with your stepdad—that could have gone a long way to hardening you. But it seems that you’ve softened tremendously since then. What changed along the way?
At the end of the day, I found my own path and spirituality and I have a very happy life. Whatever happened in my life previously to today has been positive in the sense that I learned a lot of lessons, and I’m not bitter or nostalgic. I just live in the present and I have a past and I’m sharing it as an inspiration.

You look back and you have these figures in your life—your mother, Jacques. How fortunate do you feel that Jacques took you under his wing?
I didn’t even realize for a long time that he was my first mentor. For a long time I thought he was the neighbor and a friend, the guy I was eating chocolate mousse with. But he was one of my biggest inspirations and a great mentor of mine.

And your mother taking you to Michelin-starred restaurants when you were a child. That’s just not the way most kids grow up.
Yeah, I thought every kid lived like that! I had no idea.

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Sweater, Tommy Hilfiger ($120). Macy’s, Hampton Bays Shopping Center, 190 W. Montauk Hwy., 728-5500. Beaded bracelet, Ripert’s own

It almost seems preordained that you would later become a Michelin-starred chef who—somehow—is not a jerk.
I try not to be 99.99 percent of the time! And if I am, I apologize. I do, publicly. If it happens, which is extremely rare—I cannot even recall the last time I raised my voice—but if it happens, then I’m sorry about it and I apologize.

In the kitchen, there’s the constant demand of perfection. How do you let people come up against their own faults, like your dorm master Raymond did with you, and let them work through that?
It’s a process. Obviously, nobody’s born with all the qualities—if we’re talking about the kitchen, surely—nobody’s born with knife skills; nobody’s born with the knowledge of how to cook a salmon perfectly. It’s a process. What we try to do is mentor the cooks from a very early stage when they’re with us in the kitchen. We try to inspire them, knowing that along the way they’re going to make a lot of mistakes. We have a high degree of tolerance. We have a certain discipline, of course, and we have to meet these high standards, but we have a big team, and the thing about a big team that’s nice is to allow us to train the staff well and be consistent. Therefore, when someone cannot perform because he’s making too many mistakes, or for some reason is stressed, we move him out of the kitchen for a while and we can have someone [else] take the job. Or that person can train longer on certain techniques that he has not mastered. Therefore, we don’t create situations where you are set for failure, in the sense that either way you are going to lose control of yourself or you are going to burn the fish. We set you up for success; it’s a win-win for our own interest, and for your own interest as a cook or other employee.

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Linen shirt, Jeffrey Ru?des ($380). 20 Newtown Lane, East Hampton, 359-0011. Denim pants, Lacoste ($140). Roosevelt Field Mall, 630 Old Country Road, Garden City, 516-747-7964. Anchor leather bracelet, Miansai ($65). Airstream at Navy Beach, 16 Navy Road, Montauk, 668-6868. Overseas Automatic blue-dial watch, Vacheron Constantin (price on request). 729 Madison Ave., NYC, 212-317-8964. Sneakers, Vince ($295). Nordstrom, Roosevelt Field Mall, 516-746-0011. Necklace and beaded bracelet, Ripert’s own

You’re raising a son. Do you bring any of that thinking into your family life?
I don’t think you have a different way of thinking. Not like, you think a certain way at home and then you go to work—I cannot conceive the idea of being different. I try to be a good family member. My role is to be the father and husband, obviously. And I try really hard, as much as I try in the kitchen. And I try to dedicate time for the family as well. It’s very important to me.

You say in the book that the most important ingredient in any dish is love. How do you maintain that spirit at Le Bernardin?
It’s all about keeping the passion of the staff alive and inspiring them. Inspiring them to push themselves to the limits. Inspiring them to do what they love. Inspiring them to progress. It’s a mentality; it’s part of our culture at Le Bernardin; it’s what we try to do. It’s what I try to do with my son, as a father. I try to inspire him to be the best he can. Not necessarily with the best grades in the class—obviously I’d rather him have good grades than bad grades—but I’d rather for him to be a good human than have an A-plus. Good values have nothing to do with money and with success, what is perceived as success externally. If you make money and you’re rich and famous, good for you, good luck, thank you. If you’re not, it’s okay. Love and compassion and good values are more important than that.

You describe food when you were growing up as a unifying, civilizing force. The only time that you and your stepdad weren’t going at each other was when you were sitting at the dinner table. Is that something that you’ve brought to your own restaurant, that you think about when you cook?
When you are in the process of cooking, you may not think that, but during the day you think that—especially in my role. I’m here to deliver an experience that I want people to remember. It has to be something convivial, it has to bring people together, they have to have a great time, and I believe the power of sharing a meal together at the table is very strong. I experienced that myself when I was a kid. From the dysfunctional family and fighting all day long, then it would be mealtime, and the food and the experience of the meal would bring us together and we would have a truce. And then we would go back to the war. When I talk to someone my age, if they had the experience of having a family that eats together, or a grandmother who cooks on Sundays, they always have those vivid, happy memories of it. Especially the Italians—they always talk about Christmas with the 13 fish or the tradition that they have, and the grandmother cooking all day… it has no price. It’s all about love and compassion and food, food, food.

“I believe the power of sharing a meal together at the table is very strong.”

You moved to New York in 1991 and started visiting the Hamptons in 1999. What are some of your favorite places?
Sunset Beach in Shelter Island is always very special. I like to eat on the top deck under the tree; I like the feeling of being in the treehouse. And then I spend my afternoon playing pétanque—it’s like bocce, the Italian game. I like that, I have a lot of friends there, but I have a lot of friends everywhere, actually. Pierre [Weber] in Bridgehampton is a good friend, and he has a good restaurant. Chef Jean-Georges [Vongerighten] has a restaurant in Bridgehampton—Topping Rose. I always go to the Beacon, and Sen has great sushi. I went to Nick & Toni’s last week—I haven’t been in a long time. And then I discovered Duryea’s, which I love very much, in Montauk. It’s really good.

Categories: People Feature

photography by MElAniE DunEA. Styling by Emma Pritchard. Grooming by Eric Vosberg using Amika Location: Duryea’s Lobster Deck, 65 Tuthill Road, Montauk, 668-2410; duryealobsters.com

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