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Eater Exclusive Interview: Coffee With Eric Ripert

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We had the pleasure of meeting Le Bernardin's executive chef Eric Ripert before his book signing and luncheon at the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena today. He's in town promoting the new book, "On the Line," a look inside the drama, occasional danger and recipes of one of the country's most heralded restaurants. Le Bernardin opened in 1986 and continues its long-running four-star status, is always ranked high by all the critics and guides (Michelin, Zagat, etc.), and still serves more than 100,000 customers a year. Ripert has been with the restaurant since 1991, but is now, as many chefs of his stature become, more of an embassador and businessman than the chef behind the lines. In person, he's relaxed and charming, serious but not the least bit stuffy, with an overall vibe that's 'Look, running a good restaurant, it's not rocket science.' On to the interview...

You were at the Hollywood Farmer's Market yesterday. What did you think?
Yes we walked around the market and drank coconuts, and sugarcane juice mixed with cayenne pepper. That was really good. The one in NY is sad right now. This one was very lush.

Tell us about the book.
It's documentary of the restaurant. Like a camera and filming everywhere but it's a book. Really paying homage to the team that helps me run Le Bernardin day to day.

What's your favorite part?
Well, it's in two parts. There's a documentary part and a recipe part. I like where we share some the secrets of the back of the house, like we have a list called the 129 Garden of Sins, a list given to every employee in the dining room. For instance, things like don't leave fingerprints on the plate, acknowledge the client with eye contact.

Is there a similar list of sins for the back of the house?
[Laughs] No we don't, but it's inspiring me to do one.

What would you put on there?
Oh, something like not scratching your nose and touching the food.

Seems like a no brainer. So in its 26 years, Le Bernardin has weathered many storms. Any advice for restauranteurs in this current economic climate?
Not to compromise the quality of what you do usually, keep serving the best quality. Don't be tempted to do shortcuts. If you were buying a bag from Luis Vuitton you get what you pay for, but if they all of a sudden changed the quality of their leather, you wouldn't be a happy customer.

Why is it still so successful?
We are a great restaurant with passionate people with knowledge. The fact that we are dedicated to seafood makes us the only luxury seafood restaurant in NY.

What's the key to getting best seafood?
Simple: Pay on time and not to bargain. We have long time connections with purveyors and after so many years, it's not like you have to really fight with them to get the best. And then if they have something interesting to send, they will.

How do you keep a restaurant/menu/staff inspired and fresh year after year?
We take good care of our staff, and at the same time we make them work little compared to the industry. Like, my sous chefs work four and half days a week. It keeps them fresh and motivated, and they can have a life outside of the restaurant. For the creativity, we work together, and that keeps them motivated. We really work as a team. It's not one dogmatic chef overseeing everyone.

You do some guest spots on Top Chef. A lot of industry people don't like the show. What do you think it?
I like it very much. What's so bad about it? I think it's bringing awareness to our industry, and it's highly entertaining and has credibility. And the top chef really is the best contestant.

What's your best advice for up and coming chefs in today's market?
Make sure you're passionate enough to go through the nightmare that is awaiting. It's a very hard core industry and if you have the passion, you'll go through it. You don't go into this industry to become a celebrity and you don't get into it to get rich. It's about craft and artistry not finance and fame.

But fame is somewhat important. You helped make your restaurant famous, and now your fame helps fuel the restaurant's success.
Well, it's about business. It's not about being famous for the sake of being famous. Fame is a tool. If you have the luck to be famous, you should be using it to run the place. It's not about patting yourself on the back every five minutes to say hey "I'm famous." That doesn't help in the kitchen.

What do you think about the LA dining scene?
It has evolved tremendously. I love it. Last night I went to Ammo and it was lovely. Julia [Wolfson] used to work with us maybe three or four years ago. And her husband, who now works for Gordon Ramsay at the London.

Any finds? Where do you usually eat?
Lee Hefter took me many times to many Japanese places but I can't remember the names. Sasabune is one. I always make a point of going to Matsuhisa. I like to go to the small room off to the side for the tasting menu.

Where are you eating tonight?
I don't know yet.

Has anyone taken you to In-N-Out yet?

[That question got big laughs from people in the Vroman's cafe.]

Travesty. So would you ever open a restaurant in LA?
If I had the right opportunity, sure.