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Arts & Life

'32 Yolks' Chronicles Chef's Culinary Journey

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

You may want to think twice before you send back a plate in a restaurant that still has food on it.

ERIC RIPERT: (Reading) The final test was when the client sent back the plate. If anything remained, we were all doomed. The waiters knew it. Even the regulars knew it. They made sure to eat every bite. One day, a lobster salad plate caught his eyes. Ripert, come here. Look at your plate. Look at your salad. And look at this plate in horror. One piece of lobster and a single dot of apple remained. Oui, chef. Are you happy with that? You sabotage my dish, Ripert. Is this what you wanted? No, chef.

SIMON: What a touching recollection, isn't it? That's (laughter) chef Eric Ripert, who's reading from his new memoir, "32 Yolks." Chef Ripert has been working at his own three-Michelin-star restaurant, Le Bernardin, for more than 20 years. Thanks so very much for being with us.

RIPERT: It's my great pleasure to be here. Thank you.

SIMON: Between kitchens in Paris...

RIPERT: Yes?

RIPERT: ...And your childhood, you've known a lot of tyrants.

RIPERT: It was not easy. I started well. I mean, my parents were very happy and successful in Saint Tropez in the '70s.

SIMON: Yeah, your father was a banker - very dashing, charming guy.

RIPERT: Yes. And my mother was working in the fashion industry. And I was a very happy child. Then they divorced when I was 5. My mother remarried with a man who was really, really mean to me - very abusive. And that made it difficult.

SIMON: I'll say this as an outsider. It seems like your father of choice was a chef named Jacques (ph).

RIPERT: Yes. Jacques was a great inspiration. I was 9 years old. And he was a character. And we were living in a country called Andorra...

SIMON: Yeah.

RIPERT: ...Which is in between France and Spain. And he was a living legend in his town for his temper and for his talent. He would have no problem to say to people to get out of his restaurant if he didn't like them or if he was in a bad mood. But he liked me, and he let me observe the kitchen. And he fed me a ton of mousse au chocolat...

SIMON: (Laughter).

RIPERT: ...Apple tart, everything I wanted. We became very good friends. And he was a great inspiration for me.

SIMON: Yeah. He loved you.

RIPERT: Yes, definitely.

SIMON: The title "32 Yolks" comes from a story that you tell about, I guess, the first hollandaise you made...

RIPERT: Yes.

SIMON: ...In your first restaurant job.

RIPERT: I am entering the Tour d'Argent, three-star-Michelin - 400 years old in Paris. I'm 17 years old. On my first day, I cut myself after 30 seconds.

SIMON: (Laughter).

RIPERT: I make many mistakes. The chef tried to find an easy job for me. He's like, make me an hollandaise. I'm like, I don't know how to make it. He's like, 32 yolks. The stove is made of cast-iron - so hot, it's red. I'm burning my face, and it's hot. Everything is too difficult. And instead of making this beautiful light sabayon with the consistency of a cloud, I make some pitiful scrambled eggs.

SIMON: (Laughter).

RIPERT: And 32 yolks really defined the moment, from realizing that it will take me weeks and months to master the 32 yolks and make a beautiful hollandaise. And this is when I'm becoming a real cook - a real chef in the kitchen.

SIMON: When you write about working, then going on to work for Joel Robuchon...

RIPERT: Yes.

SIMON: ...In Paris, he sounds like a very - well, let me put it this way - you describe him as both a genius and a tyrant.

RIPERT: Definitely a genius. And I learned so much from him, for sure.

SIMON: What makes him a genius and not just a tyrant?

RIPERT: Well, to put everything into perspective, at this time in the 1980s in France, a lot of kitchens were extremely violent. Chefs were beating the cooks, throwing pans and plates. Joel Robuchon was not violent. And he was not a screamer. But he was very demanding on himself and very demanding on the team.

SIMON: How do you think chefs who work in your kitchen might describe you?

RIPERT: Today, I think they will say some nice things, without being...

(LAUGHTER)

RIPERT: ...In fear (laughter). But when I started Le Bernardin, I had a temper. And I basically emulated some of the chefs that trained me in France. And I was throwing plates on the floor and having tantrums in the kitchen and yelling.

And I was so unhappy in my life. And cooks were leaving. The waiters were leaving. So finally, I sat down one day and I said, what's happening with me and my life? Why am I so angry? And I realized that you cannot mix happiness and anger at the same time in your brain - I mean, in your mind. You can't. It's not possible. Nobody's angry to be happy.

And from that day on, I started to change my attitude. I said, you know, we are going to teach our team in a kind way. We are going to be very respectful, create a very positive environment because I do not believe that a cook that is shaking will do a good job. Someone who's scared in the kitchen cannot cook better than someone who's inspired to cook for the client.

SIMON: Is there a dish in the kitchen that you just - you haven't quite nailed down the way you want to make it?

RIPERT: Well, I don't think today we have that because the way we work - it's interesting. We test the food, and we try. And we are not - until we are happy, we really work hard on the recipes. It took me 22 years to make a stuffed calamari the way I wanted.

SIMON: (Laughter).

RIPERT: And it became the joke of the kitchen because each week, I was like, how about that stuffed calamari? And they were like, no, he's not going to talk about the calamari again. The challenge was to have calamari being tender, not overcooked and having the stuffing cooked inside. And it took us forever to find a solution for that.

SIMON: Eric Ripert - his new book written with Veronica Chambers is "32 Yolks." Thanks very much, chef.

RIPERT: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.