An Epicurean Inquisition with Eric Ripert

October 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

In the eyes of critics and colleagues alike, Eric Ripert can do no wrong.

As the executive chef at Le Bernardin in midtown Manhattan, Ripert is something of an accidental celebrity chef. His drive for an outstanding dining experience – from food to service to the table itself – draws worldwide acclaim; the other stuff – books, TV appearances – came later.

Case in point: Last fall, the restaurant closed for a month for a wall to wall, table to chair renovation, leaving nothing but the ceiling. At this year’s James Beard Awards, the architecture firm behind the design, Bentel & Bentel, was awarded “Outstanding Restaurant Design” for the best restaurant design or renovation in the country this year.

For every action, there is an equal and positive reaction when you’re Eric Ripert. Just last week, Pete Wells, the New York Times food critic, rewarded (more accurately, re-awarded) the restaurant with four stars. Overnight, Le Bernardin became the longest-standing four-star restaurant in history, bestowed that high rating five times.

This record-breaking streak is an honor, but the most important four-star award may have been its second, back in 1995. As the story goes, Ripert’s boss, proprietor and executive chef Gilbert Le Coze, died of a heart attack in 1994. The very next day, Ripert was thrust into the limelight as the new head chef, and hung on to the 4-star rating when the New York Times passed through one year later.

When I called him to chat about the restaurant, his family and his best friend Anthony Bourdain, I was nervous. But not for long. Ripert’s calm, his kindness, his joie de vivre is welcoming and wonderful. He takes a sensible approach to life, eating and drinking and all.

After a long day at Le Bernardin, what’s your favorite meal to eat when you get home?

When I go home, I’m not hungry. I eat all day long, and taste a lot of food. However! Every night, when I get home, I pour a nice shot of tequila or Scotch. I take my time to sip it for a half hour to decompress. There is no food involved. Just pure alcohol.

You must get home late!

Well, it depends how busy the restaurant is, and if I know the clients. Generally, I come back around midnight.

When you make it into your own kitchen, does your son join you?

I cook on my night off, on Sunday, and sometimes he joins me. He’s full of good intentions, but after three minutes, he gets bored. But he comes back when it’s cooked!

Is he an adventurous eater?

He’s very adventurous. Most surprisingly for a young kid, he loves seafood. Since he was 3 or 4, he has liked to eat raw oysters. It’s very rare for someone his age.

What’s the one kitchen tool you can’t live without?

My knives. They are essential for cooking. You can’t cook well without the right knife. I’m always surrounded by my knives.

I have two types of knives. There are the knives for the family kitchen, and they are German. And then I have Japanese knives that I hide somewhere in the house, that are only mine to use.

What would be the biggest surprise to find in your fridge?

Our fridge is pretty empty – in fact, that might be the surprise!

We don’t have much in it because we live in New York where it’s easy to find fresh food. During the week, I don’t cook at home, and when my wife cooks, she cooks for that day so there isn’t much food left.

So you spend an enormous amount of time at Le Bernardin. Tell me your craziest diner story – there must be have been a few over-served, ill-behaved dinner guests over the years.

We have a good friend who likes to celebrate his birthday at Le Bernardin in the private room. He’s 6’4” and probably 300 pounds, a gentle giant. (laughs)

For his birthday, I gave him a chef’s jacket with his name and Le Bernardin on it. And then he drank quite a lot. He decided to go down to the main dining room and walk from table to table, asking guests if they liked their meal. If they said yes, he’d stop, and say, “Champagne for you!” or “Caviar for you!” And it went like that, from table to table.

It took us 15 minutes to stop him giving out caviar and Dom Perignon.

Sounds like a memorable night in the dining room. Have you ever been starstruck in your own restaurant?

It’s not my style to be starstruck. Although, one or two years ago, we closed the restaurant and cooked for the Dalai Lama. That might count.

What’s your worst food critic moment?

Luckily, nothing awful has ever happened. We have never had a catastrophe when a critic was in the restaurant, at least to my knowledge. Over the years, we get better and better feedback!

There seem to be a lot of cameras on the dining table in this age of tweeting and Foodspotting. Should a camera be part of the meal?

I’m very tolerant of cameras. Some people have saved their money for a very long time, or come from far away to experience a great dinner here. They are very passionate about food! I would prefer if they just ate and enjoyed it, but if they have the temptation to use their camera, I’m not mad. I won’t judge them badly.

The food is certainly worth celebrating! You’ve been on the World’s Best Restaurant list for 7 years – does it ever get old?  What was the first award like?

I never get bored! Compliments are always something to celebrate. When we get awards, we celebrate very seriously. We don’t overlook them.

The first award was the New York Times review of Le Bernardin [four stars, in 1995] – it’s a very big deal when you get something like that. It’s overwhelming. You are very happy for the team, for yourself, for your clients, for the entire galaxy!

How do you celebrate?

You celebrate in style! Now that means a lot, and means very little.

Speaking of awards, what’s all the buzz about Noma – is it worth the trip to Copenhagen?

I actually went to Noma when it just opened, before it was Noma [listed first on the San Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurants List]. The neighborhood wasn’t even developed yet. It had only been open for three weeks, but I remember having a very good meal there.

Rene Redezepi remembers me because I was one of his first clients. He always reminds me that after I ate, I peeked into the kitchen and gave the whole staff a big smile!

Your own restaurant is revered for its fish preparations. What’s the most obscure sea creature you’ve served?

The most interesting preparation, both visually and in terms of texture and flavor, is the Geoduck (gwee-duck). Some people believe it’s very phallic, but it’s all a matter of interpretation.

What does it taste like?

(laughs) It tastes like geoduck! It’s a bit briny, with some sweetness, some flavors of the ocean. Its texture is similar to abalone, and I like it very much.

There are some other very sexy dishes on the menu, like wagyu tartar with caviar, butter-poached lobster – what’s your most inspired dish? 

The most inspired dish is always the next one!

We try not to have signature dishes and we try to change the menu as much as we can. If you look at the menu after a year, you’ll realize that 90 percent of it has changed. I always like to evolve with the seasons as well as put to use the discoveries we make – whether it’s traveling, studying new techniques, eating and so on.

There’s always reason to come back!

Actually, yes!

Tell me about your Bordeaux fetish. I understand you drink red Bordeaux with everything down to oysters – what happened to food and wine pairings?

Food and wine pairings are smart when they are well done. We have a great sommelier here who puts a lot of passion and knowledge into wine pairings, and they work perfectly.

However, when it comes to wine, I’m the stubborn Antichrist of the sommelier!

What does Aldo Sohm do?

He shakes his head and feels sorry for me.

I know you pal around with Anthony Bourdain. What’s the craziest thing that he’s ever done?

I have never seen him doing anything really crazy. Despite what people believe, he’s in control and very disciplined.

Maybe once, we went out, we had a bit too much tequila, and I had to put him in a cab. We had been eating at an Italian restaurant, and the following morning, he called to tell me he didn’t know how he’d gotten home, and asked the name of the Colombian restaurant where we went. I explained how he’d gotten home before I told him the restaurant was actually Italian.

Le Bernardin is closed on Sunday – what’s your ideal way to spend the free day?

I love to cook at home on Sunday night with the family, with my son, my wife and sometimes friends. Very often, we open a restaurant. My son designs the menu, he is the maitre d’ and the waiter. I am the chef. My wife always starts as the client, but she’ll end up being the dishwasher.

We have different themes: one week is French, Italian, Spanish, and so on. I really enjoy it – it’s playful, we eat well, it’s interactive, and I am with my family.

Have your own questions? Tweet them @EricRipert

This post originally appeared here on May 30, 2012 on Aftertaste, the Lot18 blog.

An Epicurean Inquisition with Dana Cowin

October 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

It’s hard to imagine that print could be dead after a conversation with the ebullient Editor-in-Chief of Food & Wine magazine, Dana Cowin, and a look at the empire her publication has built.

Food & Wine isn’t just a magazine. No matter how you slice or dice it, it seems to extend forever past its pages. It’s evolved into an epicurean powerhouse, from the flagship magazine to books, a website, mobile apps, events around the world, even a TV partnership with Top Chef.

That empire starts with its mothership. Flip open an issue of Food & Wine, and you’ll feel the vibrant pulse of what people are eating and drinking across the country at this very moment.

June is no exception. This month’s issue covers a dinner party with the new private chef startup Kitchit. It features a “Grilling Olympics” in preparation for London, inviting chefs worldwide to compete with their own national recipes. There’s a sense of culinary frontiers: smoky mixology, the art of cellaring beer, and the dining scene in Detroit. And then there’s cooking, not just in the kitchen but camping (biscuit s’mores!) and grilling (paella!). From cedar-planked salmon to brown butter chocolate chip cookies, the magazine bursts with recipes tested right in their editorial kitchen, many tasted by Dana herself.

Since Cowin took the reins in 1995, she’s held the magazine true to its name and its mission, which spans both food and beverages in this exciting culinary space. From the first word out of her mouth, it’s clear she thrusts every ounce of gastronomic passion into the job.

What’s the biggest change you have coming up for F&W?

The great thing about F&W is we reconsider the format and content constantly. We always want to be fresh, we always want to address what people are really interested in. A year ago we introduced Trendspotting and the Gastronaut Files – and now we’re working on a couple new columns that don’t even have a title yet!

We just introduced the Top Chef Challenge, where we give a chef a market basket with five ingredients. They can add two ingredients, and use our wacky basket to make a great recipe.

Sounds like you’re at the nexus of food trends, both dining in and dining out.

F&W’s sweet spot is discovering new talent. It’s also about cooking that’s really accessible, but updated and upgraded. We also love to look at the big national trends.

What’s one trend you see now?

We’re looking at the juice trend, which of course has been around, but we didn’t realize there were so many elements – juicers, juices – of it out there.

Are you pressing juice in the office?

We’re testing so many juicers in our test kitchen. I can’t wait to find one that’s not a pain in the neck to clean. It doesn’t encourage you to make juice if the machine gets gummed up and has 25 parts.

I’ll juice for 3 days and then give up. So we’re testing something like 15 juicers. I loved pressed juice!

What’s your favorite?

I like to go to a café called Free Foods around the corner – the last thing it isis free – but they do some great juices. There’s one called the Bloody Mary, made with beets, cayenne and celery.

In all your years as editor, what food trend do you think was just the most off the reservation that, looking back, you shake your head in disbelief that Food & Wine and other magazines dedicated space to it?

Gosh that is such a great question. At F&W, we try to separate horrible fads from the stuff that’s really good. Some trends have taken long time to mature. To eat vegan or raw in the ‘90s – you had to be hardcore. But vegan today is so awesome! Those are two things I’ve seen go from gross to gorgeous.

Time heals all?

Well, the original people were going vegan for health reasons, and weren’t particularly focused on flavor. It took a while for people trained on flavor to grasp the trend. Today, a trained chef can make a vegan meal spectacular.

What do you think about molecular gastronomy, rosemary pillows and sous-vide and all?

We’ve gone through an equipment revolution, but it takes a while for people to adopt it and learn to cook well with it.

Pressure-cooked food used to be really sort of hearty, country, without finesse. Now enough people have played with pressure for refined dishes to come out of it.

Our idea about what belongs in the pantry is going to be – and has been – transformed. Some of the things that molecular chefs have used, like xantham gum, would have made us say “that’s gross” when they have really practical uses just like baking powder.

Grant Achatz has said, in short, if you’re disdainful of molecular gastronomy, you’re probably disdainful of your own cooking, because baking powder accomplishes similar reactions.

Do you have any of these crazy ingredients at home?

No, but these experiments are on the never-ending to-do list. I also have a NYC kitchen with the space that it would imply.

So what’s your typical workday like?

I spend an enormous amount of time talking to my team and with people involved in this world – what they think is next, what they’re excited about. Trying to track down what people think about food informs all meetings and conversations.

I eat all day! We have a test kitchen 30 yards from my office. It’s a great joy to see what recipes we will be publishing.

What’s the thing that caught you most off-guard recently?

I tend to be pretty open-minded. It’s one thing to be understanding of certain trends, but it’s another thing to be eating them.

When the offal thing came along, I said I understand that, but then it came to eating it. The brain of the cow, brain of the sheep, the tuna heart – it’s not shocking, but it definitely makes you think, why do I eat muscle but I don’t eat this?

Has F&W worked with offal?

Restaurants do offal exceptionally well. It can be hard to access good offal if you’re not a restaurant. It doesn’t tend to be what people want to cook at home.

Do you cook a lot?

I cook a lot on the weekends. I don’t pick up a pan from Monday to Friday.

Are you invited to dinners a lot?

I have two little kids, so I only give myself 2 nights out a week. I just say no a lot. I would love to say yes, but I can’t do it.

What would be the biggest surprise to find in your fridge or pantry?

My fridge is not quite empty. In my case, I like that shopping every day thing. My kids, surprisingly, like stinky cheese. Sometimes you’ll open the fridge and ask what has gone rotten! But it’s just the cheese.

Where do you like to shop?

I’m pretty tactical. Fairway is very close to my apartment. Or I go to Murray’s in Grand Central.

If you’re going to Murray’s, you must like cheese.

My daughter, for her 12th birthday party, requested soft ripened white-rind cheeses! I asked her if she thought her friends would like it, and she said yes! We got a beautiful camembert with Herve Mons as the affineur and a beautiful robiola. And they ate it all.

Do your kids like the kitchen?

My son is not remotely interested (he’s 9), but my daughter (she’s 12) has her own repertoire without using a cookbook. She can make the following from scratch: biscuits, sole meunière, a tofu stir fry and a chicken soup. They’re super simple but all things she loves. She also checks and corrects the seasoning, which I love.

Some daughters are critical of their mother’s wardrobe, but more importantly she’s critical of my cooking.

When Gourmet and other lifestyle magazines were shutting down a couple years ago, what was Food & Wine’s secret to survival and, today, thriving?

The great thing about F&W is that we’ve always had a diversified business model: magazine, books, connoisseur club, website, mobile apps, events, television through our partnership with Top Chef.

The magazine has thrived because as a brand, it’s really robust. Someone who’s devoted to the brand is interested in coming to events, buying a book, checking out the clubs – each one of those parts contributes to the brand’s success.

If we only had one or two of those, maybe we wouldn’t be successful today. It’s sort of like having a chair with a woven fabric seat, and even if one of the straps pops, the chair would still hold.  

What do you think viewers miss or don’t understand about the judging on Top Chef? The picking of the winner, the dressing down of the losers, the selection of who goes – it’s all cut down to 5 or 7 minutes. What don’t we see?

You don’t see how seriously they take it! It looks like they just put their heads together, and it seems like it takes 30 seconds, but as Gail Simmons will tell you – they take a long time. Gail would say it can go from 10 minutes to hours!

Food & Wine has something like 15 festivals it puts on around the country each year. Do you attend all of them?

No, I don’t – it would be almost impossible; I go to some, and they’re amazing. 

The greatest thing is getting to see the chef community that I love. For example, Thomas Keller did an extraordinary cooking demo in Aspen with the guy who raised lamb for him.

I made it out to Pebble (Beach) and had a terrific time there. I met Guy Fieri – I jumped from the stage when I was finished introducing him. I felt like, if you introduce him, you have to do that.

You were just inducted into the Who’s Who of the James Beard Foundation, but I know you’ve been going to the awards for years. How have the awards changed over the years?

Susan has done a great job bringing the glamor back to the awards. She also revised and pushed around some of the categories, which was smart. She re-engineered it to make it better.

What do you think about the criticism that they’re too old and stodgy?

I think the Beard Foundation works incredibly hard to re-think their program. They’ve done some brilliant programming. People love to be critical.

When they moved to the Lincoln Center, it was a big change. It adds a lot of glamour, and it’s a great venue to match the talent of the chefs.

Who’s your favorite chef or food personality to have a meal with?

I could never answer that question! My favorite chefs are the thinker chefs, the ones who are either trying to reinvent something or trying to change the world.

What about traveling, what’s your favorite travel destination just to eat?

I’ll go anywhere to eat, literally anywhere. I live on the UWS, and the other day I did a walking tour of Brooklyn. To me, that’s traveling to eat — not because I went there for one meal, but because I treated it like it was Paris. I went to Bien Cuit, One Girl Cookie, Van Leeuwen ice cream, Seersucker, the smoked fish guy. I love touring boroughs of Manhattan as if I’ve gotten on a plane to get there.

And this year I was also in Brazil, LA, New Orleans …

In each issue of the magazine you recommend a few restaurants where you’ve eaten recently. What are a few of your guilty pleasures you wish you could recommend? In-n-Out Burger? Pret A Manger?

(Laughs) That’s funny because on my anniversary, I was supposed to go have dinner at a jazzy place near my office and that didn’t work out because there was confusion over the reservation, so I ended up eating a Pret sandwich for my anniversary.

I don’t believe in guilty pleasure. I believe pleasure is just fine, and no guilt. If I did feel guilt, I’d eat less of it.

What’s the most unusual thing you’ve ever eaten?

Tuna heart, which was amazing. Or beef heart. Eating hearts is kind of funny, you think of the metaphor of it all. Hearts and brains.

Any favorite spots for offal in the city?

There’s a beef place called Takashi that is supposed to be phenomenal. It’s a Yakiniku restaurant, downtown.

Last but not last, the infamous death row question – what would be your final meal?

I think my last supper would be fried chicken, and apple pie with ice cream!

Have your own questions? Tweet them @fwscout

This post originally appeared here on June 9, 2012 on Aftertaste, the Lot18 blog.

An Epicurean Inquisition with Pat LaFrieda

October 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

A thick burger, fresh off the grill, seared rare. It’s all I can think about as Pat LaFrieda talked to me about meat last Monday afternoon.

For a man who’s one of the most sought-after butchers in New York City with over 500 restaurant accounts, Pat LaFrieda is impressively calm. Described as “the hardest-working man in meat,” LaFrieda and cousin Mark Pastore took over the family meat business from Pat’s father, Pat Sr., who inherited the work from his father, the founder of LaFrieda Meats back in the early 1900s. Can you imagine their family dinners?

LaFrieda’s passion for beef shows in every menu he touches. He invented the blend for Michelin-starred Minetta Tavern’s “Black Label” burger. He sells to the Spotted Pig and the Little Owl, not to mention Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack. LaFrieda is the meat man about town, and even the Food Network has recently taken note.

And the chance to chat with Pat and hear about life in the butcher case, working 3:30 pm until 6 am each day, and cutting for 12 of those hours in 36 degrees F temperatures, was awesome.

1.     What’s your favorite meal to prepare at home?

My favorite type of meat to eat is lamb — I love to prepare different cuts of lamb. If we’re talking about beef, skirt steak is my favorite cut. When it comes to wines, it’s whatever else everyone is drinking. And I love artisan beers like Dogfish Head and Six Point.

2.     What’s the food you would never consume again, and why?

Nothing! I’ve eaten everything.

3.     What’s the kitchen appliance/gadget you can’t live without?

My grill. I grill everything. I don’t care if it’s the middle of winter, before I do anything, I put on my grill. I’ll climb over the snow if I have to! Once I get that gas going so it starts to heat up, I can prep my meat.

4.     What was your most unforgettable meal?

That’s a tough one. The lamb’s tongue at Babbo is my favorite appetizer of all time. Michael White’s pasta at Marea is just unbelievable. And the pasta tasting course was the most memorable pasta meal I’ve ever had. The best steak I’ve ever eaten was the rib steak at Perla – Mike Toscano is a great chef. It’s funny because someone else ordered a lamb head that night, which was also outstanding. We’d cut the back of so it could stand up and you could pick out the cheek and the tongue. And it’s funny too because the first restaurant he [Toscano] worked in was Babbo.

5.     What would be the biggest surprise we’d find in your butcher case?

Quail eggs.

6.     What’s the most unusual cut of meat you’ve had to deliver?

Well, I’d have to say veal fryers, which are calf testicles. Chef Cesare Casella orders them for his restaurant, Salumeria Rosi.

7.     What’s your most important tool of the trade?

My scimitar knife.

8.     What’s the craziest order you’ve ever had?

Well, last Thursday night, it was 11 pm and Franklin Becker from Abe & Arthur’s called me and said the entire Giants football team just came in for dinner. “Pat, you don’t understand, I need 40 porterhouse steaks, you gotta bring them now.” And I asked, “Have they ordered yet?” Franklin, “They’ve already ordered!” And I said to Franklin, the meat’s in another state! So I drove back [to the meat refrigerator in New Jersey], portioned the porterhouses, and drove them into the city in my car. There were about 100 people deep as I tried to get into the restaurant. And the chefs were there, waiting.

Have more questions? Tweet @PatLaFrieda

This post originally appeared here on April 25, 2012 on Aftertaste, the Lot18 blog.

Welcome!

September 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

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