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Everything Goes Better 'Avec Eric'

Eric Ripert on the set of "Avec Eric." (Angie Mosier)

This weekend, chef Eric Ripert makes his public-television debut with “Avec Eric.” Each episode of the 10-part series, which premieres at 1 p.m. Saturday on WETA, gives a behind-the-scenes glance at his acclaimed Le Bernardin restaurant, follows him to the farms and woods and fishing operations that inspire him, and culminates in his cooking of a home-style dish in a studio kitchen.

If the rest of the series is anything like the first two episodes, “Avec Eric” is a refreshingly whimsical, sometimes even spiritual look at food through the eyes of one of the most respected, not to mention easy to watch, chefs in the world. Among other scenes, Ripert goes along for a wild boar hunt in Tuscany (getting soaked in a thunderstorm in the process), pops tomatoes like candy at a restaurant’s farm in California and interviews Le Bernadin’s saucier, a Caribbean charmer named Vinnie.

I recently spoke with the 44-year-old chef by phone from his office at Le Bernadin about the show. Excerpts of our conversation follow:

Joe Yonan: One of the promotional pieces I saw for the show says it is not about how to cook, but why. What do you mean by that?
Eric Ripert: How to cook is obviously part of the show, but that’s not the sole purpose. It’s a lifestyle. I think cooking is essential to have a good lifestyle if you have a family or even if you are single. It creates appreciation and respect for the planet -- the beautiful planet that we are [messing] up every day. It creates respect for the life of the animals that we are eating, animals that are often treated like commodities. It’s about respecting the ingredients and the people who are behind them. It’s about bringing people to the table. You share ideas and create friendship and if you have children, you communicate with your children. I think it’s a very European way of doing it. You’re cooking from your experience because you get inspired by your surroundings and then by cooking with a passion and talent you change the life of people and your own life and appreciation for what the planet is bringing to it, or the gods or whatever you believe in.

JY: Speaking of gods, the show has a very strong philosophical bent. I found myself moved by some of your descriptions of the power of food and cooking. Was that part of your goal?
ER: No. Basically the producers say, ‘Do you want to go to California?’ And I say, ‘Sure.’ They say, ‘What do you want to do there?’ I say, ‘I want to eat, I want to drink, I want to have fun.’ It’s like, let’s go, let’s have fun, and we have the luxury of documenting it. It’s a very personal approach, Joe. I’m not promoting anything, I’m just being myself, having fun. And the camera just follows me wherever I go.

JY: So it’s not scripted at all?
ER: It cannot be, because I cannot read a script. If you give me a script I will just freeze. Geoffrey Drummond, the producer, who was the producer of Julia Child and does Jacques Pepin, Lidia Bastianich, many other shows, Geoffrey after every one of my trips would sit down and he would ask me questions just like a journalist, while sharing a bottle of wine and talking. And most of the voice-over that I do is coming from that. They had to invent a system that would work for me.

Eric Ripert with John Finger and Terry Sawyer from Hog Island Oyster Co., on the set of "Avec Eric." (Angie Mosier)

JY: You have this quietly inquisitive quality – that it’s not about you, it’s about the people you meet and the things you’re experiencing. In some ways, it’s not very cheflike.
ER: If you lose your sense of curiosity and your ego blinds you, you're dead. You have to be curious and humble enough to listen to people and learn from them, and you take what they say as a gift.

JY: What types of things have you learned in filming the show?
ER: I learned how to be more articulate. The cameras were invisible to me. It’s the way I live my life. It’s not exactly a documentary, because I’m hosting, but the way it’s made is seamless. This project is a process of love. Nobody made money on this show. Nobody. Everybody got into it – the camera man, the sound engineer – everybody was very involved. We were working really hard together, and we shared all our meals together, and we got drunk all together, and we lived like gypsies all together. The adventure was not only for me. We were all a bunch of passionate people thinking about our next dinner.

Eric Ripert making pasta with Giovanna Carcasci from Ristorante Pizzeria Maga Magó in Tuscany on "Avec Eric." (Angie Mosier)

JY: You have something of an interest in Buddhism, I’ve read. How serious is it?
ER: I don’t like to talk about it too much, first because it’s personal but also because it’s got this sense of purity about it. And nobody ever asks, ‘You’re Christian, so how does that affect your cooking?’ I’m not as holy as Jesus Christ or as pure and holy as the Dalai Llama himself. It’s true that it influences my vision of life, and it promotes obviously tolerance and peace and it’s inspiring to me, but all major religions at least start with the same idea of tolerance and peace and generosity.

JY: Your movements do seem Zenlike in the kitchen: purposeful yet calm. No movement wasted. It’s the opposite of some of the frenetic things you see chefs do on television.
ER: I’m not an entertainer. I don’t want to mention any names, but some of the chefs on the Food Network they throw things around, exaggerate the movement. To me it’s not about creating the show, it’s about cooking and making sure the food is going to taste good and applying the right techniques. When I put the salt in I don’t have to exaggerate the movement in order to show you I’m adding salt. I just want to add the right amount of salt.

JY: How does your Buddhism square with the hunting scenes in the first episode?
ER: Obviously we’re going to hunt a wild boar and cook him and eat him. But the people who have been cooking and eating wild boar for centuries, they are not destroying the landscape, they are protecting the land. The population of wild boar is not in danger. They are respectful of keeping the population at the right level. It’s okay to kill animals if you can do it without making them suffer, but it’s important to pay homage to their life. It doesn’t mean you have to be a vegan because you’re Buddhist. The nature of humans is to be omnivores.

JY: In the cooking sequences on the show, you make a point of not measuring anything. Why?
ER: I understand that when you’re beginning in cooking you need to follow recipes, and the ABCs of techniques. But then I think it’s important to let your instinct guide you. My cooking is all instinctive. It’s about feeling, physically and mentally, anticipating the way the flavors are going to evolve. As you know you cannot measure the flavor of rosemary in a sauce. You cannot say I have 1 inch of rosemary flavor. It’s borderline meditation for me. After you learn the techniques, you learn organization that allows you to have that experience. It’s basically like a sixth sense, a gut feeling that guides you through the process of cooking.

JY: A lot of people would love to be able to cook like that, but they don’t have your talent.
ER: Well, yes, they have to learn how to cook first. Cooking is craftsmanship and artistry. When I hold a tomato in my hand I know if it’s full of water, or dry, or ripe, overripe, old, fresh, all those details that will ultimately guide your cooking. No recipe can tell you that. Rosemary in Italy is stronger than rosemary in New York. Mint in California is stronger than mint in Canada. You can’t say use a tablespoon of mint. At the same time it’s a guideline – you do want to say, don’t use five tablespoons.

JY: You're using measurements in the recipes on the Web site, I assume?
ER: We have to. For Season Two we’ll have a companion book of recipes. But we’ll explain in the preface that the recipes are guidance, and when you’re comfortable with techniques it’s basic and then you can go with your gut feeling.

JY: You have done a lot of television appearances, but mostly guest cooking spots and, of course, judging on “Top Chef.” How has this been different?
ER: Two weeks ago I did the Letterman show, and as you know it’s comedy, and I enjoy very much the challenge of being on a show like that with someone who is so quick, someone who is brilliant, and I go and it’s not about finishing my dish or doing something perfect, it’s about comedy and being playful and maybe giving a little information. The morning shows -- you have 3 1/2 minutes to show someone an idea. I must say I like television. Actually, I like media in general. I like talking to journalists, because it makes me articulate what I have in my mind, and by doing that you progress, you better understand what you’re doing.

JY: You’re pretty good at it.
ER: I’m trying.

-- Joe Yonan

By Joe Yonan  |  September 4, 2009; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Television  | Tags: Eric Ripert, Joe Yonan, television  
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I thought Eric Ripert was attractive before, but after reading this, he is smoking hot!

Posted by: dstu | September 4, 2009 12:27 PM | Report abuse

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