Originally created 01/27/99

French chef seduces thousands each year with menus



NEW YORK -- Thousands of Americans are seduced each year by Frenchman Eric Ripert. His passion draws them in. His creativity and excellence win them over.

Some have had a committed relationship with Mr. Ripert for years.

Mr. Ripert is the four-star chef at Le Bernardin, setting the course for the seafood restaurant's kitchen and training the staff. He joined Le Bernardin as executive chef in 1991 and took over the kitchen in 1994. He says the fame of the restaurant is a nice compliment, but that is not what he thinks about each day.

"It's my job to be here from 11 in the morning to 11 at night, making sure everything is running smoothly, the timing is right and the quality is there," he says.

The 1999 Zagat Survey of New York City's restaurants lists Le Bernardin as No. 1 in the Top 50 Food Ranking and No. 1 in seafood cuisine. Zagat lists prix fixe menus as $42 for lunch, $70 for dinner.

Maguy Le Coze and her brother, Gilbert, opened the original Le Bernardin in Paris in 1972. They opened in New York in 1986, and Ms. Le Coze has been at the helm since her brother died in 1994.

Mr. Ripert won 1998 James Beard Foundation awards for best restaurant and best chef in New York City. He is co-author of Le Bernardin Cookbook -- Four-Star Simplicity (Doubleday).

But the 33-year-old chef says the praise has not gone to his head.

"It may be all compliments when I'm out in the dining room, but when I go into the kitchen and have my hand in the gut of a fish, it's hard to feel like a celebrity," he says with more than a trace of a French accent. "I have a passion for food, and I like to produce a good product."

He credits mentors Joel Robuchon at Jamin in Paris and Jean-Louis Palladin at the Watergate Hotel in Washington for his success.

"No one is born a cooking genius. It's important for chefs to share their knowledge," he says.

Mr. Ripert's promise of napoleon of curried crab and apple salad was a likely incentive for guests who paid $1,000 each for a five-course meal at the St. Regis Hotel to benefit Thirteen/WNET, New York's public TV station. The Jan. 20 event also drew four-star chefs David Waltuck from Chanterelle; Sottha Khunn and Jacques Torres from Le Cirque 2000; and Christian Delouvrier from Lespinasse.

Mr. Ripert says he enjoys "cooking and partying a little" with his fellow chefs. When more than one four-star chef is in the kitchen, there is sure to be some friendly rivalry, he says, noting that "a little competition is good for all of us."

His interest in cooking was born in his grandmother's kitchen in Antibes, France. Even at a young age, he recalls, he wanted to know how she prepared her Mediterranean specialties.

Mr. Ripert spent most of his youth in Andorra, which lies between Spain and France. When it came time to choose a profession, Mr. Ripert decided to attend a culinary school in Perpignan, in the south of France near the Spanish border.

"I had a passion for food even as a kid," he says. "I liked the herbs and spices of the south of France and the olive oils we used in Spain."

Mr. Ripert, who is newly married, devotes Sunday, his day off, to cooking for his wife -- his toughest critic -- and small groups of friends.

He also treats himself to some indulgences.

"I love all fish, but I also love all food. Since I spend my week with fish, I like to cook steak at home. I also eat a lot of chocolate," he says.