Chef Eric Ripert is as particular about the words used to tell his story as he is about the ingredients used in Le Bernardin’s kitchen.
“Very much yes,” says Ripert, author of 32 Yolks: From My Mother’s Table to Working the Line, written with Veronica Chambers. The two spent hours in the basement of his famous Manhattan restaurant: he, telling the story; she, translating speech into narrative nonfiction.
“Veronica let me be very involved, basically micromanaging every chapter with her,” he says. “So, ultimately, of course, it’s her writing, with me being extremely close to everything she said and changing [minute details]. Sometimes we would meet again, and I would say, ‘You know, Veronica, I think the comma here, with the comma here, is not the same as the comma at the end.’ ”
Attention to detail is what sets Le Bernardin apart: Since its 2005 inception, the restaurant has maintained three Michelin stars and a four-star rating from the New York Times. It’s New York City’s most popular restaurant and top in food service for 2016, according to Zagat, and ranked 18th on San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. As chef and co-owner, Ripert is responsible for overseeing a kitchen staff of more than 50.
“To be able to mentor a team that can reproduce my vision—I think this is a huge challenge and, when you achieve that, you can be very happy about it,” he says.
32 Yolks does not focus on Ripert’s well-chronicled stateside success. Rather, it is a straightforward account of his formative years in France and Andorra, a small principality between France and Spain, through boarding school, cooking school, and the extreme education of Parisian professional kitchens.
Ripert’s mother, a stylish boutique owner and fabulous cook, was the first to impart the importance of l’art de la table to her young son.
“To her, the entire meal was a creative act, an expression of refinement and taste,” Ripert writes. “There were always flowers, candles, and a starched tablecloth, whether we were eating crab soufflé or onglet and frites. We even changed plates between courses like they did in restaurants. I grew up thinking that everyone ate this way.”
The pleasure of eating well was often a balm for personal devastation: Ripert’s parents divorced when he was quite young; his stepfather was abusive; and, when he was 11 years old, his beloved father unexpectedly died. His mother told him only after the funeral had taken place.
He battled ill feelings and anger through boarding school and cooking school—not the traditional launchpad for a successful French chef.
“Cooking was very blue collar at the time, and it’s still today a blue collar industry,” Ripert says. “At that time it was young adults, teenagers, who were kicked out of school and apprenticing in the kitchen. They were becoming very strong and very good at what they were doing at a young age, and they had been already through those experiences.
“Coming from [culinary school] graduation, we were kind of dreaming, thinking that we were already pretty good,” he says. “You realize very quickly that graduation was basically a passport to enter a kitchen, but it was certainly not good enough for us to be excelling in those kitchens.”
Ripert’s first big break was a job as a commis, or junior chef, at La Tour d’Argent, under chef Dominique Bouchet. At first, he wasn’t even strong enough to whip the 32 yolks required to make a batch of hollandaise.
“If a cook today tells me he ruined his hollandaise, I can tell him at exactly what step he went wrong, because I’ve ruined it in every possible way,” he writes.
But by the time he was ready to move on, Bouchet considered Ripert ready for the opportunity of a lifetime: working for genius chef Joël Robouchon at his three-starred temple to nouvelle cuisine, Jamin. The job demanded 16 to18-hour days, insane productivity, and precision that pushed Ripert and his fellow cooks to their physical and psychological limits.
“I didn’t even think about being happy or unhappy, I thought about surviving and succeeding,” Ripert says. “Nobody’s born with all the genes to excel in the kitchen—it’s about training and repetition and working hard and learning from the mistakes and time.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.