Since opening in 1986, Le Bernardin in New York City has been one of the most lauded restaurants in the world, and its chef, Eric Ripert, who has helmed the kitchen for the past 25 years, one of the most well-liked and respected chefs in the industry.
His memoir, “32 Yolks” (Random House: 256 pp., $28), may not be what you’d expect from a charming, Emmy-winning cooking show host and cookbook author. In the book, there are, of course, scenes of elaborate meals both eaten and prepared. And all the talk of gigot d’agneau, tarte tatin, petits farcis, paupiette de veau and saumon en croute may prompt a dinner reservation at your local French restaurant. But Ripert’s story is, for the most part, one of profound loss, a tumultuous childhood and abuse, both mental and physical.
We spoke with Eric by phone about why he decided to write the memoir, the moment he became a real chef and all those egg yolks. Tickets are still available for his conversation with Jonathan Gold at the South Pasadena Community Center on Wednesday, May 25. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve written numerous cookbooks. Why write a memoir? And why now?
I did five cookbooks and I wanted to kind of leave an inspirational legacy. And I think I am the right age now, being 50-plus, to be ready for that.
Talk to me about the process of writing the book. How did it come together?
I wrote the book with Veronica Chambers. We spent hundreds of hours together. Basically, she was recording me like an interview and I was talking about what I wanted to talk about and we had the chronology in mind. We worked together for two and something years on this book because it’s not like I micromanage but I was very involved in the details for credibility reasons. Because the book at times is — not controversial, but there are kind of sensitive subjects and therefore I wanted to be ultra-precise. It was a very, very long process, but we worked as a team and she was the best therapist you can imagine.
Why choose the time frame you did, from a young age to just before you come to America? Why stop it there?
So this was an idea from Random House to start when I was very young. And for some reason, I have amazing memories from age 3 and 4, and during my youth and so on. And the idea was to stop when coming to America, stop at the airport when I’m about to enter the plane. In the beginning, I thought it was a weird idea. “Why do a memoir and stop at the plane?” And Random House said the rest is pretty well documented, so let’s focus on your early career, that’s what’s interesting to us. Because we want to know what triggered in you a desire and the passion for becoming a chef.
The attention to detail in the book is impressive. Did you keep a diary?
I have this incredible memory because I didn’t take any notes, no diary, no nothing. But for some reason my long-term memory has not been affected as much as the short one. But seriously, I think at some point there is one scene where I’m throwing brain across the room using a spoon like a catapult. And at that age I was 3, and I remember this moment vividly. Those moments in my head, they were not necessarily intense moments, but the memories stayed with me. For me it was to go back into the past.
The book gets very personal quickly. And you talk about abuse in many forms. How difficult was it for you to revisit certain things from your past?
I’m very open about it. I never talk about it because I think it will be odd for me to start conversations with friends and say, “Oh by the way, I was abused by a priest.” It’s not the kind of thing you bring up. But I never hide it. If the subject comes up I’m very open about it and during the process of the book it was not a painful psychological setback. But then when I read the memoir in full when it was finally done, suddenly everything came back. When you come chapter by chapter or piece by piece, it’s not the same as reading it in one piece. I was like wow, my childhood was challenging. It’s not like I don’t know that, but I didn’t realize how intense it was until I saw it on paper.
You talk a lot about the influence of your mother’s cooking in the book. Which of her meals would you say are still the most comforting for you? And which do you still make today?
It’s three dishes that I really love from my mom and I like to make them at home sometimes. The soufflé that she used to make for me was amazing. The second one is steak au poivre, and the tarte tatine. And the Vietnamese spring rolls are ... that was for me a very very happy moment. I make them at home sometimes. Sometimes we go out and I order them. If I visit my mom I ask her to do it as well. I see her at least once a year.
In the book, you express a passion for food, but it’s also a coping mechanism at times. How important has passion been to your work?
Yes, I think the passion was more important. The passion for food and all the process around it, the table setting and the refinement of the experience. That is something that stayed in my mind and in my heart. True, when I was young those were the moments when I felt at peace and secure and happy. But as soon as I was in the professional kitchen in Paris, that was forgotten. And it was only about the craftsmanship and passion for good eating and of course, passion for my art.
You discuss a lot of mishaps in the kitchen in the book. Why choose your experience with 32 yolks as the title?
Because it’s a defining moment in my career. I went from a young cook who thinks he’s a cook to a real professional, a young professional who can handle 3-star Michelin kitchen which, was a standout at the time. The 32 yolks are that moment of not mastering hollandaise, then being able to do it. It was a very important moment because physically I was not able. I was not strong enough, not able to handle the heat on top of not having enough strength in my arms. And I didn’t have the knowledge to do 32 yolks in a zabaglione or make hollandaise. I thought I had it, but it was more theoretical at school. Thirty-two yolks was the pivotal moment I went from believing I was a cook to being a cook.
In the book, you talk about the elation you felt after being part of the team that helped Joël Robuchon earn his first three Michelin stars. How did it compare to when you earned your first three?
At the time I was very young and Michelin in France was an obsession in every kitchen of every restaurant that was striving for perfection. And we knew that we had the potential and that was the ultimate reward. When it happened the team went crazy. When Michelin came to the U.S., I knew the impact obviously, I lived with it, I grew up with it. it was something new for America. I had to explain to the team that it was a big deal at the time. As soon as we got the three stars we celebrated like crazy. I think we celebrated basically all night. There were magnums of Champagne and cans of caviar. So we went completely crazy as well.
You talk at length about your experience working for Robuchon. Are you at all worried about what he will think after reading this book? Are you two close?
I sent him a book and wrote in the book for him that I’m very grateful for him and if I am today where I am it is mainly because of his influence and I consider him a mentor. He helped me in my career a lot. Obviously, the book saw that he was extremely demanding on himself first and then on us the team. You know in the 1980s, the way kitchens were run, it’s what we call the old-fashioned way. I think he has changed also with the years. I think he’s still demanding but maybe now expresses it in a different way. I don’t know if he’s going to be happy with the book, I hope so. And what is important is that I mention in the book that it was a big difference between dealing with him and some other kitchens where violence was very common in France. I’m talking about physical violence. Pans were flying in the kitchen, and blades. That was really really common in most kitchens. To me it’s the mMiddle Ages and I never understood why my industry was in the Middle Ages when everyone else was evolving. And I am almost sure that today things have changed.
What are you working on next?
Right now, well, Le Bernardin is my top priority all the time. I love to be close to my team and evolve and reinvent Le Bernardin. I love television, to basically inspire people and have fun doing that, so I’m hoping to do more TV. I want to be able to stay as close to Le Bernadin as much as I can and have the lifestyle that I have, which is a very good lifestyle, and be with my family. This is my goal, not to open a big empire.