Classic brands: You instantly recognize them, but how did they get there? And how do they remain classic?
Here's another in my series in which I pick a topic, connect with someone smarter than me, and we discuss. (There's a list of previous installments at the end of this article.)
This time I talked to Eric Ripert, chef and co-owner of New York City restaurant Le Bernardin, a frequent guest judge on Top Chef, the host of the PBS series Avec Eric, and the host of the new YouTube Reserve series On the Table.
Haden: High-end customers are notoriously fickle, especially when something trendy gets widespread attention. Yet Le Bernardin has received four stars from The New York Times for a record 26 years in a row, with you as executive chef for 18 of those years. How?
Ripert: As much as we don't take for granted our four stars and any awards we have received, we do not think about these on a daily basis--our focus is solely on the kitchen preparing the best food and front of house providing the best service possible. Part of the secret is to have a loyal team. Our maître d' has been with us for 18 years, our executive chef and chef de cuisine have also been with us 18 years, and our saucier longer than me--26 years!
We have the mentality of starting every day from scratch and rejuvenating and questioning ourselves on every aspect and detail of what a Le Bernardin experience could (and should) be. My role today is mostly to mentor and instill creativity in our team and to teach them how to evolve. Apart from one or two signature dishes that are mainstays, we constantly evolve our menu, but we never change a dish until we have created a better dish. This is probably one of the reasons why we're still relevant. Our process and ethos allow us to keep our loyal clientele and also to attract a new audience at the same time.
Although we made some significant aesthetic changes to Le Bernardin after our renovation in 2011, we are consciously not trendy. Trendy does not last. Our goal was not to be complacent but to be timeless. One of our great inspirations is the fashion industry.
We look at what some design houses have done over the years, such as Hermès, a company that is highly successful and managed to do well even during the recession. This is partly because of the quality of their products and also the fact that they have never bowed to trends.
Haden: How do you know when a dish is better? Do you try to please yourselves and hope other people feel the same way? Do you look at what other chefs are doing?
Ripert: Obviously, "better" is both relative and subjective. We work in collaboration, the senior sous chefs and myself--this is where I play the role of mentor. I decide a dish needs to be replaced, and then we brainstorm where the inspiration should come from for the next reincarnation of that dish. Inspiration is driven by the team's and my own experiences: traveling, at the markets, from what other chefs are doing, etc. We all go away and think about the dish and then come back and present our ideas. We eliminate a lot, edit our list of ideas down, and then we start to cook.
We know immediately (and collectively) if we are on the right track. The process takes time, and we are never in a rush. If we are lucky, we have a new dish in a few days, but sometimes it can take a few years.
For example, I recently went to Peru, and while I was there I drank a weird fermented corn beer called chicha. When I returned, we decided to replace the black bass dish that was made with a black garlic sauce with a chicha-based sauce. It took us three months to create the dish and to finally and collectively decide that this dish is much better than the other dish. We are usually confident that our clients will like the new dish. We will run that new dish as a special for our regulars, and if after a day or two it's successful, it goes on the menu.
The challenge then shifts to consistency. We use a lot of focus and energy to understand the challenges of the new dish and to ensure that the high standards we have set are duplicated properly and steadily.
What It Takes to Be Timeless
Haden: The challenge is gaining recognition for excellence in the first place, and I would think that's doubly hard in a business where taste--literally--is far from objective.
Take Porsche; there are a number of cars that drive faster, handle more smoothly, and are built better--all the objective measurements--but those cars are still not a Porsche.
High-end brands transcend objective criteria, but I have no idea how you reach that level.
Ripert: Well, first, perfection doesn't exist, but we impose on ourselves the belief that it's real and therefore attainable. We work on our concept, ambience, quality of food and service--these elements give us the foundation to grow and mature. Passion is our driving force to evolve. On a daily basis, however, we don't think about creating a landmark institution or timeless classic; we think about our day ahead and about delivering the most exciting and unique experience to our clientele.
In parallel we have, of course, a long-term vision. That is essential, because it is a guide to help us push our energies in one direction to meet whatever goals we have set. The combination of focusing on our craft every day and also meeting our long-term goals ultimately helps the restaurant to be the Porsche or Hermès of restaurants. It is our combined energy and focus that prevents us from procrastinating and protects us from the risk of losing our core ethos and soul.
What we have in common is that we subconsciously created a mystique, and in due course we learned how to capitalize on it.
Haden: You mentioned consistency and outstanding execution. But highly creative people are often bored by repetition (that's one reason they are so creative).
Ripert: In fact, we find that creativity helps us to be consistent. For example, if you have a dish that has been on the menu for a long period of time, the team begins to overlook the quality of that dish over time and perhaps pay less attention to it than other, newer dishes. In this sense, creativity and change generates quality control.
And the fact that we have senior kitchen members who've been with us for 18 years and line cooks who've stayed for four years allows us to create a system that ultimately helps us maintain consistency in execution.
Developing the Competition
Haden: But extremely talented people often want to eventually go out on their own, which means you're helping develop the same people who may someday compete with you.
Ripert: In our industry, it's a tradition to have young people passing through the restaurant. They give energy, are hardworking, and commit to their mentor. We know their goal is to finally live their dream and manage their own kitchen as chef. We know that they will potentially compete with us, but we don't see it as a threat. We see it as a positive thing.
Competition is a blessing. We have learned not to fear it but to harness it. It motivates us and makes us want to be better.
Haden: Let's talk briefly about you. The average entrepreneur tries to ascend the ladder of media opportunities, going from local to national to international to Oprah. (I'm kidding about the Oprah part. A little.) In the food world, you're in the top tier in terms of recognition and exposure. Yet you're taking what seems like a counterintuitive approach with your new series on YouTube.
Ripert: I believe the future in broadcasting is what Google TV is creating today. I still go on shows like the Today show, Letterman, etc., but for On The Table the idea is to be creative with media. Our aim is to give the viewers an enriching experience and to share the wisdom of our guests with a broader audience. We haven't created the show to bring clients in the door of Le Bernardin, although I think it will help keep us relevant and exciting, and, of course, we hope some of the viewers will potentially visit the restaurant after watching.
In my career, I have always worked on things I am passionate about. I never compromise, and I follow my instincts, and luckily, so far I have been successful in living my dream in a meaningful way.
It is not a strategic plan per se but more of an instinctive reaction. It hasn't failed me yet!
Check out other articles in this series: