Thousands of people dream of owning a restaurant. Most of them dream of owning a successful restaurant.
Few, though, can realistically dream of owning a restaurant that in 2015 was rated by Zagat as New York City's top restaurant for food and service.
Yet that's exactly what Eric Ripert, chef and co-owner of Le Bernardin, has done. He's also an author, a frequent guest judge on Top Chef, and the host of the acclaimed series Avec Eric. (And he's an incredibly nice guy.)
And that's why Eric is another in my series of interviews related to the Strayer University Readdress Success program, an initiative intended to redefine success as "happiness derived from good relationships, and achieving personal goals." (Strayer has launched a petition through Change.org to change the Merriam-Webster definition; sign the petition and Strayer will donate 50 cents to Dress for Success, a nonprofit that promotes the economic independence of disadvantaged women.)
When you were 15 you left home and you went to a culinary school. Most 15 year-olds don't have that kind of courage.
It was a boarding school as well. It was the first time I left my family for a long period of time. It was emotionally difficult, but the excitement of going to culinary school, being accepted in the program, and being able to cook, which was my passion already at the time, was so strong.
I was a bit sad... but I was also excited.
At school there were two paths you could take, and it almost didn't turn out like you hoped.
At the time it was 2-year program. The first year was cooking and being a waiter. I was actually very good at being a waiter, and the teacher wanted me to choose that path even though I wanted to be in the kitchen.
Toward the end of the year, in order to convince my parents it was a good idea to send me to the dining room, they brought them to the school and wanted me to show off. They gave me the job of being the sommelier, which was fairly easy compared to other technical jobs. That day a colonel from the French army came with his guests. I took the order for the drinks, came back and I started to put a glass on the table... and then the tray fell on the colonel.
I panicked a bit but the teacher said it was no big deal. He told me to clean up and come back -- you have to do the job.
I came back with another tray and I was beside his wife... and so was an ice cube from the previous accident. I slid on the ice cube and the tray fell on his wife. The colonel didn't say a word. The teacher was laughing, everybody was laughing... and my mother was green.
The teacher told me I had to keep going. I went back to the bar, got my cocktails again, and came back. I was doing a great job that time, but there was some water on my tray and the last glass of water fell on the colonel's neck.
At that point he freaked out. My mother was under the table. The teacher was nowhere to be found because he was laughing hysterically.
And I was headed to the kitchen.
You trained under some incredibly talented chefs and restaurateurs. How did you pick the people you wanted to learn from?
In my career I did make choices but I was always very lucky to end up in very special places.
When I graduated from culinary school, I applied to all the 3 Michelin Star restaurants in France because that was the reference. Only one answered, La Tour d'Argent Paris. They were celebrating their 400 year anniversary.
I started there when I was 17. Then I wanted to go somewhere else to learn. I don't remember where exactly, but the chef took me into his office and said, "Here I am the boss. I will tell you when you can leave and I will tell you where to go."
I said, "Yes sir. Yes chef." He sent me to Joel Robuchon. At the time Joel was the new genius. He became the best chef of the 20th century.
Then Robuchon sent me to the U.S. because it is a tradition from mentor to mentor to send students to different places to learn different styles. I ended up in Washington D.C. with Jean-Louis Palladin at the Watergate Hotel. Then Jean-Louis sent me to New York and in 1991 I ended up at Le Bernardin as the chef of cuisine.
That raises an interesting point. What makes a good mentor?
To be a good mentor means, first of all, to have made all the mistakes possible that someone can make in a kitchen -- that way you know.
Then you have to be patient. You have to be nurturing, to share your wisdom, and to be inspiring. That's the job of the mentor.
We have a young team in the kitchen. They're here to learn from the senior team. They're here to learn my style and my philosophy of cooking as well as how to manage the kitchen.
Ultimately it is our responsibility to make sure that whoever comes into our kitchen meets his or her goal. They all have a different goals. Some cooks don't want to go to fine dining, but they still want the experience. Some cooks are really into fine dining.
So I adapt the teaching depending on the goals of the employee.
It's unusual that someone in a management position adapts to what the employee wants, as opposed to just saying, "This is our way, this is what we do... and you have to conform."
In a way, when I say I "adapt to the employee," the young chef needs to adapt to and believe in the system, and then, in very subtle ways, we teach them.
First of all we have to teach them craftsmanship; that is basic because our job is about craftsmanship. Then, after may months of training, they move from station to station learning different things. They adapt a lot to our system.
It's not like the system is very supple. The system is very rigid. However, the teaching is still tailored to the individual.
Le Bernardin is both a successful and a celebrated restaurant, so tons of talented people would love to work here. What do you look for in the people you hire?
We receive a lot of resumes. A lot of people are interested in coming to Le Bernardin to learn their craft. Others are already very accomplished and are looking for solid jobs and security.
What we look for is a person who is humble, hard-working, but most importantly, is a team player -- because we need to work as a team to be able to feed an entire dining room at almost the same time.
One person alone in the kitchen couldn't potentially serve so many people. We have to work as a team. Being a team player is key. If you have amazing craftsmanship, amazing skills, amazing everything, yet you cannot work with the team... then you cannot be on our team.
You cannot be at Le Bernardin.
This is a 3 Michelin Star restaurant. It's the longest-running New York Times 4 Star restaurant. Most people would be satisfied with that yet you've gone on to write books, appear in a broad range of media... what motivates you to keep achieving more?
First of all, when I come to work I don't think about the stars. I don't think about the ratings. I don't think about anything but my day. When I come to work, it's about cooking, being with the team, making people happy, and creating an experience.
That is really my state of mind. Then, your rewards come.
This is my passion. Every day I live my passion. The team is also passionate. They want to go on and on and on. We never stop because we don't have a limit.
I'll be on my walker and I may still be in the kitchen.
If I say the word "success," most people think of professional achievement, but you're just as proud of your family and personal life. How do you balance all this aspects of your life?
Success is very subjective. It means a lot of things for a lot of people.
When I think about success I think about happiness. I think about a level of contentment that brings balance. To be able to do that, I obviously dedicate part of my life to work, but I don't spend my entire life here because you get burned out. I spend time in the restaurant with the team and that is part of my journey.
Then I spend time with the family and I make sure that I spend good, quality time them. That is very important because as much as I give I also receive -- from the team and from my family.
At the same time I dedicate a lot of time to myself because I think it's very important to take distance from the familial responsibilities of being a father and a husband and from being a member of the team here. It's very important to reflect, very important to think about yourself, very important to take care of yourself... because if you don't do that, you will not be good at anything.
Seemingly every notable chef wants to open a restaurant in Las Vegas, and you have not. Why?
A lot of chefs have or want to open restaurants in Las Vegas. I am not excited by the idea. I have never been excited, and therefore, we have never been in Vegas.
I went many times. We had proposals. I have nothing against Vegas. It's just that personally it doesn't please me to be there -- I don't see how I can be at Le Bernadin and take good care of the team and the clients and at the same time do that in Vegas.
That's what I care most about. Money, obviously, contributes in many ways to a happy life, but it's not the most essential element for me. What is most essential is to be mentoring, to be following my passion, to be with our clients, and to be content with where I am.
Again, I'm not anti-Vegas, and I admire the chefs who are there and are successful, and I love the idea that when I go there I can eat well because my friends are there... but ultimately I want to be here, not there.
Most successful entrepreneurs aren't necessarily buddies with their competitors. Yet you and many chefs are friends: you collaborate and share and enjoy each other's company... and that seems unique to your business.
In our industry there is a lot of friendship. At the same time the industry is very competitive at every level, especially at the top. Everyone wants to be at the top.
Yet it doesn't prevent the chefs from being friendly with each other and developing close friendships. That is very specific to our industry.
Maybe it's because we are a hospitality business that we have this kind of openness and generosity. We send our best cooks to our friends. Waiters also move from one house to another.
It's not like we have beers every night after work, but we communicate. We see each other. We do a lot of benefits together and we cook together.
It brings us together and it's something we enjoy very much.
That openness also means that oftentimes you're training people who will someday be your competitors.
Yes, we train people that potentially will be competitors or work for competitors, but other restaurants do the same. They train employees who eventually come here.
Cooking is very artistic and very personal. The vision of the chef is unique. What I'm teaching people here are the basics but also my artistic vision. That vision cannot be duplicated with another chef. Therefore, it's not competition on that level. It's differences.
Let's take designers. You have different brands and different styles like Prada and Armani and Versace. There are a lot of similarities, but ultimately the style is different, and that cannot be shared.
We are not afraid of sharing our team and staff and it's a good dynamic.
Ultimately those young chefs one day will become better than us. The new generation that we see coming is already showing signs of extreme talent. It's a logical progression from generation to generation: we bring the brick, they step on it, they go higher.
My generation learned from the talent and the generosity of our mentors, and we did what we do today, and now there is a new generation. There will be many generations to follow that will do the same thing, and that makes us happy.
It's nothing to be worried about. It's a natural part of life.
You've said that success is not just a reward, it's also a responsibility.
When you are successful it is something to celebrate, but at the same time you have the responsibility to inspire people. If you have a media profile, for example, you can talk about sustainability. You can talk about feeding your family healthy food. You can inspire people in many ways.
You can also help the community. You cannot be successful and look at people around you that are in need and not share. That doesn't make sense.
I'm lucky that in New York we have many organizations that help people in need. I'm very involved with City Harvest. City Harvest rescues food that is perfectly fresh and nutritious and distributes to 600 shelters in New York, creates mobile markets in the Bronx and Staten Island and other parts of New York. I'm the co-chair of the board, which is a great honor, and at the same time Le Bernardin is deeply involved in giving food at the end of every day that is delivered to people in need.
New York has almost 1.4 million people living under poverty level that are struggling to find their next meal. One child out of four doesn't know where they will get their next meal when school is closed.
You cannot be successful and celebrate stars or rewards... and at the same time ignore people that are struggling.
People often ask for your advice on how they can be successful. How do you answer?
When people ask if I can help them understand how they can be successful, most of the time they don't ask themselves the most important question of all: what does success mean to you?
Success starts with reflecting and defining what success means to you.
Cooking is a relatively private profession and yet you've developed a highly public profile. How did you develop those skills?
Chefs used to be solely in the kitchen. They took care of the food and cooking and their team. Now there is a certain celebrity aspect to being a chef.
I remember when I was a young chef I had a hard time getting out of the kitchen to see the customers. I was so shy. When I got the courage to meet customers I realized they were happy to see the chef... and I realized that if they were happy to see the chef that was good for the restaurant.
Today my role is to be an ambassador of Le Bernardin -- when I'm talking to the media and doing TV shows I'm explaining what Le Bernardin is.
I represent every employee of the company and I take it very seriously.
A chef's vision is very personal, and it's unique to that person. You create something and you created all this. How do you balance your vision against the realities of running a business?
Restaurants are enterprises that need to generate profits. If your restaurant is not financially sustainable, you close. Therefore you need to have a certain balance between your vision and your dream and what you can achieve.
As a chef or restaurateur we develop this instinct throughout our learning period as we go from restaurant to restaurant. We see what people do that is successful and appeals to the clientele. Then we create our own vision.
It's a slow process, and it's a good thing that it is a slow process because we learn during that process.
We have to find a balance between our artistic vision and what the clientele wants. The restaurateurs who are successful have that in them.
What is one thing that you would still like to do that you haven't done?
I have a lot of things, but, ultimately it's to be fully happy. If you are fully happy you have a good life.
Then my goal is to go even further than that. It's not just like being fully happy just for the heck of it, right? I want to, and this is maybe sounds la-la land, but I want to become enlightened.
I practice Buddhism. I'm definitely not a master at it. I'm a student, and my ultimate goal is to become enlightened. I rarely speak about that because I'm certainly no saint, nor pure, and I do not wish to bring my spirituality and impose my spirituality on the team, but I believe that Buddhism has a lot of positive impact on me, and I try to share the wisdom in a subtle way without imposing.
It's not a dogma, but that is my ultimate goal: enlightened. I'm far away from that.
But I have many lives to get there.