NEW YORK (Reuters) - Eric Ripert, executive chef of Le Bernardin, says his culinary philosophy is summed up in the mantra he created for himself and the staff of his celebrated seafood restaurant: the fish is the star of the plate.
"It means you don't cook with the fish, you cook for the fish," said Ripert. "You apply the right technique and ingredients to elevate the fish."
Ripert, who was born in Antibes, France, has been at the helm of Le Bernardin, a New York institution, since 1994. The restaurant holds three Michelin stars and recently ranked 19 on Restaurant Magazine's 2012 list of the World's 50 Best Restaurants.
Ripert, 47, is also the author of four cookbooks, a regular guest judge on the cable TV show "Top Chef", and the host of his own show, "Avec Eric", on public television.
He also chairs City Harvest, a food rescue organization dedicated to feeding the city's hungry.
He spoke to Reuters about balancing tradition and innovation at Le Bernardin, and the passion that drives his many projects.
Q: Did you always want to be a chef?
A: I always had passion for good eating and being in a kitchen. My grandmother, mother and aunts were excellent cooks and everybody was always surrounding me, and spoiling me, with good food. At the very young age of 15 I decided to become a chef and went to culinary school in Perpignan.
Q: Describe the dining experience at Le Bernardin.
A: When you come for dinner you have four courses. The first course is a marinated fish or raw fish. The second course is cooked a little bit, medium rare. The main course fish is again between rare and medium rare. The biggest mistake that the consumer makes at home is to cook, and kill, their fish for a long time in the pan.
Q: You live in New York City. How does that influence your cooking?
A: We have the Italians, a strong Asian population ... the Japanese are very powerful with their influence ... the South Americans, cultures from the Caribbean, great food like in Puerto Rico, and so on. The many different cultures in New York definitely inspire me. Obviously I still use my French (basics and) techniques, but I mix them with new techniques as well.
Q: Le Bernardin has recently been named No. 19 on Restaurant Magazine's World's 50 Best Restaurants list. Were you pleased?
A: It's very good to be on the list. We don't take anything for granted. We don't expect anything. If we have good news, we celebrate. If we have challenges, we correct.
Q: What is the secret of the restaurant's longevity?
A: We are very passionate about what we do. Over the years we have created a very loyal team around us. Our management is with us for 15 years. The gentleman who makes sauce is with Le Bernardin since 1986.
We are a little bit like New York: we reinvent ourselves constantly. Le Bernardin is always changing, very often in a subtle way and sometimes in a bigger way. Last year we redid completely the dining room.
Q: What inspires your cooking?
A: If I go for a week's vacation in Italy, I come back very Italian, in a sense. If I go to Spain I come back as a Spanish guy. If I go to Asia I'm inspired by the country I have visited.
Q: What is inspiring you these days?
A: Lately I'm inspired by the Japanese cuisine. It doesn't mean I'm not inspired by Mediterranean culture, Persian culture and so on. Actually we're working on a Persian dish right now. But the majority of the influence for me right now is Japanese.
Q: What's your newest project?
A: The new project really is to change the menu. We're ending the spring soon and we're working on new dishes for the summer.
Salmon Rillette - Serves 6
2 cups dry white wine
1 tablespoon minced shallots
1 pound fresh boneless skinless salmon fillet, cut into 1-inch pieces
3 ounces smoked salmon, diced
2 tablespoons thinly sliced fresh chives
½ cup mayonnaise
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Fine sea salt and freshly ground white pepper
Toasted baguette slices
1. Combine the white wine and shallots in a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer over medium-low heat until the shallots are tender, about 2 minutes. Add the salmon pieces and poach until they are just barely opaque, about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove the salmon pieces from the wine and immediately drain them on a baking sheet lined with a towel. Strain the wine, reserving the shallots. Place the salmon and shallots in the refrigerator to cool completely.
2. Combine the poached salmon pieces, reserved cooked shallots, smoked salmon, chives, and some of the mayonnaise and lemon juice in a stainless steel bowl. Use the mayonnaise and lemon juice sparingly, so that just enough is added to moisten the mixture. Gently stir the mixture until thoroughly combined -do not overmix or mix too hard. Season the rillette to taste with salt and pepper. Serve cold with toasted baguette slices.
(Reporting by Dorene Internicola; editing by Patricia Reaney)
(This story corrects the date in the third paragraph to 1994)