How Buddhism helped celebrity chef Eric Ripert break the cycle of abusive cooking

Read the transcript of the story

Originally published April 20, 2021.

Celebrity French chef Eric Ripert learned his trade in kitchens plagued with abuse of younger staff – an environment he briefly recreated when he became boss later in his life.

“I realized I was wrong; I emulated some of my mentors and people who taught me, ”said Ripert, executive chef and co-owner of Le Bernardin restaurant in New York City.

“And I was like, ‘This is not how I wanted to be treated when I was a cook. This is not how I should treat people,” “he said.

Ripert has previously spoken about the working conditions, including following allegations of sexual misconduct against celebrity chef Mario Batali in December 2017.

Shortly after, a former Bernardin waitress filed a complaint alleging that she had been sexually harassed by kitchen staff and waiters, and that her complaints to management were ignored. Ripert called the allegations “completely false” and the lawsuit was dropped by the plaintiff in June of the same year. No settlement was reached and the case was dismissed without prejudice, meaning the claimant could file a new claim at a later date.

Ripert spoke to The stream Matt Galloway on how Buddhism played a role in reinventing his cuisine and his new book, Simple Vegetables. Here is part of their conversation.

You had the chance to study with some of the renowned chefs of Paris. What was that experience like? What did you learn, you know, in the heat of the kitchen?

I started at La Tour D’Argent in 1982. I’m 17, I think I know a lot because I graduated with honors. And I realized after a day that I didn’t know anything at all. And I have to start over.

This first day, moreover, I cut myself, I burned the eggs, I [couldn’t] find the herbs. I mean, it’s a disaster.

And you were allowed to come back on the second day?

And I was allowed to come back on the second day! And at La Tour D’Argent, I really learned the classics. Of course, I learned discipline, rigor, cleanliness, etc., but also know-how. I mean, no one was born with good knife skills. You must learn.

And then I was lucky to be sent to Joël Robuchon, Jamin’s kitchen at the time. His restaurant was considered the best restaurant in the world – along with Frédy Girardet in Switzerland – and he was our god in the world of gastronomy.

What an artichoke taught chef Éric Ripert about our relationship with food

Living on a farm in France, a young Eric Ripert has learned to appreciate the work that goes into the food we eat, as well as the skill and technique to make “the best artichoke possible”. 2:34

You talk about rigor and discipline and how you thought about [some] people like a god. I mean, these kitchens also have a well-deserved reputation for being hard places to learn. Disciplinary, hierarchical, sometimes abusive behavior. You nod your head. Have you been there too?

Of course, I’ve been there. And at the time, it was normal for the boss to be abusive. He was accepted to be insulted all day long. He was accepted to be kicked in the buttocks and punched in the shoulders. And it was okay to send your plate back to you, and see the plate fly in the kitchen and come back to your feet.

It was a philosophy that I thought was crazy, but they thought: “We take individuals, especially young people, we are going to break them psychologically and we are going to rebuild them and make them champions.” But that was ridiculous because, first of all, it’s not an excuse to be angry and behavior in the kitchen that is not fair, is not acceptable. And in the process, you have a lot of talented people quitting because it’s not right, it’s too hard.

That has changed a lot, and today I hope most kitchens are civilized. I make sure that at Bernardin, we have zero tolerance for any type of abuse, any type of bad behavior. It is immediately the door.

And because of that, we have an extremely peaceful kitchen. We have, of course, the stress of the service. I mean, it’s hard to be in the kitchen of a restaurant, but no one is afraid. No one is trembling. No one is stressed.

Éric Ripert on what he learned from his friend Anthony Bourdain

Ripert was a close friend of Bourdain, who died in 2018. He remembers the “great inspiration” Bourdain brought him and the many adventures they shared. 4:22

You’ve already talked about how Buddhism helped you with this and helped shape this philosophy. Can you tell me about this and how this practice influenced the cuisine you just described?

The first time I have a position of power … I’m basically imitating some of my mentors. And I am an abusive boss.

And what I realize is that all the staff are leaving. First of all, they are unhappy with me. I am miserable. And they all quit and they go elsewhere. And one night I’m sitting at home and thinking about my day and my trip and I’m like, “Why? What is wrong with me? Why am I so, so angry? “

And I realized I was wrong. I emulated some of my mentors and people who taught me. And I was like, “This is not how I wanted to be treated when I was a cook. This is not how I should treat people.” So almost overnight, I changed my attitude in the kitchen.

Now Buddhism was entering my life at the same time. I started to read books on Buddhism, and I was interested in philosophy. And then in the early 2000s, the Dalai Lama was teaching in New York and that was really my first teaching from a great master. Since then, I have received many other teachings from other masters and I am a Buddhist practitioner.

I firmly believe in a world where first of all you don’t hurt people. You try not to hurt yourself.

Tome, [there] is not something that lives by itself. I believe that everything is interconnected, everything is about cause and consequence, and that has changed my view of the world.

A recipe from Eric Ripert’s new book, Simple Vegetables

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Samira Mohyeddin. The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

To listen full episodes of The Current on CBC Listen, our free audio streaming service.