by Eric Ripert

Who is Eric Ripert? If you are a fan of Anthony Bourdain’s series “Parts Unknown,” you may have seen a handsome white-haired, green-eyed man with a French accent on several shows. Ripert and Bourdain were good friends, and in fact they were shooting another episode together in France when Bourdain died. Ripert is a chef and co-owner of the New York restaurant Le Bernardin, which has three Michelin stars. In short, he’s reached a pinnacle of success in the culinary world which few others have achieved.

I enjoy reading memoirs and biographies of successful and famous people. I like to trace the factors in their lives that led them to the life they have or what they’ve accomplished. Is it luck? Education? Connections that have helped them along the way? Their mental attitude? Or all the above?

Eric’s memoir has the most clearly delineated life path I can recall ever seeing. It’s clear HE has thought about this and identified the factors. As is often the case, events or circumstances that seemed sad, terrible, or negative at the time actually served to strengthen him later.

32 Yolks: From My Mother’s Table to Working the Line (2016) is Eric’s memoir from his birth until age 24 when he left France to continue his career in America. He already had almost nine years of experience training and working under several of the best chefs in France by that time. He came to work with an American chef which later led to his opening his own restaurant. Eric was clearly on an exceptional and stellar career path in a field where connections do matter, but skill is more important.

Eric’s parents, Monique and Andre, both came from modest backgrounds, and each achieved success as adults: Andre in banking/finance, Monique as owner of a fashionable and popular clothing boutique. Their meeting in 1961 was classic, straight out of a French or Italian movie of that era. They were two beautiful young people who married, partied both before and after Eric was born 2 years later, and enjoyed a life that gave Eric an idyllic, loving environment for his first five years. He knew he was loved and loved both of his parents deeply. He was given the gift of a solid grounding in the formative years of his life.

Then it fell apart because of his father’s cheating. When Eric was 6, Monique and Andre divorced because Monique could not stand the way Andre’s cheating changed HER. Eric had little contact with his father after that, since he didn’t live nearby, but did write letters to him. Eric stayed with Monique but was devastated by not having his father in his daily life. Eric loved to hike in the mountains with his father, spend time in his garden, and listen to him play the jazz trumpet. Once his father left, all Eric’s childhood influences revolved around food: both grandmothers and an aunt were as involved with food as Monique was.

Living with Monique was the beginning of Eric’s food “training.” She always prepared a restaurant-quality dinner, complete with the white tablecloth, good silver and china. There were no fast, canned, or frozen foods in that home! Everything was freshly prepared. While Eric developed some behavior problems, it always calmed him to watch his mother prepare the food. Not only did he have a voracious appetite, but he also developed a discerning one in those years. Monique enjoyed making those meals—it was a matter of pride for her, and Eric felt it as an expression of her love for him. So that was another gift to Eric—how many people have a mother like that?

After about two years, Eric’s environment changed again: Hugo came to live with them as his stepfather. Hugo was the opposite of Andre. He was not handsome, successful, or even always employed—but he was faithful to Monique. He was also jealous of Eric and became abusive when Monique was working and the two of them were home together. Monique had made it clear that ONLY SHE would do any disciplining Eric might need, so Hugo would strike Eric in places where it wouldn’t show. Even worse was the mental abuse he heaped upon Eric. Although he was only a child, Eric was locked in a battle with Hugo, determined not to let Hugo “win.” Oddly, this was another gift to Eric that helped him survive the mostly mental abuse of the chefs for whom he later worked.

When Eric was 11, his father died of a heart attack on a hiking trip in the mountains. This was the worst possible blow for Eric, and to this day, he misses his father. Monique saw how sad and depressed Eric was and organized a meeting with a temperamental local chef named Jacques. (By this time, they had moved from southern France to Andorra.) He had a very small restaurant where he did everything himself and chose the people he’d allow to eat his dinners. This was another gift for Eric.

Jacques allowed Eric to visit every day and watch him prepare the meals, as well as eat there. One day he invited Eric to try caviar, which he liked very much. In the book, he mentions how the first taste of a food leaves a memory imprint that is invoked whenever it’s eaten afterward. He would always think of that happy time with Jacques when eating caviar later. I like that idea very much.

Until the age of 15, Eric had only watched his mother, relatives, and Jacques prepare food, and of course eat it. The rest of the book details his hands-on training and work. At fifteen, he began attending a two-year vocational school that trained boys to be waiters or cooks. Eric had no ambivalence about his career path but found that performing cooking tasks was very different from watching the process. Simply holding a knife correctly had to be taught.

Eric spent his post-vocational training in France on the line at three different restaurants, each more prestigious than the last. Despite his many descriptions of mistakes he made, he was offered each new position. Clearly he stood out even in his teens and early twenties.

The last position he held before leaving France was with a top chef named Joel Robuchon. This creative perfectionist was the youngest chef ever (38) to receive three Michelin stars; and those were awarded in just three years. The prestige of working in that man’s kitchen was phenomenal—but so was the price paid.

Anyone who harbors dreams of leisurely cooking delicious food for others to enjoy in a spacious kitchen needs Eric’s reality check. He describes in detail the stress of working 18-hr. days in a hot, crowded, sweaty space for a temperamental chef who doesn’t hesitate to verbally and mentally abuse his employees; to shame them for the slightest misstep in front of all others. Speed and perfection are mandatory. (The saga of the dots is priceless.) Every bit of technique learned and practiced a million times; every detail learned about the dish being created; every recipe memorized must be accessible to the line worker’s mind in a nanosecond.

While Eric gained valuable experience working for Robuchon which enabled him to take a job with a Washington D.C. chef and later open his own restaurant, the toll stress took was significant on his body, sleep habits and personal life. He also learned what type of boss he wanted to be when HE was the chef in his own restaurant. At some point, he turned to Buddhism to help him deal with the stress and maintain a more peaceful life.

What amazes me about Eric is what a charmed life he has led. He was born into a life that gave him every advantage and advancement into the career he wanted and which came to him naturally. Every step toward his goal materialized before him, came to him. With the exception of Hugo, everyone around him created food, loved food, and loved him. He was even able to turn negative events in his life into something positive later and in other circumstances. Not everyone is capable of doing that, but Eric was always appreciative. I know I’m a positive person, but Eric is an inspiration to me, anyway, as I’m sure he is to others. I think any reader will find his story interesting, and possibly even begin to think more carefully about food.

While Eric was waiting for his visa to go to the U.S., he spent time with a wise farmer in Gascony named Georges. Eric never needed a grand restaurant and title to be happy. This is one of my favorite quotes:

“Every time I cook on a fireplace, it all comes rushing back: the hams hanging, the grandma stewing the hare, fries in duck fat, the morning coffee cooked on an open flame. Georges’ greatest gift is how this all lives on in me. It was a very happy time in my life, and that was an important lesson too: to learn how little it took to be happy, to understand from a young age that the human heart is a small and delicate vase. You must handle it carefully, but in the right circumstances, it does not take much to fill it up.” [p. 234-235]

Oh, and 32 yolks? That’s the number needed to make hollandaise sauce.

–Donna Rueff–