From the marketing campaign, you’d expect Good vs. Evil to be a culinary throwdown, a face-off between gracious Gallic chef Eric Ripert and reformed kitchen “bad boy” Anthony Bourdain. But the discussion itself may turn out to be more about what’s good and evil in food.
That’s what Ripert (pronounced rih-pair’) discussed instead in a recent phone conversation, at least, and as the executive chef of one of the country’s most renowned restaurants, Le Bernardin in New York City, he knows whereof he speaks. The Good vs. Evil event at the Straz on March 25 could well veer off in other directions, given that the evening’s co-star is the outspoken author of Kitchen Confidential. But Bourdain and Ripert, as it turns out, are pals.
The French-born Ripert first met Bourdain in 2000 when the latter praised him in print.
“I invited him for lunch because he said some nice things about me in his book, and that was the beginning of the friendship,” he said.
Ripert said what he finds “good” about how Americans currently eat is that they have started to educate themselves.
“People are curious about what they eat,” he said. “They want to know more about where the food comes from, what’s going on in their food. They want to eat better, they want to eat healthy.”
What he finds “evil,” he said, is how much food in this country is processed and not necessarily labeled as such.
“I think that’s evil not to give the right information to people because therefore, they don’t have the choice to choose what they want — because they don’t know,” he said.
Le Bernardin, which specializes in seafood, has been awarded three stars by Michelin and four stars by the New York Times, as well as being called the best restaurant in the country by sources such as The Daily Meal. Ripert — a celebrity not just for his cooking expertise but for his over-all silver foxiness — has appeared on shows ranging from Top Chef to Bourdain’s No Reservations. He also hosts his own television show, Avec Eric, which enters its third season on PBS this year.
“The idea was to show them — because the show is three different parts — the world of the professional chef in my own restaurant and inspire people from that different point of the view,” he said. “Then go to the source of where the ingredients come from, the farms and the sea and so on. Then I was going back to my kitchen, cooking something for the viewer adapted for the kitchen at home and not a kitchen like a professional chef.”
The show has taken Ripert everywhere from rural Virginia to the Cayman Islands to Tuscany, where he participated in a wild boar hunt during a thunderstorm.
“I really enjoyed being in Italy and going for the wild boar hunt and not having a gun, then losing the hunter and finding the boar in a storm,” he said. “Therefore, running for our lives and looking for trees. At the time it was not funny, but when I’m reflecting, I think it was one of the most powerful experiences we had.”
Ripert said he isn’t fazed by appearing so often on television (including a gig playing himself on the fictional HBO show Treme).
“I think over the years, you learn to be yourself at all times and the camera doesn’t change anything for me any longer,” he said. “I don’t change my personality because I am on camera.”
Ripert said Buddhism has been an integral part of his personality for 16 years now. Its message of compassion carries over into the workplace, where the atmosphere is a long way from Kitchen Nightmares.
“The philosophy is basically for me a bright light in my life and it inspired me to be a better person,” he said. “And it follows itself into the kitchen by having a chef who’s patient and tolerant.”
Ripert said audiences at Good vs. Evil should expect a combination of laughs and learning.
“What people should expect is to spend two hours of us and have fun, laugh a lot because we have good humor on the stage and be entertained,” he said. “But at the same time, learn a lot about our industry and the food world.”