Eric Ripert’s accomplishments are endless and impressive: Michelin-starred chef at New York’s Le Bernardin. Longtime TV host of PBS’s “Avec Eric.” Author of several award-winning cookbooks, and, just this month, author of a riveting coming-of-age memoir, 32 Yolks. (Subtitle: From My Mother’s Table to Working the Line) But for our purposes today, he’s a father, and like a lot of parents out there, he knows how to use food, and the rituals surrounding food, as a way to connect with his 12-year-old son. (Ripert lost his own dad when he was only eleven, and in 32 Yolks, calls it “the central tragedy of his life.”) I got on the phone with him last week to talk about one of those rituals. Here is the story in his own words. (Edited for clarity.) Thanks Chef!
Ever since my son, Adrien was four or five, we’ve had a Sunday tradition in my house. It started because I wanted to find a way to make dinner interesting for him. I wanted to make it funny and interactive, so he wouldn’t want to just eat his food and leave. I’m at the restaurant all week, and on Saturdays, we might go out, but on Sunday, we eat at home, and it’s important to me to eat together as a family.
So when he was very young I said to him, Look, tonight we are opening a restaurant. I’m going to be the chef and you’re going to be the maitre d’ or the sous chef or the waiter if you want. And Mommy will be the dishwasher.
I’d ask him to choose a country as a theme: He could open a restaurant that was Chinese, Spanish, French, anything at all, and then we’d have an official meeting deciding what should be on the menu. Of course I knew what I was going to make, but I wanted him to think it was coming from him. I wanted him to believe it was his idea. He was in charge of setting the table, maybe with flowers, then setting out wine for the adults and water for him. But his main job was drawing individual menus for everyone. So let’s say we picked France for our theme, you’d see the Eiffel Tower, and you’d see a stick figure with long hair — that was mommy — holding a French flag. And then on my menu there would be a guy with spiky hair and some weird blue eyes and a knife in my hand. He drew his menus with markers and they were always very colorful. Early on, before he knew how to write, I’d write in what we’d be eating, but eventually he started doing that himself. It was an entire ritual about just making dinner new. Though we don’t stray too far with the countries. We eat a lot of French, Italian and Japanese. I’ve never had to create anything from Kazakhstan.
Though Adrien’s never been very interested in cooking, he’s very interested in eating. He has a good palate and he’s very curious and open to all kinds of food. Except for spicy food, he eats basically anything. Like all kids, he loves pasta, burgers and fries, but what he prefers is seafood. (Maybe I shouldn’t be too surprised by that.) So for instance, a favorite meal of his is a simple fish with vegetables. What I do is season the fish on both sides, and then I put a little bit of water* in the pan, cook the fish on one side, and then flip to the other side. Then when the fish is medium-rare I remove it. If it’s salmon, I cook peas with a little bacon and a little onion a bit of chicken stock, and a little butter at the end and a tiny bit of lemon juice. If I don’t have peas, I use fava beans or asparagus or string beans. He loves that. He also loves polenta with tomato sauce and any kind of protein. So what I’ll do is spoon a disk of polenta onto the plate, place the pork or chicken on top, then drizzle the tomato sauce around the polenta so it looks like a target. He likes that a lot.
Adrien is 12 now and though he still sets the table, he no longer does the menus. But the tradition continues to evolve. These days we eat pretty early, clear up the table, then play cards. He’s excellent at Blackjack.
32 Yolks, by Eric Ripert (with Veronica Chambers) is available on Amazon, and Barnes & Noble. Ripert will be in conversation with Bon Appetit Editor-in-Chief Adam Rapoport at Powerhouse Arena on June 8. Click here for details and tickets. Ripert photo credit: Daniel Krieger.
*You did not read that wrong. Cooking fish in water is called a “unilateral” method, basically the salmon cooks from the bottom up in the water. Here are more specific instructions: For the salmon, put about ½ cup of water in a pan (just enough to cover the surface); season with salt and bring to simmer over medium heat. Season the salmon on both sides with salt and pepper. Place the salmon in the pan; cook at a bare simmer until the top of the fish is just warm to the touch (about 5-7 minutes). Click here to read more.