It began with the random French lady breaking baguette in the dining room at Le Bernardin. “I have this project,” she said, showing the strikingly handsome man in chef whites some samples of her work — food and pretty person photography that somehow unites Bon Appétit and Visionaire.
“I was like, ‘Wow, this is incredible,’” says the man, Eric Ripert, years later while sitting in the basement office of his four-star restaurant in Midtown Manhattan. Placed in front of us on the table is a large slipcase holding a gold-embossed book called 00:58xy by French photographer and poet Mary Laetitia Gerval. The book features the recipes (and sometimes semi-clothed bodies) of 17 chefs — mostly French — shot by Gerval, who added poems for each section. San Francisco-based chef Laurent Manrique is the only other American who participated.
Ripert, who along with the other participants financed their share of the project, chose to have his section reflect the Buddhist Goddess of Compassion, Tara, as well as his cooking (think perigord truffle bread and edible 24-karat gold leaves). But unlike many of the other participants (who viewed the participation in the project as more of a business proposition), Ripert is giving away all of the sales proceeds to City Harvest.
Each of the 200 books are signed and engraved with the chef’s name. At $500 a piece, it’s hardly pocket change. But in raising $100,000 from the project, he estimates that over 400,000 meals will be served. Surrounded by his collection of cookbooks, we spoke to Ripert about what inspires him on the page, and about his deep commitment to Buddhism.
There are so many cooks here on the shelves. Are you buying cookbooks all the time?
Most of those books were bought by me, but over the past couple of years, a lot of chefs have sent me their books. These represent most of my collection – I think I have close to 600 books here and more at home. I bring them here to share with the guys. As much as this is a basement, we try to give it a mood because we work here, we create here.
You also have to think outside of what you’re doing, day-to-day. You need inspiration from the outside…
It’s funny because most of the guys look at the pictures, not at the recipes. We use the books almost as the mood board.
Is that how you read a cookbook as well?
Yes, for me it’s like that. I don’t read English too well. It’s not my first language. Even when I have the French books, I don’t really look at the recipes. I am always interested by the visuals.
How did you get involved with this book project? You’re one of only two American chefs featured…
Mary is very artistic, and I connect with artistic people for some reason. She came up with the idea for a book. In the beginning, she wanted to do 50 chefs but because we needed to finance the book, we ended up with 17 chefs. We all pre-paid for the project; she made it and actually lost money on it because it is too beautiful. Basically, she came here from France, shot it and did everything.
You actually produced the shoot with your own funding?
Completely, with the money that we gave her. It’s a labor of love and this book is about love. To me, what is more powerful than love is compassion. I said, “I am a Buddhist practitioner and Tara is the goddess of compassion. I would like to pay homage to her because it is stronger than just love to me.” She accepted that and said she would basically study a bit of Buddhist religion and find out the definition of compassion and what Tara represents.
Describe your commitment to Buddhism.
I practice everyday. I supported the Tibetan community, which has nothing to do with the religion, but they are all Buddhist. I’m involved with a few foundations and organizations that are helping the Tibetan people in their struggle with China. Then, I studied Buddhism and my main teacher is the Dalai Lama. I have other teachers, but the main one is His Holiness. When he comes to New York or Washington, I go to the teaching.
Is it a private one-on-one session?
I have a couple private moments with him, but it’s not necessarily more significant than being with 4,000 people. Obviously, of course, you are like, [wow]. He is considered His Holiness – the reincarnation of Avalokitesvara, who is the Buddha of Compassion.
Do you practice at home?
Yes, I have a temple in my house. It’s more a meditation room.
Walk me through a meditation.
In Buddhism, the way we see compassion is that I take your pain and I give you my love unconditionally. You do that in meditation and then you try to do that in real life. The idea is to do that in meditation everyday, thinking that you do that for your most beloved person, like your wife or your son or your dog. You then take someone neutral, like your doorman or the cop outside or the guy who sends soda. Then, someone that you don’t really like, from your office or the kitchen. Then, you take your worst enemy. And you do the same exact exercise. The Tibetan people, for example, visualize the Chinese people who are torturing them and killing them and their families and forgive them and take their ignorance and try to give them love.
So you would say that retribution is not an element of Buddhism?
No. We have karma, which is basically, “Whatever act you do has a consequence, and karma is the sum of the consequences of your acts.” If you do something negative, it will come back at you as negative. Even if you think of something negative, it will potentially come back at you in a negative way.
Are there dietary restrictions in the Buddhist religion?
If you can be vegetarian, it’s a good thing. If you kill an animal, obviously you kill something that’s alive, Ultimately, Buddhists understand that we are omnivores by nature. If you can be vegetarian, that’s very good. If you cannot be, that’s okay. Actually, His Holiness is not vegetarian.
He’s dined at your restaurant!
Yes, we closed the restaurant once and did something.
What did you cook for him?
I called someone on the West Coast and got a wild salmon, which we cooked for him. He didn’t really care because monks accept whatever you give them. If you give them something good or bad, it is not important.
Switching gears slightly, how did your tour with Bourdain go?
We did almost a dozen this year, but cannot do more because we both have day jobs. He’s traveling a lot, but we have fun and we have a lot of success. We fill up huge — and I mean huge — theaters.
Do you get nervous?
For some reason, not really. We don’t get nervous because we are together and it breaks the anxiety. We are in the green room talking and suddenly it’s five minutes and we’ll put on the mics and listen to music backstage. Boom, he’s on stage, boom, he introduces me and we do the show. We spend two hours on stage. I’m not saying that there’s no tension when we go on stage, but we don’t stress.
Where was this idea conceived?
Tony came up with the idea. We have a good interaction and friendship together and a good humor about things. He said, “Why don’t we go on the road and do a show about that? We can call it ‘Good and Evil.’” He said it would be fun and different for me and I really liked the idea. It is almost like theater.
And you don’t even have scenery.
Right. We’re talking! No cooking or anything.
Is it scripted?
We have guidelines so we don’t repeat things, but it’s not scripted and it’s a surprise in every city. We go hard at each other!
To buy a copy of the book, visit the City Harvest website.
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