Le Bernardin chef Eric Ripert remembers the first few weeks of the pandemic like they were yesterday.
“We closed the restaurant on March 13, 2020. It was devastating,” says the French culinary icon. “I was especially concerned about the employees who live paycheck to paycheck.”
The upscale New York City seafood eatery (power couple John Legend and Chrissy Teigen and actor Richard Gere are regulars) reopened twice as COVID wreaked havoc on the hospitality industry but has now returned to full capacity.
“It’s very good news,” says Ripert. “Our clientele has been so supportive. It’s incredible.” Chef Judy Joo talks to the Vegetable Simple author about surviving lockdown, his work with City Harvest and his career highlights.
How did you cope during lockdown?
Eric Ripert: I was naive at first, thinking Le Bernardin would be able to reopen a month later. I decided to start a GoFundMe for the staff. Our goal was to raise $200,000 and we made $240,000 right away.
How about on a personal level?
The day after the restaurant closed, my wife and I went to City Harvest’s mobile market in the South Bronx and distributed food to those in need. We wanted to help the community. When things got really bad, I moved with my family to the countryside. I tried to stay as strong as I could for my son.
A lot of high-end restaurants began doing takeout.
We decided not to do that because I don’t believe Le Bernardin food is good in a box. But we did rehire some of our people and we put together 400 meals a day for the doctors and nurses who were coming from out of state and staying nearby.
Does it feel like things are returning to normal?
New York is coming back very quickly. Restaurants are a big part of what makes it so attractive. Nobody wants to be home anymore and it feels good to have that energy again.
Le Bernardin has such a loyal clientele. Why do you think that is?
We’ve been open since 1986, so you have our loyal clients coming, and then their children and now their grandchildren! It’s a great vibe. What I love about the young people coming in is they are very elegant. The men are wearing ties and the women wear beautiful dresses. Everybody wants to be beautiful and celebrate.
You’re also the Vice Chairman of the board for City Harvest. It’s an honor to be in that position. We recently made a pledge that for every client who comes to Le Bernardin, we’re giving five dollars to City Harvest. We’ve been able to feed more than 90,000 people so far.
Can you share a career highlight?
In 1994, I got my first four-star review in the New York Times. That’s a big deal because that can make you or break you. And then we got three stars from Michelin, which is the max, and that was a big highlight.
What inspired you to write your new cookbook, Vegetable Simple?
I’ve done six about seafood and I wanted to do one about vegetables. I do a lot of very simple recipes that elevate them. I’m not sick of seafood, but on the weekends, after eating it for lunch and dinner every day, I can use a little break!