Fish Happens Eric Ripert’s fish story | AspenTimes.com
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Fish Happens Eric Ripert’s fish story

Stewart Oksenhorn

In his cooking demonstration Simple Four-Star Fish, Eric Ripert intends to teach attendees how to prepare versions of Red Snapper and Mixed Mushrooms in Port Reduction, Hamachi Tandoori with Pickled Cucumber and Mango Salad and Spiced Tuna Salad with Curry-Peanut Dressing that they can serve at dinner parties. Not bad for 45 minutes work, but it’s also not the extensive tutorial that’s going to turn out world-famous experts in fish preparation.For that, the best example Ripert can offer is his own life.As a child in his native Antibes, on the French Riviera, Ripert watched his grandmother at work in her kitchen, and learned to love the local fish dishes, especially the soul, she cooked. When his family moved to Andorra, the tiny, mountainous country wedged in between Spain and France, Ripert turned his attention to the native trout and salmon.After a stint at Perpignan, the French culinary school he entered at 15, Ripert began his career at the 400-year-old Parisian institution La Tour d’Argent, where he landed at the fish station. After two years, Ripert moved on to Jamin where, at the request of chef/owner Joel Rubochon, Ripert took the position of Chef Poissonier. (For those who don’t know French, or are slow to pick up on story lines, that’s “fish chef.”)In 1989, Ripert crossed the pond to work at Washington, D.C.’s Jean-Louis, where half of his 18 months were spent with fish. In his brief time at New York’s Bouley, Ripert’s official title was sous chef, but his job was at the fish station.

So when Ripert finally settled in for the long haul, it seemed preordained that it would be at New York’s Le Bernardin, famed not only as one of the country’s finest restaurants, but for a menu dominated by (1,2,3, altogether now) … fish.Ripert says the fish-dominated career has not been by design. “Partly it happened to me. I was just given the fish stations,” he said. But he got on the track early, and once you go fish, it’s hard to go back. Fish is among the most difficult ingredients to work with, and those young chefs who show an aptitude for it are in demand.”It’s an item that needs a lot of attention,” said the 39-year-old Ripert, who has made numerous visits to Aspen to ski, but is making his Food & Wine Magazine Classic debut this weekend. “You need to be refined and very technical. Fish is extremely fragile and the flavor is fragile and subtle. You have to be careful to be tender with the fish, to not break the fish. And you don’t want to overpower it.”Ripert’s single-track kitchen career has had its rewards. Le Bernardin – which was opened by brother-and-sister Gilbert and Maguy La Coze in 1986 in midtown New York – earned a four-star rating from The New York Times in 1996, a year after Ripert became a part-owner. Le Bernardin, named for an order of monks who liked to feat and dine, was named the best restaurant in the country in 1997 by GQ magazine, and in 1998 it was the James Beard Foundation’s selection for Outstanding Restaurant of the Year, with Ripert taking honors as Top Chef in New York. For the past four years, the restaurant was picked as New York’s Top Food in Zagat’s Guide.With the honors came celebrity, and with celebrity came demands on Ripert’s time. A few years ago, Ripert discovered he was devoting more time to food-oriented events and less time to his restaurant. So when his book of recipes, photos, essays and paintings – co-written with Michael Ruhlman – was released last year, it bore the pointed title, “Return to Cooking.””Sometimes that can happen when you’re a successful chef and you have to do fundraising and you go to food festivals,” said Ripert, who is still chair of City Harvest’s Food Council, an organization dedicated to increasing the quality and quantity of food donations for New York’s needy, and is president of the new Jean-Louis Palladin Foundation, an organization devoted to the further the work of Ripert’s former boss at Jean-Louis. “When I did the book, I saw I needed to go back to the roots of cooking.”It’s true that chefs are becoming celebrities. I’m not sure why – but I think it’s a good thing. I think it means people have a passion for food. It brings more people and more passion into the industry. And when you support the chefs, you support the farmers, the growers, the fishermen. I think that’s very positive.”

Fortunately for Ripert, fish, too, has seen its celebrity increase in recent years. Diners have become more knowledgeable about fish and more adventurous in their eating of fish dishes. Ripert credits it largely to advances in transportation technology. “Twenty years ago, that was a challenge. The fish was not fresh when you were a long way from the source,” he said.Now that he’s into fish, Ripert is in all the way. At Le Bernardin, the menu is basically all fish, divided into the Almost Raw (oysters, Iranian Osetra caviar, hamachi tartare), Barely Touched (soft shell crab on a chilled seaweed “spaghetti” and crab salad with ponzu dressing; ravioli of Argentine shrimp and wild mushrooms fois gras with truffle sauce); and Lightly Cooked (baked snapper with a spicy-sour Puerto Rican Sancocho broth; Hawaiian escolar slowly poached in olive oil; crispy Chinese spiced black bass in a Peking duck bouillon). At the bottom of the menu, under the heading “upon request,” Le Bernardin offers lamb, squab and pasta dishes. The unifying principle of Ripert’s food is simplicity: “It has to be simple. Fish is so delicate that if you don’t do simple, you lose the identity of the fish,” said Ripert, noting that halibut is his favorite fish to cook.Ripert claims never to get tired of fish. His secret? “On the weekend, I eat meat.” F F F FThe Food & Wine Magazine Classic at Aspen 2004 opens today, June 18, and runs through Sunday, June 20.Among the highlights of the 22nd annual Classic are cooking demonstrations by Patricia Quintana (Modern Mexican), Jacques Torres (Creations from the Chocolate Factory), Steven Jenkins (Prized French Cheeses), Mario Batali (Classic Cooking of Rome), Wolfgang Puck (Spago Secrets) and Bobby Flay (Latin Grilling).Giving wine seminars will be Joshua Wesson (World’s Greatest Wine Values; Traditional Vs. New Wave: Which is Best?), Mary Ewing-Mulligan (Favorite Rhone Reds; Piedmont’s Perfect Value

Reds), Danny Meyer (Hot Dogs & Hot Wines; My Maremma), Rory Callahan (Getting to Know New Zealand; Sauvignon Blanc: A World Survey) and Anthony Giglio (Provocative Portuguese Vinhos; Riesling: Germany’s Best Grape).The Classic also includes the Grand Tasting, trade seminars and more.For a full schedule of Food & Wine Classic events, see the special section in this edition of The Aspen Times.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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