There are two things that most people know about Eric Ripert: he’s a very nice guy, and he’s a master of cooking fish. And both are resoundingly true. You’d be hard-pressed to meet a kinder, more instantly-lovable human being, just as you could tour the world eating at Michelin-starred aquariums and you’d never find a chef who whispers to fish quite the way Ripert does. He’s a teddy bear of a man, but a Poseidon of a chef, and the combo makes for one of the rarest species in the culinary world.
Anthony Bourdain clearly thinks so. After all, Ripert has become his most-trusted sidekick in the years since Bourdain set out for Parts Unknown. In total, they’ve done four episodes together with Parts Unknown—from the cacao-covered mountains of the Andes to the bouillabaisses of Marseille. Along the way, their on-screen bromance has revealed a few more sides to the man behind Manhattan’s finest temple of fish: Ripert is a man of strong opinions, relentless drive, and he doesn’t take shit from anyone—least of all Bourdain, as we find out in their latest blood-soaked adventure.
To celebrate his dominance of the slopes and staples of the French Alps, I talked with the chef about his evolving role on Parts Unknown, Bourdain’s sadistic love of putting the Buddhist chef in compromising situations, and what Ripert might do one day to exact his revenge.
Matt Goulding: Let’s start with the Alps. Tell me about that mission into the higher altitudes with Tony.
Eric Ripert: As you know, Anthony is not a great skier. It was challenging for him… braving the high altitude, going down the slopes, but I guess he’s gonna look good.
Goulding: They’re going to edit the show to make Tony look like a decent skier?
Ripert: Exactly. You saw the episode… you know he’s going down the slopes and he has someone who is a [stunt] double too… It’s a little bit reality and a little bit of a Monty Python thing.
Goulding: You guys had some pretty serious food up there in the mountains.
Ripert: Eating in the French Alps in high altitude is an experience. They run those restaurants like a one star Michelin basically, and you have good wines. I think we had some foie gras and veal and drank some Côtes du Rhône. It was a feast. We tasted a lot of different specialties from the region that were made of cheese—cheese fondue and cheese raclette, many other cheese specialties—which seemed to have an effect on Tony, in terms of flatulence.
Goulding: He made a lot of references during the show to how it was, you know, affecting him.
Ripert: I think it was the altitude and everything else, he was kind of slightly damaged. Also, I think he damaged himself. When he says on the show that he’s hungover, he’s really hungover, because most of the time he was smashed.
Goulding: So that opening scene on your snowshoes and he’s like “aw man I’m so hungover”…
Ripert: He was like so smashed he barely made it back to his room the previous night. That stuff, it’s really real.
Goulding: Tell me about that crazy potato and bacon dish you guys ate. It looked like an incredible bomb.
Ripert: Yeah I have never seen that, I mean I have been to the Alps and to that region, but I have never seen that huge cake, basically made of potatoes and bacon and cheese. I don’t know what else was in it, but it was like, humongous—you could feed 20 people with that. Actually, it was delicious, but you cannot eat too much of that. It has a really dense texture, almost between a pudding and a tamale.
Goulding: It seems like Tony takes a perverse pleasure in pushing you to your physical limits on the show.
Ripert: Well, not on the slopes.
Goulding: Not on the slopes. But I mean…
Ripert: He has his revenge whenever he can, yeah.
Goulding: When you go to film—for you, six or seven days on a Parts Unknown episode—how are you feeling when you get home? Are you feeling like it’s time for a detox or what?
Ripert: No, I’m totally fine actually because I am more moderate than Tony. Because we eat quite a bit, I make sure that during the day I get a little bit exercise: walking or skiing, anything I can do to basically burn calories. I come back kind of chunky, but not so bad.
Goulding: Let’s talk about the slasher scene inside the beautiful kitchen of Le Bernardin. How did it come about?
Ripert: He knew what he wanted. The idea was to create a bloody scene where three guys go to Le Bernadin and I have to defend my kitchen. I kill them basically, and then the very last scene I have a gun in my hand and I shoot whatever I shoot, and then I say something like “dinner is served,” but he makes me have an accent. It’s probably the most wacky scene of the entire show, obviously totally produced by Tony. Actually he was on the scene with us, spraying blood—fake blood—in my face, and he was having so much fun even at one in the morning.
Goulding: So you guys filmed this after dinner service at Le Bernardin?
Ripert: Well no, because we have two kitchens at Le Bernardin, we shot a scene in the main kitchen and the other scene we shot in the other kitchen. We started around nine or ten o’clock at night, and then we finished at one.
Goulding: Are you a fan of horror and slasher films?
Ripert: No, not at all. I never watch anything like that. (laughs)
Goulding: Now you’re just starring in your own horror film.
Ripert: It’s interesting because at one point—you know I have a herniated disc—and that day I was so much in pain that at one point I was like acting really mean … because the pain was killing me, so I was like “I can’t wait to finish that scene,” and I was like putting a lot effort into destroying those three guys.
Goulding: Tony loves to say—in his narration and in person—that he loves to put Eric Ripert through uncomfortable situations on the show, whether it’s being crushed by spicy food in Sichuan or defending your kitchen at Le Bernadin. What’s the most uncomfortable thing that Tony has made you do on the show?
Ripert: Let’s put everything into perspective. I am there to make him look good, [so] he makes me suffer eating things I am uncomfortable with. Probably the most uncomfortable thing was eating Sichuan food in Chengdu in China because, I mean, I would start to hallucinate because of the strength of the spices. That was the worst yet. Then of course the day after there were consequences as well, as you know.
Goulding: You looked legitimately tortured by the heat in that episode.
Ripert: You know he’s a son of a bitch, because the idea for Chengdu came after I ate with him in New York. He gave me a spicy dish and I put it in my mouth and ran to the bathroom because my entire body was hurt, including my stomach. And I saw that in his eyes that he saw the potential do a show. Then a couple of weeks later, he asked if I wanted to go the Chengdu, China. Of course, his idea was to kill me with the spices. He wanted me to be drunk, I think, in the scenes, and I refused to be drunk. And it became a struggle between him and me the entire 10 days in China. He was like, ‘we’re going to a Chinese banquet and the tradition is to be wasted,’ and I’m like ‘I’m not doing that.’
Goulding: Do you think he uses your Buddhism and your gentle nature as an excuse to abuse you?
Ripert: For sure. Basically I have to tell myself how to stay calm. That’s the game. He’s really pushing the envelope and trying and trying, but of course he will not succeed. No matter what, I really understand the spirit of his show; it is his show, he’s the hero of the show.
Goulding: What’s the process like? Is it simply a random phone call from Tony saying, “if you choose to accept this mission”? Or is there some kind of collaboration in planning these episodes?
Ripert: We collaborate on some of what could be on the show, and then the production company picks over some of his ideas and some of my ideas, and we end up with a compromise.
Goulding: Do you feel like your ideas are taken into consideration?
Ripert: Oh yes. For instance in Paris, I had a lot to say because I knew the region. There were a lot of things, and I said a lot of “no’s,” and I accepted many possibilities. Ultimately I knew in advance what would happen in terms of scenes. If I say, I’m not doing that, Tony’s very respectful. We have a great friendship and great respect. He doesn’t abuse that. Whatever has been produced has been accepted by me. I know the outcome.
Goulding: What is it about your relationship that works well on television?
Ripert: It’s very simple. We’re very good friends. We laugh and it’s comfortable because we can be calm, and sometimes we don’t speak at all and we’ll be happy together. I think he likes that a lot. The shooting is very intense and he’s traveling a lot, and he needs to have a moment of peace during the day, and I think if he was with someone not feeling comfortable with silence and was asking questions and forcing him to talk, he would be very uncomfortable. Also, we don’t see each other a lot so it makes quite a difference, and opportunity to be together.
Goulding: Your friendship basically exists around these concentrated periods of shooting these shows?
Ripert: Yes, we see each other a couple of times a year. I invite him for barbecue or eat out and that’s it.
Goulding: You’ve spent a lot of time on camera without Tony. Tell me a little bit about your time on Avec Eric, and your own journeys making television around the world.
Ripert: I had a lot of fun doing that show, but it was a difficult show. First of all, it was PBS, and therefore it was difficult to finance the show. And then we went to the Cooking Channel and it wasn’t easy as well because we had a small budget, and we had produce the shows in a very fast manner. With a large budget you would have the luxury to do a show in 10 days. Sometimes we had scenes in my show where they could have been better but we had no choice because we didn’t have the time or the money. I’m hopefully going to be able to do some more TV in the future.
Goulding: Do you like to play a starring role?
Ripert: At the beginning I was not comfortable, but yeah I think I am ready to host my own show again in a much stronger, charismatic way. It would be a big contrast between that show when it comes out and my appearances with Tony.
Goulding: So let’s flip the script then, let’s imagine that it’s your show, you’re the star and Tony is the sidekick—where would you want to take him?
Ripert: I would basically take him to a Buddhist country [and] then we do an entire series on visiting churches and monasteries.
Goulding: This is your chance for payback my friend, so you gotta think vegan/vegetarian cuisine, no alcohol.
Ripert: Vegan and no alcohol is a must, and he’s going to have to shave his hair!
Goulding: Whether with Tony or for your own show, where are a few of those places you’re looking to go to next?
Ripert: India, Japan—mostly Asia. And, well, actually Mexico; I would love to go with him because he loves it.
Goulding: Do you get that same kind of high that Tony gets out of being in Asian countries, with all of the tastes and sounds that he thrives off of?
Ripert: I like to do that but I don’t necessarily want to do street food with him. I like to go to places that are more—I don’t want to say sophisticated—but I would like to focus more on the aesthetic of the food and, depending on the country, the community. I would love to do that.
Goulding: Thinking back to an old episode where you went into the mountains of Peru in search of cacao for your collaborative chocolate bar. How did that chocolate venture go after the show was filmed?
Ripert: We sold so many of the bars [that] we are going to expand.
Goulding: Does Tony make a good business partner?
Ripert: He doesn’t have to have to do anything, so yes.