If I were to use only three words to describe French chef Eric Ripert, these would be vision, passion, and action. Fueled by his passion for cooking, Ripert flew to New York in 1989, aged 24, after working in Paris at La Tour d’Argent and with iconic chef Joel Robuchon, intending to stay temporarily in the US to improve his English and then move on. He went to other countries before going back to France to open his own restaurant. Now 34 years later, he hasn’t left NYC and is at the helm of Le Bernardin, regularly named among the best restaurants in the world. When asked how he became the fine dining star that he is, Ripert humbly puts it to “lucky moments and lots of hard work”.
But what most people do not know is that Eric Ripert does not only work in his restaurant delighting the tastebuds of New York city’s most privileged. Since 1995, he has been working for City Harvest, the world’s first and biggest food rescue organization. “As a person, I always felt bad succeeding in NYC and seeing so many people in need on the streets. I wanted to make a difference”, says Ripert. This is how he joined the City Harvest Foundation, initially just donating food for struggling families, and progressively becoming more involved to the extent that he is now Vice-President of the Board. His restaurant still donates food to the Foundation, but Ripert also works to collect funds to support it. In 2022, they distributed 90 million pounds of food around the 5 boroughs of NYC. To Eric Ripert, giving comes naturally. To him, no matter who you are and what you do, you can make a difference at your own level: “If you are lucky in life, be grateful and do something for others”.
Eric Ripert’s activism does not stop there either. Environmental protection is a cause close to his heart, particularly the marine environment. It goes without saying that if chefs want to still be able to serve fish in the future, marine species must be protected and nurtured. This is the reason why Ripert, whose restaurant is famous for its fish and seafood dishes, only works with small-scale, local and independent fishermen, pays them a fair price and never bargains with them so they can make a decent living. Moreover, his restaurant does not serve endangered species (to guide them in their choice, they use the list of endangered species published by NOAA, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and that of the Monterey Bay Aquarium) and always stays away from endangered fish species. The chef also knows each species’ breeding period and will not serve them when they are breeding to help sustain them and those whose livelihood depends on them.
I must say that the more I spoke with Eric Ripert, the more my admiration grew for his altruism, his selflessness and generosity. Whether through the TV shows he takes part in, or through City Harvest and even by opening his kitchen to young children in NY, he is an inspiration. “We want to inspire young people to be responsible for themselves, by eating properly at the dinner table with their family, by staying away as much as possible from junk and processed food, by having a balanced diet” but always in a very unassuming way, never preaching, always educating. “You have to show people what possibilities are there for them and let them make their own choice so they can feel good about their decisions. Propose, don’t impose, otherwise people won’t listen.”
To Eric Ripert, the world is at a crossroads because of climate change, but it is not too late to act and fix the damage we have caused. In his smart and subtle advocacy work, he also targets decision-makers and leaders. For instance, when French dignitaries and politicians come to New York, he is regularly invited to meet them as a prominent member of the local French community. He uses every one of those opportunities to impress upon them that there are 7 billion of us living on one planet and that we do not own it. We must protect it, respect it, and live in harmony with it, lest we are doomed. Though the process is a long-winded one, politicians are more inclined to listen because votes are at stake. Eric Ripert is convinced that as an individual his power may be limited, but if 100 chefs pass on the same message, eventually people will listen.
If you are lucky enough to have a meal at Le Bernardin, don’t just be impressed by the glitterati you may encounter there. Remember that back in the kitchen is a chef with the biggest heart who should be an inspiration to us all.