Updated: Oct 13
From My Mother’s Table to Working the Line
By Eric Ripert with Veronica Chambers
247 pp. Random House.
My introduction to Eric Ripert came from watching his appearances on Anthony Bourdain’s TV shows, No Reservations and Parts Unknown.
I learned of him, again, from my boss and friend, Jen Girasole. Ripert is Jen’s favorite chef, not only because he’s world-renowned with a three-Michelin star restaurant, but because he’s a Buddhist who believes in running a Buddhist kitchen, one that’s peaceful, tolerant, and compassionate. Lucky for me (and the entire Girasole staff), Jen runs her kitchen that way, too.
I heard of Ripert again when he published his book 32 Yolks in 2016.
32 Yolks: From My Mother's Table to Working the Line travels through Eric Ripert’s life as a young child growing up in Southern France and Andorra. Eric’s parents divorce and remarry other people, and Eric is left at home with his abusive stepfather while his mother works long hours at her clothing shop.
Ripert's stepfather claims that eight-year old Eric is too much to handle and convinces his mother to send Eric to boarding school. At boarding school, Eric feels isolated from other kids and barely escapes the abuse of a priest.
Eric wants to leave school, but his father's wife doesn't want him, so he moves back home with his mother and his stepfather, Hugo. To escape Hugo’s abuse, Eric finds refuge in a local chef, Jaques, who allows Eric to come to his restaurant after school to watch him cook.
The second half of the book chronicles Ripert’s experiences as a teenager in culinary school and at the historic, one-Michelin-star Parisian restaurant, La Tour d'Argent, and at three-Michelin-star, Jamin.
Ripert works at La Tour d'Argent at the young age of 17 where his first task is to make a hollandaise sauce from 32 yolks. He fails. What's supposed to become a silky, emulsified sauce turns into scrambled eggs.
Emulsified sauces are made from ingredients that don't normally mix, like yolks and vinegar, and there are many reasons why one's sauce might break: the heat is too high, the fat is added too early, the sauce is whisked too slowly.
It takes Ripert months to perfect this sauce, a pivotal moment where he begins to see himself as a real chef in the kitchen. Ripert goes on to perfect other skills and quickly advances to Joel Robuchon’s acclaimed restaurant, Jamin, at the age of 19.
With success at such a young age, his mother deems him a chef prodigy, but it comes with a price.
Ripert depicts the furious pace and endless stamina needed to work in a high-level professional kitchen and the crippling pressure and impossible demands put on him by a genius, madman chef, Robochoun, who is mentally and emotionally abusive to Ripert and the restaurant staff.
Even still, throughout the book, Ripert conveys his unwavering love of food and the simple pleasures it provides.
"...food brings people together, and... it also has the power to make even the loneliest person feel like the center of the universe.”
Throughout the book, Ripert tells of small, joyful moments centered around food. Like early memories of his mother cooking and the care she took in setting the table, or the pleasure with which his father tended the garden. Ripert spends his childhood summers with his grandparents where his grandmother, Maguy, teaches him, “how food brings people together, and how it also has the power to make even the loneliest person feel like the center of the universe.”
Ripert reflects, “Every time I cook on a fireplace, it all comes rushing back: the hams hanging, the grandma stewing the hare, fries in duck fat, the morning coffee cooked on an open flame. Georges’s greatest gift is how this all lives in me. It was a very happy time in my life, and that was an important lesson too: to learn how little it took to be happy, to understand from a young age that the human heart is a small and delicate vase. You must handle it carefully, but in the right circumstances, it does not take much to fill it up.”
The book ends with Ripert moving to America to become the sous-chef at Jean Louis Palladin’s restaurant in the Watergate Hotel. In the airport bookstore, he notices a book on Buddhism and buys it.
Some critics see this as a let-down of an ending, but I think it explains Ripert’s introspection then and a glimpse into his perspective now.
We all have mentors in our lives. Some mentors are peaceful, tolerant, and compassionate... and some are not. Yet, we can choose to learn from them, even be grateful for them. Because of them, we can decide who we want to be and who we don't want to be. Like 32 yolks and vinegar, we can take life's experiences and emulsify them into something beautiful, delicate and strong, like a sauce that doesn’t break.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Eric Ripert is the chef and co-owner of the New York restaurant Le Bernardin, which holds three stars from the Michelin Guide and has maintained a four-star rating from The New York Times for more than two decades. He is vice chairman of the board of City Harvest, a New York-based food rescue organization, as well as a recipient of the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest honor. He serves as a regular guest judge on Bravo’sTop Chef and is the host of his own TV series, Avec Eric, which has won Emmy and James Beard awards. Ripert is the author of five cookbooks: Avec Eric, On the Line, A Return to Cooking, Le Bernardin: Four-Star Simplicity, and My Best: Eric Ripert.