The Current

How Buddhism helped renowned chef Éric Ripert break the cycle of abusive kitchens

When he first tasted power in a kitchen, early in his career, renowned chef Éric Ripert realized he was reproducing a pattern of abuse that had been accepted during his own training. He set about changing that.

At the time, it was OK for the chef to be abusive, Ripert says of his own training

Renowned French chef Éric Ripert has just released a new book, Vegetable Simple. (Nigel Parry)

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Renowned French chef Éric Ripert learned his trade in kitchens rife with abuse of younger staff — an environment that he briefly recreated when he became the boss later in life.  

"I realized I was wrong; I was emulating some of my mentors and people who taught me," said Ripert, executive chef and co-owner of the restaurant Le Bernardin in New York.

"And I was like, 'This is not the way I wanted to be treated when I was a cook. This is not the way I should be treating people,'" he said.

Ripert has spoken out about working conditions before, including in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against celebrity chef Mario Batali in Dec. 2017.

Shortly after, a former server at Le Bernardin filed a lawsuit alleging she suffered sexual harassment at the hands of kitchen and wait staff, and that her complaints to management had been ignored. Ripert called the allegations "completely false," and the lawsuit was dropped by the plaintiff in June of that year. No settlement was reached and the case was dismissed without prejudice, meaning the plaintiff could re-file at a later date.

Ripert spoke to The Current's Matt Galloway about how Buddhism played a role in reimagining his kitchen, and his new book, Vegetable Simple. Here is part of their conversation.

You were lucky enough to study under some of the renowned chefs in Paris. What was that experience like? What did you learn, you know, in the heat of the kitchen?

I started in La Tour D'Argent, 1982. I'm 17 years old, I think I know a lot because I graduated with honours. And I realized after one day that I know nothing at all. And I have to start again from scratch.

On that first day, by the way, I cut myself, I burned the eggs, I [couldn't] find the herbs. I mean, it's a disaster.

And you were allowed to come back on the second day?

And I was allowed to come back on the second day! And in La Tour D'Argent, I really learned the classics. I learned of course discipline, rigour, cleanliness and so on, but also craftsmanship. I mean, nobody's born with good knife skills. You have to learn.

And then I was lucky to be sent to Joel Robuchon's kitchen, Jamin, at the time. His restaurant was considered the best restaurant in the world — with Frédy Girardet in Switzerland — and he was our god in the food world. 

What an artichoke taught chef Éric Ripert about our relationship with food

20 days ago
2:34
Living on a farm in France, a young Éric Ripert learned to appreciate the labour that goes into the food we eat, as well as the skill and technique to make ‘the best artichoke that you can.’ 2:34

You talk about rigour and discipline and how you thought of [some] people as a god. I mean, those kitchens have a well-earned reputation for being harsh places to learn, as well. Disciplinarians, hierarchical, at times abusive behaviour. You're nodding your head. Did you go through that as well?

Of course I went through that. And at the time, it was OK for the chef to be abusive. It was accepted to be insulted all day long. It was accepted to be kicked in the butt and punched in the shoulders. And it was accepted to have your dish sent back at you, and see the plate flying in the kitchen and coming back at your feet. 

It was a philosophy that was in my opinion crazy, but they thought, "We're taking some individuals, especially young, we're going to break them psychologically and we're going to rebuild them and make them champions." But it was ridiculous because, first of all, it's no excuse to have anger and the behaviour in the kitchen that is not right, is not acceptable. And in the process, you have a lot of people who have talent who are potentially quitting because it's not right, it's too tough.

That has changed a lot, and today, I hope most of the kitchens are civilized. I make sure that at Le Bernardin we have zero tolerance for any kind of abuse, any kind of misbehaviour. It's immediately the door.

And because of that, we have a kitchen that is extremely peaceful. We have, of course, the stress of the service. I mean, it's tough to be in a restaurant kitchen, but nobody's afraid. Nobody's shaking. Nobody is stressed.

Éric Ripert on what he learned from his friend Anthony Bourdain

20 days ago
4:22
Ripert was close friends with Bourdain, who died in 2018. He remembers the “great inspiration” Bourdain brought him, and the many adventures they shared. 4:22

You've spoken before about how Buddhism has helped you with that and has helped shape that philosophy. Can you tell me about that and how that practice has informed the kitchen that you just described? 

The first time I have a position of power ... I'm basically emulating some of my mentors. And I am an abusive chef. 

And what I realize is that all the staff is leaving. First of all, they are miserable with me. I am miserable. And they're all quitting and they're going somewhere else. And one night I'm sitting at home and reflecting on my day and my journey and I'm thinking, "Why? What's what's wrong with me? Why am I so, so angry?"

And I realized I was wrong. I was emulating some of my mentors and people who taught me. And I was like, "This is not the way I wanted to be treated when I was a cook. This is not the way I should be treating people." So almost overnight, I changed my attitude in the kitchen. 

Now, Buddhism was coming into my life at the same time. I was starting to read books about Buddhism, and I was interested by the philosophy. And then in the early 2000s, the Dalai Lama was teaching in New York and it was my, really first, teaching from a great master. Since then, I had many other teachings from other masters, and I am a Buddhist practitioner.

I strongly believe in a world where first of all, you do not harm people. You try not to harm yourself.

To me, [there] is no such a thing as anything living by itself. I believe that everything is interconnected, everything is a matter of cause and consequences, and that has changed my vision of the world.

A recipe from Éric Ripert's new book, Vegetable Simple

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Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Samira Mohyeddin. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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