“I hear he’s in tonight. Can you have him come by?”
The blonde at the end of the bar says this as if she were ordering a splash of a new wine to try. As if, in other words, it were not a special request but simply business as usual at Westend Bistro. There’s not a trace of worry in her glittering eyes that the bartender will think she and her two friends are being the least bit pushy or starstruck for asking Eric Ripert to come out and say hi. To say hi—that’s all. Enough time for them to hear the French accent, as thick and exotic as a foreign film star’s. Enough time to gaze upon the bedroom eyes, the dazzlingly white smile, the pouty, Jaggeresque lips.
The bartender smiles mischievously, uncorking a bottle of wine as the woman makes her pitch.
But seriously, she says, leaning across the bar, curling a weft of shellacked blond hair behind her ear. Hasn’t the expectation that they be allowed to see him been embedded in the very name of the restaurant—Westend Bistro by Eric Ripert? Come on: a restaurant with a byline. More than just a mere place to eat—a serious statement, an important tome. And, well, they’ve paged through much of it: the fish burger and the rillettes and the miniature pâtés en croûte and the seafood stew. Now they want to meet the author.
The bartender doesn’t need convincing, but he takes a kind of pleasure in stretching the moment out to see just how far she’ll go.
Far. Her eyes are big and imploring. Pleeeeease.
“Gimme a sec,” he says, retreating to the kitchen.
She may be more up-front about her needs, but he knows she’s not the only one in here tonight who has those needs. Ripert creates those needs. His charm and magnetism coupled with his culinary bona fides—three stars from the Michelin Guide, four from the New York Times—reduced the otherwise unflappable Martha Stewart to a girlish flirt on national TV. And they sent shivers up and down the spines of foodies last year when the idea of Westend Bistro was announced.
The last time the city had been seized by anything like it was when Ripert was last in town, when his mentor, the flamboyant master chef Jean-Louis Palladin, ruled at the Watergate. Robert Wiedmaier plastered his own name on the door of his new bistro, but for many diners his face remains a mystery. Café du Parc has a consulting three-star Michelin chef, but who can identify Antoine Westermann? Michel Richard owns this town, but who goes limp at the prospect of spending a few moments in his jolly, Santalike presence?
The bartender swings by the pass, where dishes are arrayed across the surface for waiters to deliver to tables and where Ripert is standing, talking with the cooks. “Would you mind?” the bartender asks.
Ripert drops what he’s doing, stops watching over the preparation of some tiny rounds of puff pastry. Mind? It’s like asking a runway model if she minds walking down the runway. He knows that this is the calculus these days, that running a big-name restaurant isn’t about just serving good food—that you must be a multimedia presence, that celebrity and buzz are as important as knowing how to reduce a stock or wrap a loin of rabbit in caul fat or any of the other technical tasks that being a big-time chef used to involve.
Also, that just one restaurant will no longer do. For years, Ripert’s multimedia presence meant cookbooks, public appearances, guest spots on TV, and running his flagship, Le Bernardin, hailed by GQ restaurant critic Alan Richman as “the greatest restaurant in America.” Whereas some other chefs expressed their manifest destiny by spinning off satellite operations across the country, Ripert lay comparatively low, biding his time, enlarging his restaurant’s infrastructure, and extending its culinary mission.
A couple of years ago, he struck up a licensing agreement with the Ritz-Carlton and opened Blue in Grand Cayman, followed by DC’s Westend at the end of last year. Another bistro is planned for Philadelphia this year.
“Today chefs have to have restaurants everywhere,” he says. In other words, if a high-profile chef means to retain his reputation, he has to build an—no, he won’t say “empire.” Expand too much and a chef risks diminishing his name; that was the lesson of Todd English, with his 13 restaurants scattered across the country like a child’s toys in the living room.
From the kitchen, the bartender leads Ripert to the end of the bar, running interference like a handler leading a celebrity through a crowd. Heads swivel. His chef’s jacket is sharp and white and pressed, his chiseled features pop, his silvery hair is perfect. He exudes the glamorous unreality of a big-time politician or celebrity. The sommelier lights up as Ripert brushes past. “Our movie star!” he says.
The blonde beams: “Eric, such a pleasure to meet you.”
He extends a hand: “Pleasure.”
It’s as if there’s an invisible spotlight shining down on them. The customers waiting to be seated, including a congressman and his wife, turn toward the end of the bar. The white chef’s jacket is like a mirror, picking up the soft light in the room and refracting it, making it brighter, whiter.
The man sitting to her left says: “Chef, Le Bernardin—best meal of my life.”
“Those little croque-monsieur things—ohhh!”
The man sitting to his left pipes up: “Hey, chef—you were great on Top Chef!”
The fan of the little croque-monsieur things is seized by an idea: “You need to get your own show, chef!”
Ripert considers this as if it had never occurred to him, as if celebrity were something new, as if he weren’t a three-star Michelin chef but an eager-eyed kitchen recruit. “Someday,” he says, “maybe.”
It’s time to move on: A glass of 1985 Château Eglise Clinet with a doctor and his wife awaits him, followed by some face time with Simon Cooper, president and chief operating officer of the Ritz. But before he goes, bowing like an actor at the final curtain, he asks: “Everything okay with the food?” As if all of this—the head swiveling, the beaming, the buzz in the dining room—has to do with the food.
Seeing Ripert work the room, you can easily forget that he’s not here every night—or even most nights.
That he isn’t the one doing the cooking.
That among the various hats he wears as the force behind Ripert Consulting—president, publicist, marketing mastermind, celebrity spokesmodel—the chef’s toque is probably the least of them.
Westend wants you to think that every night will be like this night, when the possibility of being bathed in the aura of his celebrity is as near at hand as a great plate of veal cheeks. The bait and switch of celebrity-chef restaurants: bait you with the promise of star power, of seeing the big-name chef in the gleaming, open kitchen. Then the switch—slipping you competence when you’re seeking brilliance and forcing you to live instead with the reliability of the star’s underlings.
Many of these outposts of empire are successful, in the sense of making piles of money. That’s why they continue to spread like kudzu, why TV stars like Emeril and Bobby Flay and Wolfgang Puck have become brands—their names, in the restaurant world, possessing the power of Microsoft or Google. But how many of these spinoffs rise above their intentions to become memorable? The more time you spend eating in these places, the more likely you are to yield to the suspicion that haute cuisine has become homogenized, the notion of the chef as cook supplanted by the notion of the chef as CEO.