“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.
Westend’s gleaming dining room doesn’t look like a classic bistro, and the food coming out of the kitchen fuses simple rusticity with a polished elegance.
Photograph by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg
This is, of course, the cynical view.
Ruth Reichl, memoirist, editor of Gourmet, and former New York Times restaurant critic, gently chastises me: “I think there’s no denying that the minute a chef becomes big business, the quality changes. You can feel it. And I think we’re only seeing the beginning of it. As we’ve seen the consolidation of everything else, more and more chains are going to be driving out the chance for smaller, more personal expression.”
But corporate, she suggests, doesn’t have to be synonymous with compromise: “You talk about a corporate chef—there’s nobody more corporate than Daniel Boulud,” the chef/restaurateur who runs Daniel, DB Bistro Moderne, and Café Boulud, three of the best restaurants in New York. “And how many chefs in the country are as great as Daniel Boulud?”
By way of illuminating the way a first-rate restaurant works—really works—she tells a story: Three decades ago, the legendary chef Paul Bocuse was asked who was doing the cooking that night at his Lyon restaurant while he was in Tokyo checking up on a spinoff. “Who’s cooking?” he replied. “The same person who cooks in my restaurant when I’m in Lyon.”
“The job at this level, at Eric’s level, at Bocuse’s level,” says Reichl, “is not to cook. It’s to make sure the people who are doing the cooking are doing their job. I think that that’s upsetting to a lot of people. But it’s a reality of modern life. Most of our great chefs all over the world want to be gazillionaires. How can you blame them?
“And let’s face it: What Eric is doing isn’t exactly ‘empire.’ He’s just now beginning to expand a little. Here you have the most charming, the most handsome man on earth. And guys who aren’t nearly as charming or handsome as he have gone on to open places all over the country or all over the world and overextend themselves. And the frozen foods and the cookware and on and on and on. He could have; he didn’t. I think it’s admirable.”
Michael Ruhlman—an author who worked with Ripert on A Return to Cooking, a 2002 book whose title appeared to acknowledge the degree to which the chef had evolved away from the kitchen—finds it admirable, too.
“He’s found a way to expand that he’s comfortable with,” Ruhlman says. “I think he’s very, very smart that way. What Eric has done, what a number of chef CEOs have done, is to take the muscle they developed to be a chef—the extraordinary organizational ability, the ability to handle long hours, the indisputable work ethic—and apply that to the business side. I think that, more than most, Eric has a firm grasp of the two sides.”
Business and art, surface and substance. I come to learn that with Ripert, seeming opposites are, if not quite reconciled, somehow not in conflict.
A self-described “saucier in my heart no matter what else I do,” he can speak passionately about the craft of cooking, then describe Le Bernardin as a “product,” comparable to a luxury handbag from one of his favorite designers, Louis Vuitton. A Buddhist who keeps a picture of the Dalai Lama on his phone and miniature Buddha figurines in his pocket for strength and peace, he maintains an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and a second home in the Hamptons. He is charming; he is calculating. He is freewheeling; he is obsessive.
Part of the calculation, the shrewd deployment of charm, had been to invite me to observe “the making of a restaurant.” This was last August, months before Westend was to open. What I was curious about was how Ripert, so fanatical about detail at Le Bernardin, planned on running a restaurant in absentia.
Not calling it Le Bernardin II—calling it a bistro—was a way of lowering expectations, releasing him and his team from the burden of striving for perfection with every single plate. His business partner, the sexy and indomitable Maguy Le Coze, was adamant about not trying to replicate their piscatory palace. “You can’t do Le Bernardin anywhere else,” she said. “You can’t do it. It’s a New York restaurant.”
But if DC diners wouldn’t be expecting a four-star experience, they’d be expecting something very near to it. And why not? A casual restaurant from a brilliant chef ought to be casually brilliant.
Was it possible to run a really good restaurant by means of cell phone, e-mail, and text message? Sending down a team of subordinates from New York to DC to execute his vision and swooping in a couple of times a month to make sure they stick to the plan?
I get my first glimpse of how things will work, of the apparatus that’s in place to make it work, in my e-mail exchanges with a woman named Mandy Oser.
Oser is Ripert’s right hand, with one of those euphemistic titles straight out of the corporate world: director of strategic partnerships. She used to work on Capitol Hill, and even in e-mail she displays the fierce competence of someone who knows how to get things done.
Through Oser I learned that Ripert employs two PR firms full-time, one in New York, one in Los Angeles. In DC, he had retained the part-time services of another.
During the months I spend reporting and writing this article, three different publicists will keep tabs on my progress.
I tell Oser I’m interested in driving up to New York to see how the kitchen operates, to understand how its elegant, fine-dining vision might be translated to a smaller, more casual restaurant. If Westend Bistro is to be run essentially from Le Bernardin, then I need to see Le Bernardin.
I do see. But first my wife and I are ushered one night to table ten—the best in the house—and lavished with a stunning, multicourse feast, a kind of command performance meant to show the dexterity, technical facility, and imagination required of a restaurant that aspires to be considered the best of the best. The service is so pampering, it’s almost comical. Each time my wife and I pass plates to each other, we’re given new forks and knives, the better to keep the clean, focused flavors of each dish clean and focused.
It’s one of the great meals of my life. It’s also a clever bit of bait and switch: Expecting to be made privy to the mechanics of the business, I am instead treated to a show.
The next day, still besotted with food and drink, I’m permitted to see the rigging.
One floor below Le Bernardin, below the fantasy of privilege and splendor that a four-star restaurant exudes, I find Ripert sitting in his basement office, part of a drab complex of many smaller offices. The fluorescent lights, the cubicles, the computers, the employees at their desks—in its gray efficiency it could pass for a telemarketing outfit.
The offices remind me of Hemingway’s dictum about great writing: It’s what isn’t expressed, made visible, that counts; it’s the mass of ice below the surface.
There are 140 employees who work for Ripert, either at Le Bernardin—a restaurant whose main dining room seats 100—or through Ripert Consulting. Forty of them belong to the kitchen. So what do the other hundred do? Twelve never pick up a pan; their work is administrative—dealing with customers’ requests and complaints, managing the restaurant’s private-room business, and taking reservations. This last task is so crucial to Le Bernardin’s success that two employees are assigned headsets to wear throughout the day, taking calls; four take calls when things are really busy. The restaurant receives, on average, 500 calls a day.
The “reservationists” field calls from a cubicle just off the “war room,” a conference room with dry-erase boards on which the menu for Westend has been scrawled, where Ripert and his inner circle—including his former sous chef Michelle Lindsay and former saucier Soa Davies, who now work for Ripert Consulting—meet to talk strategy and product development.
Full-time reservationists, Ripert says as he walks me through the operation, are a necessity. He wants them kept separate from the dining room with its endless interruptions. “You cannot rush the client,” he says. “This is a luxury product. You cannot keep people waiting.”
A modest detail, but upon dozens and dozens of just such modest details are great restaurants made, says Ruth Reichl, who calls Le Bernardin “the best-run place I’ve ever encountered—all the way through.”
She credits Ripert for thinking beyond the kitchen, for understanding that a restaurant is a kind of theater: “You cannot pierce the fourth wall. You have to keep it live. It must be magic. True luxury in today’s world is defined as something money can’t buy. True luxury has become an experience. And that’s what restaurants at this level aim to give—something that’s beyond price. And Le Bernardin does that. And one reason it does that, one reason it’s able to do that, is it’s very disciplined—a sign it has not changed after everything that came its way, all the success. With a great restaurant, you’re really looking for perfection at every level. It’s not just good food and good wine. What do you do if someone faints at the table? What do you do if two celebrities want the same table? All these things have been thought through, and everyone’s been drilled.”
The discipline and order are evident in a clearly delineated hierarchy.
During staff meals, the sommelier and general manager and maître d’ all eat upstairs in the loft while the waitstaff and runners eat downstairs in the cafeteria. The same goes for the kitchen staff: chef de cuisine and sous chefs upstairs, cooks downstairs. The perks are made conspicuous—carrots intended to encourage the underlings to work hard and climb the corporate and culinary ladders.
Ripert displays a light touch as he makes his rounds in the kitchen, taste-testing sauces, pinching the rolls to see if they’re fresh.
“How’s it going?” he asks, smiling as he greets the cooks prepping fish. He swings by the saucier station, digging a plastic spoon into the different stocks to taste, then another into the sauces. “Can I have a piece of calamari?” he asks one of the cooks, sampling a dish in his head that has yet to be assembled on the plate. No trace of presumption in his tone that his need ought to have been anticipated—far from the kitchen ballistics of TV’s Gordon Ramsay, the cliché image of the tortured genius many still associate with a great chef. Ripert banters with the dishwasher in Spanish—“Hey, cuántos años aqui?” How many years here?
He seems not to notice that the younger staffers appear to be petrified in his presence. Or that, just by his being here, the mood of the kitchen has changed—the bustle of people who realize they’re being watched.
In fact, they’re being watched even when he’s not here. On my way from the kitchen to the business offices, I spot a tiny device in the corner of a wall—a camera, one of 24 that have been stationed throughout the operation. Equipped with tape recorders for playback, the cameras operate 24 hours a day, monitoring the work of the morning crew that comes to prep the food and of the late-night crew that closes up the restaurant.
Ripert describes the cameras as a means of quality control, not surveillance. When he’s consulting in the Caymans or DC or Philadelphia, he says, he can punch up a screen split into 24 different boxes, each depicting what’s happening at Le Bernardin. Weeks earlier, he was able to catch a busboy at the end of the night tossing dessert plates into the trash as he scraped them. Voilà!—fired.
Consistency, he says, is the only way you can maintain your standards from year to year, month to month, day to day, hour to hour.
Left unsaid is the fact that the job of quality control used to fall to the executive chef himself, who never used to leave the building.
Critics have remarked on the evolution of Le Bernardin’s cuisine since Ripert assumed control of the kitchen in 1994, after the sudden death of Maguy Le Coze’s brother, Gilbert Le Coze. Though nominally French, the cooking now embraces the flavors of India, the Caribbean, South America, and the Pacific Rim. What prompted the change away from an old-guard French restaurant to a more globally influenced one?
A number of theories: the arrival of Alain Ducasse, of Thomas Keller’s Per Se, of places that put an emphasis on innovation and exceptional freshness of ingredients. Also the emergence of a new dining culture—younger, more adventurous, more easily jaded. They pushed Ripert. And he responded.
Ripert is frank, laying bare the foundation of the operation like a political operative who shares his position papers as a way of scoring points for his vision. The restaurant’s clientele, though adoring, was aging. “The people who first came to Le Bernardin,” he says, “they came when they were in their forties and fifties. Now it’s 20 years later; they’re in their sixties and seventies.”
He wasn’t in favor of radical change, of change for change’s sake. The restaurant had to remain true to its philosophy, to the purity of intent on the plate. But the decision to court a younger audience was deliberate.
His decision to pilot a new course, he says, has proved correct: “Our product today is a young product. You have to stay young if you want to stay in business and stay relevant. I kind of like to compare us to Hermès—kind of a timeless quality. But with a great energy and dynamism to it, too. And the only way you have that is if you have a great system, a great structure.”
“System” and “structure” are big Ripert words, invoked far more often than “sauté” and “simmer.” The kitchen, for Ripert, is the ultimate system.
At Le Bernardin, the kitchen is such an efficient, regimented mechanism that he doesn’t have to be around 24/7. To uphold standards and enforce discipline, he relies on his trusted advisers, perhaps none more so than Eric Gestel, who functions as a kind of chief of staff. The Martinique-born Gestel worked with Ripert at Jamin in Paris, under Joël Robuchon. It cemented their bond to have endured the famously abusive master chef. That was more than 20 years ago; they’ve worked together at Le Bernardin for the last 15. Ripert calls the slightly built, bespectacled Gestel “Coco,” and wherever Ripert travels, Gestel isn’t far behind—a shadow chef, a doppelgänger.
Ripert and I find him at the pass, in the midst of the lunch rush. He’s “helping” Chris Muller, Ripert’s chef de cuisine, who is overseeing lunch. Gestel calls out instructions, expedites dishes—in short, plays the role that most people associate with Ripert. Gestel commands authority: “In the kitchen, they know that I know what he wants.”
Le Bernardin, Gestel says, was a “totally different” restaurant when his boss took over.
How so? I ask.
He smiles. “There were only two sous chefs when I arrived.”
For the sake of comparison: Michel Richard’s Citronelle operates with one sous chef; Le Bernardin today has five. At every kitchen station, from stocks to salads to sauces, there are multiple employees doing the same job, the better to ensure continuity and consistency. Ripert credits Wolfgang Puck, a man he scarcely knows, with teaching him an important lesson: “He’s an amazing influence on me without even knowing it. An inspiration. The fact he’s able to duplicate and keep quality means he has a great structure.”
For Ripert, the lesson of corporate hierarchy comes down to this: “You have to have a backup for everybody important on your staff.”
He’s distracted by a buzzing in his pocket. He pulls his phone from his jeans; it’s Oser texting from downstairs, reminding him it’s time for his next appointment, a meeting to discuss business with his financial advisers.
“If you have a backup for everybody,” Ripert says, “you never have to say, ‘I lost my chef. Now what am I gonna do?’ ”
Having a replacement ready for every key player, while meant to reassure the CEO, is a powerful psychological tool. As any athlete on a team with a strong bench is aware, no starter can ever feel too complacent knowing the coach thinks the sub is just as good at doing the same job.
“What Eric did is he built this very complex structure,” says Gestel, taking over my tour of the kitchen as the boss takes a meeting. What he has, beyond a clearly articulated vision for the cuisine, is “an amazing ability to put the right person in the right place. Eric is much more flexible in his vision than other European chefs.”
Oser, with her Hill background, runs things administratively. Soa Davies, a former Le Bernardin saucier with degrees in studio arts and marketing from New York University, puts some of her creativity to use overseeing recipe development.
Then there’s Michelle Lindsay, a former Le Bernardin sous chef who is the lead consultant on the Westend project. Lindsay, blond and spiky-haired, doesn’t look like a hardened restaurant vet; she looks like a third-year art student. But she exudes the competitive fire of an elite athlete in the kitchen. She likens her role in DC to that of a chinois—a fine-mesh strainer that big-time kitchens use to produce smooth, elegant soups.
Officially, it’s her job to keep in contact with the kitchen at Westend, with VIPs, to monitor and respond to complaints. It’s also her job to keep watch over Leo Marino, the former Le Bernardin sous chef Ripert installed as the chef at Westend. Marino has authority over his hand-picked team of assistants. But Lindsay has authority over Marino.
“Leo,” Gestel explains by way of clarifying the organizational hierarchy for the restaurant, “executes the dishes that she creates.” Five to six times a day when she’s not in DC, she calls to check up on the DC kitchen and report back, to make sure it functions the way Ripert wants it to.
And the dishes Lindsay creates? Who vets and edits those?
Those are tested and retested in New York. That goes for all the recipes that go onto the menu at Le Bernardin, too. Lindsay works together with Davies, concocting dishes that they think Ripert will like, that express the house style—in the case of Westend Bistro, a kind of elegant rusticity. Ripert tastes the dishes they come up with, offers commentary, in some cases suggests new directions to try. Some dishes pass muster. Many fail. At which point Lindsay and Davies go back to the drawing board. And the process begins again.
I tell Gestel it sounds almost corporate, the product testing, the careful chain of command. He smiles. At Le Bernardin, that’s a compliment.
Westend is still months from its DC launch, not much more than a plan on a dry-erase board, when I fly to Grand Cayman to see Ripert’s restaurant Blue. It was the first in his licensing agreement with the Ritz, which dominates the scraggly landscape like a colossus, an incongruous presence in an isolated patch of earth. He’s staying at the hotel to host Caribbean Rundown With Eric Ripert, the island’s first food festival.
No sooner do my wife and I step through customs into the sweltering night than we find a chaffeur-driven Mercedes waiting with bottles of water and chilled, lemon-scented towels in the back seat to revive us. A three-tiered platter of sweets, fruits, and finger sandwiches has been left in our oceanfront suite. Natasha, one of several Ritz employees assigned to look after us, volunteers to press any articles of clothing that may have been wrinkled from the flight.
It’s hard to complain—a suite overlooking the Caribbean, doting service—but I begin to feel guilty amid all the plenty, to suspect that I’m being obliged to follow a script of someone else’s devising. Deciding to forgo the food festival’s opening-night reception in favor of dinner at Blue, my wife and I make it halfway to the restaurant when we run into Ripert. By accident? I begin to think of the cameras at Le Bernardin.
He ushers us downstairs to a table for a drink. We talk cooking, the festival, astrology (“Mercury is no longer in retrograde,” he tells us). At last, having filibustered enough time for the kitchen to prepare, he has us seated for dinner.
The meal is fine, with a number of excellent moments, including a sublime dish of prawns in moquecas, a coconut-based sauce. Perfect it’s not. Which is to say Le Bernardin it’s not. The cooking aims for exquisite and frequently finds its mark. But when it misses, it makes me that much more aware of the gap between very good and great.
The kitchen, though it was tipped off to a designated eater, is unable to avoid several lapses, including an awkward lag of 25 minutes between courses. I’m directly responsible for the most egregious lapse.
I asked for the pork belly, which shouldn’t have been an unusual request, except that pork belly isn’t an option on the tasting menu, which is what was ordered for me. Our waiter was initially flustered by my going off book, but he recovered smoothly, making up for his facial uh-oh with a fusillade of superlatives—“wonderful,” “great”—for the pork belly.
It’s neither. It’s overcooked. Where the meat ought to be luscious and the fatty top layer firm and crisp, it’s tough and dry, almost like a jerky that’s been pulled from a braise.
Ripert is quick to apologize when we meet up the next morning in a conference room of the hotel, where he’s setting up to do a cooking demo. “We f—ed up,” he says.
It’s like one of those crushing handshakes that leaves your fingers limp, unable to get a purchase. I don’t know how to respond.
What the pork-belly mishap illustrates, he begins, is the “challenge” of running a restaurant from afar.
So frank, so unexpected. But he doesn’t stop there. He takes this acceptance of personal responsibility a step further. Feel free, he says, to “include that in your piece.”
Richard Brower, who commands the kitchen at Blue, comes by and apologizes a few minutes later.
It’s at this point my brain goes into rewind. I’m thinking about a scrap of paper near his phone that I stumbled upon one day at Le Bernardin when he was upstairs in a meeting and I was chatting with Oser—exhortations of a media coach he hired to keep his client on message:
It’s YOUR interview / ownership
Response instead of an answer
Conclusion first / accentuate the positive
Wouldn’t you know it? He’d accomplished all three.
That night, after an early-evening soak in the Caribbean, accompanied by a Cuban cigar as long as a tapered candle, he’s back at Blue, in his chef’s whites, for a $600-a-person dinner he’s hosting for ten of the restaurant’s most valued customers. My wife and I have been invited, gratis, at the last minute.
Gotten up as we are in our best clothing, perfumed and carefully groomed, we cannot be more out of place among the other couples, jet-setting investment bankers and their wives, whose assets are as conspicuous as their husbands’ are not. The talk around the table, a makeshift arrangement in a far corner of the kitchen, is of fifth homes, Tuscan villas, five-star Peruvian resorts.
The meal is spectacular. Nine courses—prepared by 11 cooks, including Ripert, Brower, Davies, and Gestel—for 12 people. The fish and seafood are unimpeachably fresh, the saucing elegant, the wines excellent. The menu unspools with imagination and surprise. A triumphal performance.
Except that it only serves to underscore the pitfalls of expansion: Perfection is within reach so long as Ripert is near at hand.
At Westend, the air of mystery and celebrity that attends Ripert in the dining room does not follow him back into the kitchen. The kitchen is a place of work, of action under pressure. Gods are burdensome.
To go from the dining room of Westend to the kitchen, as he does now, winding through the adoring crowd at the bar, is to go from the stage, aglow with magic and possibility, to backstage, with its army of stagehands running around.
Ripert plucks a cornichon off a plate of pâté, tastes, nods. A tray of puff pastries for the cornichons has just come out of the oven; the bottoms aren’t lifting off easily.
“They sticking?” he asks.
“Get them off.” They’re dumped into the trash.
He samples the whipped potatoes that go with the veal cheeks: “Needs more potato.” Last night, he says, he tried the dish and thought the portion was too small.
His eye falls on the tuna carpaccio; it’s glistening. “Too oily,” he tells the prep cook. He takes the plate and tilts it; the olive oil drips off the edge. “Look at that.”
The goat cheese is “runny,” the burgers are poorly shaped, and the veal cheeks are emblematic of an ongoing communication problem. The kitchen staff changed suppliers, Lindsay tells him: “That’s a big no-no.”
She allows that it’s “a great product,” but that’s not the point. It’s the principle of it. No deviations. Otherwise, how is Ripert Consulting to keep things orderly and consistent?
The problem, Lindsay says, is that this kind of thing, this veering from script, “happens once every other day.”
Lindsay’s job is to keep watch over the kitchen, typically the responsibility of the chef. But she isn’t the chef. “I have to be extra diplomatic,” she says. “But I still have to do my job. If I see something wrong, I’m gonna say it.”
Something wrong, right now, includes the desserts. The blueberry cobbler is coming out sloppy, its drizzles of berry sauce looking more like blobs than artful dabs. Given the precision of the appetizers and entrées, the effect is jarring, as if the sweets were coming from a different kitchen. Ripert tells Lindsay, “We have to talk to Michael”—Le Bernardin pastry chef Michael Laiskonis—“tomorrow on the phone.”
Lindsay offers to “revisit the photos”—pictures of what each dish is supposed to look like—with the pastry staff.
I ask Ripert how bad the problem is.
“It’s bad enough to rework them,” he says, “but not bad enough to put a stop to them.”
Staring at two poorly executed desserts about to be sent out into the dining room, Ripert—his hands buried in his designer jeans—fingers two small icons. In one pocket, Ganesh. In the other, Buddha.
“Fifteen years ago, you wouldn’t have been able to stand it. I was a nut case. Throwing plates at the guys.”
He squeezes Ganesh, squeezes Buddha, arrives at a decision. He pulls aside Marino: “Tomorrow let’s see the production of that. Write it down, everything—from the beginning.”
He has Marino share the second part of that decision with the kitchen staff. It’s Marino’s kitchen, and Ripert—mindful of the importance of delegating and giving people the room to do their jobs—allows his chef to run his own show. But the announcement—“From now on, Chef Ripert wants us to bring the desserts around to the front of the pass. Okay? Spread the word”—only serves to reinforce whose show it really is.
Marino seems to reinforce it, too. “I don’t know anything about Buddha,” he says. “I just know I need some more Zen in my life.”
For all of these food problems, Ripert says he isn’t troubled: “The kitchen is the least of my worries.”
I take this to be an expression of confidence in his team, of his belief in the quality of the food that he and his charges have tested and retested in the kitchen in New York. But it’s also an admission of anxiety, of the many outside, uncontrollable factors that will make or break the restaurant.
Then comes the restaurant’s first review, from a George Washington University student newspaper. It’s a negative one: a restaurant not up to the ritz-carlton standards. It describes a dinner the student critic ate with three others two weeks after opening night, and it alludes to the oft-repeated gripe about the menu’s conservatism that has appeared on local online food discussion boards.
Restaurant critics, says Ripert, have a structure, they have ethics, they have knowledge. This review, on the other hand, feels gratuitous, an attack. Ten years ago, he would have dismissed it; today he’s forced to acknowledge it because even if he doesn’t respect it, even if he finds it “irrational,” and even if the GW student newspaper has a limited audience, the review is searchable on the Web alongside those of other publications.
It’s got him thinking about the difficulty of trying to impose order on something that’s forever in flux. And especially trying to do it from afar. “We are talking about a product that is not stable . . . a product that is very difficult to manage.”
Hoping to manage the perception of the product—which is, ultimately, to manage the product—he convenes a media luncheon the next day. A number of Washington’s food writers are in attendance. I’m not one of them, although Ripert, I later learn, has decided to serve, in addition to a roast chicken, a pistou, a rustic, pesto-thickened soup. In conversation the night before, I mentioned it would be a good fit for his idea of a relaxed, wintertime lunch. “He name-checked you when he introduced it,” a colleague tells me.
Before they leave, the writers are invited to pose for photos with Ripert, which some agree to. They’re sent home with their pictures, which are slipped into gingerbread-cookie frames.
The luncheon is an effort to cement connections. Less obviously, it’s a chance to gather information about those in attendance, the better to keep tabs on their work and their visits to the restaurant in the future. Eventually, I find out, the staff at Westend has compiled a dossier on everyone who came to lunch.
Later that afternoon, after the courting of the media is over and the staff has begun prepping the dining room for dinner, Ripert and I meet again at the restaurant. A bottle of sparkling water sits between us on the table. Staffers come and go, lighting candles, folding napkins. Nobody dotes on his every word and action. He could be almost anybody sitting in this booth. Almost.
One of the DC-based publicists swings by the table. Ripert jokes about the amount of time I’ve been spending with him. Three different cities, four months, multiple interviews. Wherever I go, he says, he goes. He’s joking. But he’s not. The first major reviews have yet to arrive. Do I detect, under the outward calm and charm, a note of anxiety?
He does, however, have control over what I eat. A bowl of the pistou, the soup that was created at my suggestion, is summoned to the table. It becomes an opportunity to talk again about his aim.
At Le Bernardin, he says, “whatever goes on the plate should elevate the fish.” At Westend, the philosophy is different, simpler: “The food should be slightly comforting, with a slightly sexy element.” It’s the difference, he says, between Armani and Armani Jeans.
The pistou is a variation of a dish already on the menu, a chicken soup with an artichoke-arugula pesto. The soup is meant to conjure a grandma at the stove, slaving away on a Sunday afternoon for the family supper. The addition of an artichoke-arugula pesto is, he says, “the sexy element. Grandma was not sexy.”
The invocation of Grandma, of Sunday suppers, of Mother’s sauce, is a kind of marketing that isn’t meant to sound like marketing.
Westend is not the first restaurant to make this kind of appeal, and it won’t be the last. There’s a craving in the culture for something authentic and real, a reaction against the inundation of chains and disposable goods. Restaurants—with their nostalgia plates and memory dishes—are equipped to deliver these experiences better than other businesses.
But what’s homespun about a slick restaurant inside a Ritz-Carlton, designed by an elite architectural firm and boasting a licensing agreement with a chef who lives four hours away?
And does it matter, in the end, if it is homespun?
Does it even matter if the cooking—though sometimes too smooth and sanitized, like those cleaned-up, digitized recordings of raw and powerful classics—is often excellent?
Because what Westend is selling isn’t just food, or an idea of food. It’s selling a product, a brand. It’s selling Ripert.
Ripert makes no apologies about this. The words—“product,” “brand”—don’t register with him as negatives. I—who think a purist in the kitchen ought to be a purist in the office and boardroom, too—am the one who still doesn’t get it. Even after four months and three cities and multiple interviews.
In the hope of making me see, he draws one last analogy. Another designer, this time Prada.
“This is a genius company,” he says. Genius marketing. Genius positioning in the marketplace. “People who buy the product become slick and sexy and modern—when the reality is most of them are in their sixties; most are ugly.”
What Prada offers, he says, is “access.” Access to status. Access to a shorthand that connotes an attitude, a way of life.
And it’s not just fashion designers who offer this kind of access. Luxury-car companies do the same—Mercedes, BMW, Porsche. All sell more than vehicles; they sell a name, an image.
What restaurants are now doing, he says, is what the fashion industry has done, what the luxury-car companies have done. Food, wine, service—they’re the product. The design, the music, the PR—they’re the packaging. More than ever, at a certain level, the product and the packaging must be in sync.
In a couple of hours, Ripert the CEO will send out Ripert the chef to play Ripert the celebrity spokesmodel. And the adoring crowds will lap up his glittering presence as surely as they lap up the rillettes and the pâté en croûte, the veal cheeks and the fish burger. A good time will be had by all.
It’s easy to like being at Westend. For all the early, expected lapses, it has made itself into a remarkably consistent restaurant. It’s successful. It’s a good business.
It’s also slick and a little impersonal, less an expression of passion and belief, you can’t help feeling, than of calculation and study. Easy to like but—like any commodity—hard to love.