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NYC Conference Report #TechonomyNYC

Chef Eric Ripert on our City, our Food, and our Collective Experience

Speaker

Eric Ripert
Chef and Co-Owner, Le Bernardin

Interviewer

David Kirkpatrick
Founder and Editor-in-Chief, Techonomy


Session Description: A great chef clears our palate.

The full transcript is below and the PDF version is available here.

A New York Icon on our City, our Food, and our Collective Experience

(Transcription by RA Fisher Ink)

Kirkpatrick: Eric, please join me on stage. So we’re going to end with something very, very special. Eric Ripert is a chef, an entrepreneur—Le Bernardin, which he has helped create and is a master chef for, and co-owns. You co-own it right?

Ripert: Yes.

Kirkpatrick: It’s got three Michelin stars. In the Michelin guide it says, “When the definitive history of New York restaurants is written, Le Bernardin will rate a chapter of its own. It’s that important of a restaurant.” And Eric is not just a great chef, but he’s a great thinker about food, as you’ll learn. And I wanted to just tell you, Eric, to sort of give the context, because I know you’re not a technologist, but you think a lot about how technology fits into all of this. But the conversation we’ve been having here today has been a lot about inclusion, about responsibility and sustainability, which I know are all things that you’re very concerned about. Not only is Eric a great chef of the most luxurious foods, he also is the vice chairman of City Harvest, which is a major organization here in New York, to make sure that food is distributed to those who aren’t able to get normal nutrition. He does a lot as an activist and he’s a real consummate New Yorker, which is another reason why we wanted to end today with him. So thank you for being here

Ripert: Thank you.

Kirkpatrick: And I just wanted to just say some of that, because I know especially on the issue of responsibility, it’s something that you think about. You’ve written a great book recently, which has a lot to do with savoring life but thinking about it in a responsible way. Let’s just talk about your philosophy, about what has brought you to where you are and why you think about food the way you do.

Ripert: Wow. Well, I always had a passion for eating well, a passion for craftsmanship, a passion for the chef that I am today. My dream was to be, as a young kid and all my life, was to be the chef that I am today, which is the chef of Le Bernardin. And therefore, I went to culinary school and worked with some good chefs in the past and ended up at Le Bernardin, which is a seafood restaurant.

Kirkpatrick: Just a few blocks from here.

Ripert: A few blocks away from here.

Kirkpatrick: But you do think about some things that I think take you beyond—that help explain why you’ve been so successful, that really take your thinking beyond what I would think of as a normal chef’s thinking. For example, the way you think about helping your suppliers stay healthy themselves. You talked to me about that on the phone, that the way you think about what we ought to be eating. Let’s talk about that first, this issue of the ecosystem in which you operate. Because I know you told me that you’re not unwilling to pay more in order to give quality suppliers a sustainable living. How do you think about that story?

Ripert: Yes, I think it’s very important actually for all of us to pay the right price for the food. Actually, in America we are spending the least amount of money per capita to feed ourselves.

Kirkpatrick: You mean in restaurants, particularly?

Ripert: In restaurants, but at home. Everybody is spending a very small amount—

Kirkpatrick: Compared to other countries?

Ripert: Compared to other countries, we spend about 7 percent of our income maximum for feeding ourselves. It’s very important to care about the farmers, the people who are fishing as well. For instance, at Le Bernardin we do not serve species that are endangered. And we pay the right price to get the quality that we need, but also to support the fisherman to be able to have a living. It’s very important to pay the right price so they can follow the rules. They can be proactive in creating sustainability. In America I think we are actually very proactive by creating quotas of fishing for wild fish, by making sure that we are respecting the season when the fish is spawning. We are very close to what’s happening, some other countries are less. But technology helps us tremendously to do that. And technology, when you think about it, technology is neutral. Technology has no darkness or light side. Technology is a tool that we use and our motivation is very important when we use technology. For instance, when we go back to talk about the fisherman, with the technology today we can basically spot the fish in the ocean. And with the technology that we have we can basically go and take everything.

Kirkpatrick: Denude the sea, if we were to choose to do so. Yes.

Ripert: But technology can be used to actually monitor what’s happening, to make sure that we’re keeping the stocks healthy and it’s our future. Technology is very important for that kind of industry, it’s important for everything and it’s in our life of course everywhere. But I was specific about fishing.

Kirkpatrick: Yes. In fact, the Environmental Defense Fund, whose president was onstage earlier today, has been a real leader in applying technology to monitor fishing stocks and make sure that we don’t overfish and to create incentives for farmers to do it responsibly. But let’s go back to that issue of how the U.S. differs from other countries when it comes to our attitudes towards food, because I don’t think most Americans realize the degree to which we are different. So what you’re really saying is, this pursuit of lower price, we’ve really sacrificed some key things. Is that a fair summary of your view?

Ripert: We do. And farms, very often with their animals are not open to the public, so we don’t know what’s happening behind the walls. But the way we are raising animals to have a very low cost, it’s absolutely unacceptable. And we use technology very often with either a bad motivation, which is basically close to greed. At the same time, we are able to feed people a lot of meat protein, and the lobbies are making believe that human beings need a lot of meat protein. And we have this tendency to eat so much meat protein that is not needed.

Now to do that, I will take the example of a farm with chicken, for example. A pound of chicken is much cheaper than buying some vegetable, organic vegetables for instance. Well, to be able to do that, they have to put the chicken in cages, six by six, they don’t move. They live in an artificial day and night system, and then they have diets with hormones and antibiotics and so on. And the growing hormones I was talking about. And then suddenly today with technology, what we have seen is that we can have some chicken that has a bigger breast because people like white meat more than red meat. And today on the market also—I mean for the farmers, they can purchase chicken that are genetically modified, that don’t even have feathers.

Kirkpatrick: That exists now?

Ripert: It exists today.

Kirkpatrick: Just for the efficiency of the farmer?

Ripert: Of course. And for the fish, same thing. You have some farm-raised salmon that are genetically modified, that have certain diets and so on. And those salmon are monsters, they become five times bigger than any salmon very, very quickly.

Kirkpatrick: So you’re saying that we’ve gotten carried away with cost and we’ve lost the purpose of food? Is that what you’re really saying, in a sense?

Ripert: I’m not saying— I mean, we generalize here, of course. But what I’m saying is that it’s time to wake up, and I see a lot of people waking up in the farming business, in the restaurant business as consumers. And it’s time to use technology that is available to us for the right reasons.

Kirkpatrick: And I think when we talked on the phone also, you were contrasting the approach we take to raising a chicken, to what other countries might do, or your home country of France for example. Just talk a little bit about how you see the difference and what the alternative way of thinking might be.

Ripert: Well, in France we have this type of farming as well. An industry of farming those practices. However, France has a certain passion for the quality of the ingredients. They don’t necessarily—the French don’t necessarily care about the suffering of the animals, but they care about having some good food for the family on the table. Good food in terms of flavors and good food in terms of healthy food. And therefore, someone who lives in France will have the tendency to go to the market and buy quality products, for that reason.

Kirkpatrick: So maybe the chicken would cost more, but it would taste better?

Ripert: The chicken definitely costs more and tastes much better. And also the chicken, if we may, has a much better life, a happy life until the end when we nix it.

Kirkpatrick: We nix it. Yes.

Ripert: But you know, those chickens for instance, instead of being in a 6 x 6 cage, if you but a poulet de Bresse, which is a chicken from Bresse, they have a certain amount of space and they have to live outside and have a certain diet that’s monitored and so on.

Kirkpatrick: But what you’re really saying is we don’t need to eat so much meat protein, but because we’ve become obsessed with it, we actually created an industrial agriculture that causes the animals to suffer. And actually reduces the quality of the food we eat, so it’s kind of a negative cycle all around. So what’s the alternative? Is there a way that you can see where we could move away from that?

Ripert: Yes, of course we can move away. And we’re starting to see more and more people caring about organic, humanely raised animals and who are paying the price for it. Now, if you don’t have the right income and you can’t feed your family with those products, obviously you don’t have a choice. But we see a lot of people who have good income, who are starting to have a good education about what’s good for the planet, what’s good for potentially the animals. Whoever cares about their well-being and of course for their own health benefits.

Kirkpatrick: I have so many other questions, but I have a feeling other people may have questions for you too. So I want to make sure that I don’t not give people the chance. Does anyone have a question for Eric? I certainly have more. Well, one of the things we talked about was portion size. You know, your restaurant is a spectacular restaurant, which I had the privilege of eating at not too long ago. But you don’t need to give a huge pile of food on the plate to give the customer a wonderful experience. Talk a little bit about portions, because I know that’s something you’ve thought a lot about.

Ripert: Well, when you come from different side of the world and you compare the portion size with what we have in the U.S., it’s a drastic change. The portions here—it looks like very often we value the experience by the quantity and not necessarily the quality. And especially when you go to a fast food restaurant and so on, they try to show you that for $1.99 you can get a bigger wrap, or a longer sandwich or something. And it’s not about the quality in terms of flavor and it’s not about the quality in terms of what’s going to be good for you. It’s just about adding a huge portion. And because of that mentality, we see a lot of problems down the line in terms of health. We see a lot of diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and so on.

Kirkpatrick: Boy, we’re paying in so many ways. Yes, please. There’s a question over here. Please identify yourself.

Caulfield: Hi Eric, I’m Gloria Caulfield and I’m with the Tavistock Group. And I have a question or you that might be a little off topic. But just wondering what it’s like to be friends and hanging out with Anthony Bourdain. And number two, with the carnivore practices that I see on his show, it doesn’t seem like these ideas have rubbed off on him. Just curious.

Ripert: Yes. So Anthony and I are very good friends, for a long time. On television he loves to torture me.

[LAUGHTER]

And backstage it’s the contrary. Now, Anthony has his own visions and philosophies about food, but I think what he does, he does a pretty good job at educating people to see what’s happening worldwide. He takes you on a trip, on an adventure, and he has some very good shows. So I’m a fan of Anthony.

Kirkpatrick: I want to hear the questions, but I want to make sure you talk about City Harvest. Quickly tell us about what you’re doing with that.

Ripert: So City Harvest is an organization that is New York-based and is 35 years old now. And City Harvest basically picks up food that is perfectly fresh and nutritious that will go to waste and distribute it to shelters, creates nutritional programs, and mobile markets in food deserts. And that’s quite a bit already.

Kirkpatrick: Yes, and you have special distribution centers, you work with suppliers of excess food.

Ripert: Yes. We have a— I mean, City Harvest has a huge facility in Queens and a fleet of 32 trucks, two trailers, and we are linked to an organization called Feed America and that organization is basically informing whoever wants to distribute food or access to food to give to people in need. They have a system where you log in and you can see what’s happening. And you can see that in the harbor of New York, there’s a boat that has 200 tons of bananas that are ripened and they won’t be taken by any supermarket because they’re ripened. Therefore, we send the trucks to pick up the bananas and distribute them in 500 shelters. In New York there’s a population of 1.3 million people who are living under the poverty level. One child out of four who doesn’t know when he’s going to have his next meal when the school is closed. So City Harvest is very important for New York City. Because it’s food that will go to waste, and because we have a lot of help from volunteers, we are able to provide one pound of food, which is basically a meal, for 25 cents.

Kirkpatrick: Wow. Fantastic you’re doing that. I wanted to make sure you told us that. Okay, I saw two hands here. First you, and then we’ll go to you. Please identify yourself.

Moran: Hi. Tim Moran, I’m actually here with Techonomy. Considering what you said about the animal welfare and about the eating of meat and whatnot, as a Frenchman what’s your feeling about foie gras?

Kirkpatrick: And the treatment of animals, yes.

Ripert: Foie gras is very controversial, and basically they are ducks and geese that are overfed and the foie becomes enlarged and it’s a delicacy. In this real world, it’s extremely, extremely brutal what’s happening to the animals. When you look at the little farmer in the southwest of France, where usually they do it, it’s much different. I do not believe that the animal suffers from—except at the very end of the process, I don’t believe that they suffer from the liver becoming enlarged, because it’s a natural process for ducks and geese to overfeed themselves before the migration and their liver becomes enlarged but goes back to normal size after the migration. I love foie gras.

Kirkpatrick: But sometimes— Okay, that’s good enough.

[LAUGHTER]

Okay, let’s go over here.

Sinead: Hi there, I’m Sinead. I had the pleasure of raising my kids when they were young in Paris and I was incredibly impressed with the role that the school system plays in teaching children about food. Where lunch is considered a lesson, not free time. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about it, and maybe some lessons we could learn in the U.S.

Kirkpatrick: Good question.

Ripert: Yes. In the school system in France, they want to make sure the children are eating something that is good for them. And you don’t have the same diet in those schools, although they have budgets, obviously, and restrictions. But they want to make sure that the meal is well-balanced and it’s not something that is going to potentially create obesity in the child population. I have seen some schools here, I’ve seen what they serve them and I have to say—I mean, eating pizza and burgers doesn’t really help the children to be healthy, and it’s a lot of work that we can do in the country. Actually, it’s moving slowly, but it’s happening. It’s not enough. In a French system, it’s much better, but it’s a work in progress.

Kirkpatrick: Okay. Over here.

Matthew: Hi, I’m Ally Mathew with the W2O Group. Similar to the tech industry, the restaurant industry has been coming under fire for gender discrimination and harassment. I was wondering, given Le Bernardin’s great reputation in this regard, what you’d have to say to up and coming female chefs who are going away from fine dining and starting those all-day cafés that they feel they are more empowered in?

Kirkpatrick: Good question:

Ripert: So I’m not sure that women are moving away from fine dining. In our industry, 40 years ago, there was no women coming to the industry. And it’s a very new phenomenon to have women interested in working in the kitchen. My generation and the previous generations of cooks in the kitchen, we’re basically dysfunctional people, or bad students, and the world of the kitchen was not glamorous. Today, the media have helped tremendously to make the image of the chef very glamorous and the kitchen glamorous. Kitchens are very physical, are very difficult, and I think a lot of women didn’t want to go in the kitchen. They preferred to go in different jobs. But today it’s an interest and we have a lot of women in our workforce who show interest, who go to culinary school and come to the kitchen. I think in our kitchen at Le Bernardin we have about 18 ladies on the team, so—

Kirkpatrick: Out of how many total?

Ripert: We are about 60, more or less. One third of the workforce. One of them is a sous chef right now, and we have produced many sous chefs. And some of the employees will work at Le Bernardin, went on television, and went on “Top Chef” and went to the finale. The abuse in the kitchen, I think it’s definitely something that exists in many places. Probably less in fine dining than in other places, because we have better budgets, we have human resource departments, we have a way to train the staff. Whoever comes to Le Bernardin, for instance, and I take us as an example because—but I could mention other chefs who do that. When an employee comes to Le Bernardin, you watch a video about harassment, you watch a video about behaving in a work environment, and you have a booklet to read with the rules. Then you sign that book, and if you have some questions we obviously answer and then you can come into the kitchen or dining room. And whoever doesn’t behave with a woman or man actually, if someone doesn’t behave and is harassing the person, that person can go to the supervisor and the supervisor will immediately take action. Which means we bring the person who’s harassing and we do a literal investigation, or a big investigation, and then there’s some consequences. It’s harassment in restaurants, I think it’s harassment in a lot of industries everywhere. I don’t know if it’s more in restaurants than other industries, I don’t have percentages. But I can tell you one thing is that, for instance, we ourselves have zero tolerance for this type of behavior.

Kirkpatrick: I think we have time for one more question. Is there one more? Okay, there.

Walcott: Hi, Rob Walcott from the Kellogg School of Management. Chef, thank you so much. You’ve reached the pinnacle of your industry. What is something that has surprised you in your journey, and what’s next?

Kirkpatrick: Nice question.

Ripert: What surprised me? There’s a lot of things that surprise me to tell you the truth.

[LAUGHTER]

What is surprising and at the same time very beneficial for my industry is that suddenly chefs became relevant and I am here talking in front of you. Forty years ago nobody would’ve called me to talk in front of you.

[LAUGHTER]

Kirkpatrick: We were really glad you said yes, actually.

Ripert: So the interest of the media that I was talking about before and the way chefs have become in society, I think it’s very surprising to me. But at the same time it’s a good feeling.

Kirkpatrick: You know, I’m so glad you came to join us. And I think your thoughtfulness that you apply to your work is probably a key factor in your success and it makes you extremely interesting to listen to. And I was just thinking about, I met you through Marc Benioff, who I think of as one of the most responsible people in the industry that I’m involved in, technology. And clearly you and he have an affinity in a lot of the ways that you think. So thank you so much for being here and sharing your thoughts with us, and congratulations on your great success, may it continue.

[APPLAUSE]

Ripert: Thank you very much. Merci beaucoup.

Kirkpatrick: Thank you all so much.

 

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