During the 2014 Food Network New Yortk City Wine & Food Festival, Food Editor Sam Sifton interviewed — in his words — the three towering chefs of French cuisine: empire-builder Alain Ducasse, Daniel Boulud of Daniel, and Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin. They joined Sifton on Saturday at The TimesCenter auditorium in The New York Times building in Times Square during an hour-long session that touched on first food memories (chicken blood omelet for Daniel Boulud), first American restaurant memories (chicken and waffles for Eric Ripert), and how they fell about frozen peas (“No,” says Alain Ducasse). The conversation turned to the French delicacy ortolan and how the chefs feel about France and the effects of television on young chefs and contemporary food mania. Following are some of the talk’s highlights.
Sifton: Daniel, will you tell me your very first food memory? (3:42)
Boulud: I was born and raised on a farm and so the food was everything we were making, raising, growing. Food memory? Chicken blood omelet. We went to farmers market in Lyon and we would kill about 25 to 30 chickens on Friday, and pluck then, and on Friday night we would eat the blood of the chickens with a little bit of shallots, and chive, and a little bit of vinegar, and then make an omelet and slice it into pieces. It sounds a little… when you’re a kid it’s healthy. Lots of iron. Can’t hurt.
Sifton: Eric, tell us your first memory of eating in a American restaurant? (5:50)
Ripert: It was a brunch and I didn’t understand why you have waffles and chicken on the same plate. And I’m still puzzled about it.
Sifton: The point today is to talk about French food, but before we get to that, I’d like to talk about your relationships with France itself. How do you feel about France? How do you feel when you’re in France? (6:36)
Ducasse: For you in the United States, you think of France as high cuisine, but it’s not just that. There’s also bistro cuisine. Of course, when you go to Paris, you do want to eat haute cuisine, but there’s a huge range of options; much more than you would imagine.
Boulud: He’s totally right. There’s not just haute cuisine. There’s this new generation of chef because they learn from great chefs like Alain and many others. There’s this new movement of “Bistronomie,” that’s a little bit like what’s happening in Brooklyn and in many places in America where young chefs are starting very cool places and reinterpreting bistro cooking. I think for me the greatest source of inspiration besides haute cuisine is regional cuisine."The kitchen is not a friendly environment. It’s a lot of people working together as a team. It’s very hot, it’s humid, it’s hectic during the rush hours – so you really test your own passion and if you don’t have the passion of craftsmanship, which you learned for years and years and years before you are able to really understand creativity, you don’t survive in a kitchen." — Eric Ripert
Sifton: Yes, but how do you feel in France? What is your relationship with it today as a resident of the United States?
Boulud: Sometimes I wish they could think more like an American. That means quite progressive, you understand tradition, you’re respecting tradition, but you also understand creativity in the sense that the world is changing and we have to be able to change ourselves.
Ripert: France has a very strong identity in terms of food culture and there is strong regional cuisine for any country that is 800 miles long. There are so many different cuisines. France respects tradition a lot, however what we’re seeing lately is lots of young chefs inspired — because cooking is an art, and we believe it’s an art, and if it’s an art you have to be inspired by everything around you. There are the basics of cooking from France but the influence of the outside world. And we see in France a smart fission of influence. You can go to Spain, you can go to Italy, you don’t need a passport. They go to Asia like all of us, they travel, but it’s growing in parallel with the strong guidance of French cuisine.
Ducasse: The basis of French cuisine is expertise, these influences from other cultures and cuisines can be integrated into French cusine. To give an example, just because you put some spices at the edge of the plate doesn’t mean we’ve integrated that cusine into our cooking. It just means we’ve put some spices on the edge of the plate. The beauty of French cuisine is the DNA which is this expertise. These cuisines can be integrated without it changing French technique.
Sifton: All three of you are the product of very difficult educations and apprenticeships in kitchens. You came up in a world in which cooks were not and did not expect to become towering celebrities. You worked hard. Sixty-, 70-hour weeks were not uncommon I think, in the kitchens of your youths. In America today, it seems at least if you watch television, as if the goal of becoming a cook is to become a celebrity chef, is to have the enviable lifestyle of a “Ripper,” or a Boulud, a Ducasse… (19:03)
Ripert: We have to stick together. He’s against us.
Boulud: Let him come. Let him come.
Sifton: I wonder how this food mania that grips America today affects your kitchen staffing, at least two of you between the two of you, you have one million restaurants all over the globe. I suppose my question is, ‘What’s with the kids today?' How are these cooks that you employ in your restaurants, that you see coming up, and that you pass along into their own restaurants or on to others? Are they good cooks? Is training dead and gone? Or is it just different now? (19:06)
Ripert: If you are young and watching television, and your goal is to be a celebrity and end up at the TimesTalk, it’s a good awakening on day one when you enter the kitchen.
Boulud: Don’t go and work for the Ripper
Ripert: Don’t try to poach my staff. You’re tested immediately. The kitchen is not a friendly environment. It’s a lot of people working together as a team. It’s very hot, it’s humid, it’s hectic during the rush hours — so you really test your own passion and if you don’t have the passion of craftsmanship, which you learned for years and years and years before you are able to really understand creativity, you don’t survive in a kitchen. I think television actually has a positive impact in some ways because it brings a lot of curiosity out in youngsters, and then they go to culinary school and we can talk about that or not, but it’s a challenge because you pay a lot of money to go to culinary school and then when you come out of culinary school… if you go to Harvard you come out and you make $100,000 a year. You come back from the CIA and you make seven bucks an hour. It’s a test. But TV is a good influence because we have a lot of people interested and those people coming to the kitchen, and plenty who have passion.