Three Epic French Chefs Share Secrets With Former NYT Critic

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.[pullquote:left]

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.

Sifton: Alain, on behalf of the audience I want to say that you're fairly intimidating. I wouldn't want to burn a sauce in your presence. I'm curious though about how you run your kitchens now that you're not just a chef, but an empire-building hospitality king. How do you maintain quality control? (22:32)
Ducasse: In a very democratic manner, I decide everything.
Boulud: That's very French.
Ducasse: Everywhere we've instituted this democracy. Aside from my democratic process, I have a team of collaborators who are very loyal, very numerous and who have trained at my side from between 10 to 35 years in everything from cooking to pastry, to sommelier, who have gained this experience by my side and they are very well trained.
Sifton: It is good to be the king...
Ducasse: As soon as I decided to open all these restaurants, it became necessary to have a team of people who I could train to cook as well as me, and now that they're actually cooking in the kitchens every day and I am not, I would say that they're actually cooking better than me.

Sifton: Famously, you made a switch in your culture toward a centeredness involving meditation. How has that changed the culture of your kitchen? (28:50)
Ripert: I have a temper. I work on it. When I was at Le Bernardin already as a young chef, I used to be very abusive. Verbally, obviously, not physically — I would be in jail — but I would have tantrums and throw plates on the floor and so on, and basically misbehave with waiters and cooks. And one day I was going home and I realized I was very unhappy and very stressed. And I was like, "Why am I so unhappy in my life? What's going on?" And I don't know what happened. I had a flash and I thought. "Wow! It's because of my lifestyle." You cannot be angry and happy at the same time. Those two things do not coexist in the brain. And I thought, what's was the root of the unhappiness. And it was basically the way I was treating my staff at Le Bernardin. And the consequences of that were that I was losing all my good guys because they were all going to Daniel, who is a sweetheart.
Boulud: I'm not meditating, but I'm very nice.
Ripert: I was losing the staff. I wasn't happy. The cooks were very unhappy, the ones who were staying. And I realized that you cannot do good cuisine, good food if you are terrorized. You cannot have someone shaking like that and plating good food. You cannot have someone so obsessed with how he's going to be treated by the chef, or yelled at, he cannot focus on the most important things: flavors and plating. So I changed overnight. Really, it took me probably a couple of months to change. Then I had to train my sous-chefs under me who were...
Sifton: Who were like shelter animals.
Ripert: No, they were emulating my attitude. So I had to convince them that I was wrong yesterday and I was right now. And today Le Bernardin is like Nirvana. We are very Zen. To finish, I really work really hard to have a kitchen that is working peacefully, and sometimes we have incidents, I may lose my temper, but after the fact, we go and apologize in front of the cook. And we are not proud of this attitude. What was wrong with me was that I was proud of that attitude when I was wrong.

Sifton: We're going to play a short game. I'm going to give you some names and words, and I'd like you to respond to them candidly, one-word answers are fine. Eric, Guy Fieri. (32:20)
Actually, I happen to like the guy. He's a good guy. We are not in the same business, that's it.
Sifton: Daniel, Julia Child.
Boulud: What can I say? I miss her. I miss her tremendously. I had the pleasure to cook with her. "Ohhh, Daniellll."
Sifton: Alain, Craig Claibourne.
Ducasse: He was the inventor of food criticism in the United States for The New York Times and he was the reason we are here today. Craig himself explained this to me himself, that he invented the critique for The New York Times with Pierre Franey.
Sifton: Slow-cooker.
Ripert: Is it okay to cook slow or a slow cooker?
Sifton: The device.
Ripert: You know, I don't know how to use it.
Sifton: Alain, frozen peas.
Ducasse: For me, peas, tiny peas, really tiny peas can be some of the most delicious vegetables in world. In the Loire region in France you can have these really tiny peas that still have their flower on them and to me they're one of the most delicious and the one of rarest vegetables in the world. But peas can also be some of the worst as vegetables you can find. They run the entire gamut of taste from extraordinary to just terrible.

Sifton: Daniel, a two-word question: ortolan, explain. (38:18)
Boulud: I don't know if you remember, but sometime in the early '90s, Alain did an event at Le Cirque and he almost never came back to America. Ortolan, interesting, the article in The New York Times this week because it really showed that yes, you really could maybe revive this delicacy if it's just like the way some rare seafood or some rare ingredients is only to be used once a year, and a few days that year, and the rest of the time, let it be... because there is enough to be able to do that.

Sifton: To be clear, this is a small songbird, cooked whole and consumed whole under a napkin. Explain.
Boulud: Once you have one you can never have anything else in life that can give that pleasure.
Ducasse: We had a very serious discussion about three weeks ago about the protection of these birds. We think that the population in Europe is about 3.5 million. We think that we can preserve the tradition of catching some in a net, of fattening them up with little grains of millet, and to eat them because taking a few thousand won't really change the world if we have 3.5 million. And so for one day, or one week, all the gourmets in the area, of course not in the entire world because there are not enough, could enjoy this delicacy. I think that it's important to preserve this history and this tradition. And again, this is the DNA of our cuisine. And these birds suffer much less than the chickens who are raised by the thousands in places where they never see the sun and have never seen a blade of grass and yet we have to eat them every day.

Sifton: We promised to talk about the recipes that mean the most to you, recipes that have or have not made appearances on the menus of your restaurants, these could be recipes from your respective childhoods or apprenticeships, we've already heard about the chicken blood omelet, and in that fashion they could be recipes the preparation of which is no longer precisely in fashion, but recipes that help inform who you are not only as chefs, but as French chefs. (42:16)
Ripert: The soufflé. My mother, who was a very good cook, used to make a lot of soufflés because I was requesting them. She was making cheese soufflés, crab soufflés, all kinds of soufflés — I was fascinated and I'm still fascinated by the process. First of all, I love the craftsmanship around it, the technique. And then when you put them in a mold, actually it's very technical, you have to be very precise if you your souffle to rise and then to arrive at the table and not be like a pancake. You have to master technique. And when you put them in the oven I'm always putting the light on, and looking at the window to make sure it rises. I just love that process. It probably created a fascination for cooking because of my mother doing it. There were many other things, but it was one of the elements that drove me to cooking.
Boulud: Well, for me, I would say soup. Soups are maybe very rural, but that's where I grew up at home every day, summer, winter, we weren't doing gazpacho because we weren't from Antibes like Eric, but we were in Lyon, but there were soups on the table. Everyday was a different soup — and it was everything from the garden, from the farm. But the smell, the taste... and you see that cities have made their reputation on soup from Marseille soup de poisson or the Boston clam chowder. To me soup is the quintessential healthiest dish I love to still make on my menus. Every one of my menus has a soup all the time and they are seasonal and they are sometimes cold in the summer because I learned to make cold soups. I love soup.
Ducasse: The Sunday meal when I was growing up was just a really nice chicken from the farm in a broth with really nice vegetables from the garden.

Sifton: You're towering figures in the world of food, you travel, Alain is just in, Daniel is on the road all the time, Eric just got back... What was the last thing that you actually cooked? It could be anything, but you cooked it. (45:48)
Ripert: It was fish. I did a dinner with Nobu last week. It was five courses and the last thing I touched, which is for me a huge challenge, because I don't understand pastry, was making a dessert. I succeeded because they gave me everything.
Boulud:  Of course, when I'm home, I cook everything I share with my wife. But I at least I have the feeling that I'm really cooking everything myself, from stir-fry to soup, or a roast. Two days ago I had chef Emmanuel Renaut from France. And we assisted him with cooking and we did some dishes ourselves. Am I cooking every day? No. Am I in the kitchen every day? Yes. Am I cooking from scratch every day? No. But am I getting into the pots and pans and into the plates and into tasting, and managing cooking with my chefs? Yes.
Ducasse: I just reopened my restaurant Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée in Paris and I decided to throw out everything. I had an encyclopedia, and I decided to throw it out and start from scratch. Because we were starting over it was necessary for me to work with my chef there for several weeks now to finalize every menu item. And this is now going to be a menu that's based on grains, sustainably-caught fish, and vegetables. That's it. It was a great pleasure for me to prepare a new menu.
Boulud: For a chef, that's the most exciting thing, to develop dishes with your chefs.

Sifton: Interrogation time. I'm curious about what's in your refrigerators, gentlemen. Eric, what is always in your fridge? (51:17)
Ripert: Greek yogurt.
Boulud: Zero-percent yogurt, booze — not for me, just in case someone should show up sometime. Always some canned anchovies, tuna, but fantastic tuna from Spain, I even have octopus in cans in my refrigerator. I have yuzu confit because some Japanese gave me me some yuzu.
Sifton: Of course. Everyone does.
Boulud: I always have mustard, a lot of mustard. It's very useful, not in French cuisine, but for a simple roast, you just want to have a little bit of mustard on the side. Chocolate, because I love chocolate. I had Eric and Tony Bourdain's chocolate bar, but we ran out and he never gave me more.
Ducasse: Like Daniel, I also have cans of fish, but they're not in my refrigerator. I have chocolate as well, but it's from my own factory. And vegetables. I also have bottarga, red mullet eggs, which have been dried and salted, but it was a very small production and I bought all of it. I'm sorry for the rest of you, but I'm keeping it for myself and for my restaurant.
Boulud: Next to Marseille from a very, very small producer. Only 10 pounds and he took them all. Can you send me one?

Sifton: What's your favorite American food city excluding New York City? (53:36)
Ripert: San Francisco is a great city for food and the neighborhoods around it.
Boulud: Chicago is a great food city, but before Chicago, Boston.
Ducasse: Boston, because you have beautiful products around from the sea.

Sifton: Can anyone explain to me the fascination of the chef with the timepiece? (55:07)
Ripert: I think it's also about the beauty of understanding craftsmanship. And where I see the similarity it's between the saucier and the watchmaker. We're talking about beautiful watches, right? Not convenient watches? And time doesn't exist. Flavor doesn't exist. You cannot count two ounces or one teaspoon of time. Right? It's running like that. It's like music. it's intangible. So those craftsmen in Switzerland or anywhere in the world where they make beautiful watches have to create through craftsmanship a system that calculates time. And with the saucier, it's the same thing. You cannot say, "I will combine one teaspoon of rosemary flavor with truffle flavor." It's all in the mind again. And the saucier puts things together. So I think the reason could be we have so much in common and we have this passion for beautiful craftsmanship.

Sifton: Who we are is often informed by who we admire. Could you each tell us briefly about a personal hero of whom we may never have heard who may have influenced you and who is not a chef? (57:28)
Ripert: The Dalai Lama.
Boulud: Maybe Chuck Close.
Ducasse: For me, it's Nelson Mandela who really never gave up, was never worn out by the passion. Never lost that.

Audience Member: I'd like to hear a little bit from Daniel about the event where he served the dinner to the children. (1:00:45)
Sifton: An event brought to you by The New York Times.
Boulud: It lasted about two-and-a-half hours, but you got only that five-minute clip and it was very interesting. I love children and I love to cook for children. When a kid comes with his parents to Daniel we make sure that we pay attention to him. We ask him what he likes, what he doesn't like. We take him into the kitchen, we make him a toque with his name, "Chef Eddie," or whatever, and we take pictures with the team, and they go home and they think, "God, I've never been to restaurant where they pay so much attention to me!" So when The Times asked, "Would you consider cooking for a second-grader? Would you consider cooking and doing whatever you want to do for them? You don't have to create a children's menu. We want them to have a tasting menu from Daniel." And I said, "This is the most interesting and exciting thing to do." Everyone on the staff thought I was crazy. "Why are you doing this?" And I'm like, "No, you don't get it!" For me, I knew it was going to be one of the most exciting things we've ever had. And I never thought it would be so viral. I've received wonderful letters and wonderful notes from people who were very touched by that. So I think it might open a tradition and I want many more chefs to do that. There might not be The Times there, and the camera, but at least to try to record for themselves this moment of inspiring kids with what we do and how and why we're doing what we love everyday. The kids were fantastic. They ate more than we thought. I was impressed.
Sifton: Wait till we do that with puppies.

Audience Member: What dish makes you happiest to cook? (1:05:50)
Ripert: Steak frites.
Boulud: One-pot meal.
Ducasse: Red mullet, with the scales, with the guts, 80 to 100 grams, coming right out of the sea directly on the grill.
Boulud: But the best part is the guts.

Watch the entire discussion with Ripert, Ducasse, and Boulud on

Arthur Bovino is The Daily Meal's executive editor. Read more articles by Arthur, reach him by email, or click here to follow Arthur on Twitter.