It started with ducks.
A 17-year old Éric Ripert is in the boiling kitchen of La Tour d'Argent, a fine Paris establishment specializing in long-beaked poultry. Though ripened by culinary school in Perpignan, France, upon arrival as commis, the kitchen staff turn their noses up to the scent of "fresh meat." Along with such tasks as chopping chervil (whatever that is) and whipping up a 32-yolk hollandaise, young Ripert gags at the slimy entrails of the canards, which he is commanded to prep and freeze. But the next morning, his boss is appalled to find a stack of ducks frozen together in one large freezer bag. No one had told him to separate them!
Ordinary people might have one devastating duck incident in their lives, but Ripert had another, where during a staff dinner he accidentally left 24 ducks in the kitchen oven to burn to duck dust. Perhaps he was buckling under the pressure, plagued by memories of his father, who suffered a heart attack while taking a photo on a hike. Perhaps he was reacting to the same blows given to him by his stepfather, the abusive but gastronomic Hugo. But we could say, through the madness, things have changed quite a bit from there.
Now, the French chef is a Buddhist, the host of an award-winning TV show Avec Éric, the brains behind his own 3-Michelin star restaurant Le Bernardin, and the author of several cookbooks and his memoir paying homage to his hollandaise days, 32 Yolks: From My Mother's Table to Working the Line.
Unloading his story on writer Veronica Chambers in the basement of Le Bernardin in a series of interviews that verged on therapy sessions, Chef Ripert crafted a poignant story of childhood tragedy and abuse healed by the comforts of good cooking.
Working his way up from La Tour d'Argent, Ripert was transferred to Joël Robuchon's revolutionary 3-Michelin star Paris goldmine, Jamin, which though pretty on the outside, was a living culinary hell in the kitchen. With 18-hour days, psychological abuse over pre-made rabbit, and thousands of displaced dots of too-runny sauce in feats of physical impossibility, we can understand why dinner service was a bloodier battleground to Ripert than his military service.
So much of memory is linked to the senses, and that's where the success of 32 Yolks lies. We see the mess of Ripert's burnt and peeling feet after spilling scalding water on himself from a lobster pot. But pages later, we see the tear-inducing beauty of a delicate piece of fish, barely kissed by a flame.
But Ripert's international fate finally struck when an opportunity arose from Jean Louis Palladin in Washington, D.C. After going through the fires of top French kitchens, Ripert made a fateful decision to go to America, recalling the psychic who told him he was destined to live in a city surrounded by water.
Before his plane to America, he thinks about the last thing his father was looking at before he died. All he knows, is that it must have been beautiful. In the airport, he wavers between buying a Playboy and a book on Tibet. His flight is called for the final time. His decision is made with the same instinct as it takes to know when a sauce will be perfectly nappée.
While Ripert admits he still has nightmares about ducks to this day, his hollandaise days are long behind him. The now honorary New Yorker, once unable to sleep from the pressure of the fish station, now serves it as his specialty. Ripert worships the purity of an ingredient like he does that of a human soul. He's finally made it into the kitchen of his dreams, and he's here to stay.