An Interview with Chef Eric Ripert

Chef Eric Ripert needs no introduction. A French native and world-renowned chef, Ripert is truly a master in the kitchen.  Just one visit to Manhattan’s Le Bernardin where Ripert is executive chef will turn you into a passionate and devoted fan. You may not need an entire meal — I was hooked after a few bites of my first course.

Chef Ripert has won many awards, published several books and made numerous television appearances, including his show Avec Eric on PBS. This February he’ll be participating in the Tribute Dinner honoring Daniel Boulud at the 2010 Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival.

I had the opportunity to interview Chef Ripert and found out he’s just as passionate about enjoying good food as he is about creating it.

The Amateur Gastronomer: I have been a huge fan of yours since dining at Le Bernardin years ago and have really enjoyed watching Avec Eric. Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions!

Chef Eric Ripert: Thank you!

AG: What is the food experience or dish that inspired you to become a chef?

ER: Since a very young age I spent time in the kitchen with my mother and grandmothers. I always loved eating and thought about becoming a chef since I was a child.

AG: Do you have a favorite dish to cook for yourself and your family?

ER: Since I eat fish during the week at Le Bernardin, I love to cook steak for the family on the weekends.

AG: What are your favorite and/or must-have ingredients?

ER: A good set of sharp knives, fine sea salt and black truffles.

AG: What is your most expensive yet best value ingredient in your kitchen, either at home or in your restaurant?

ER: I would say Kobe beef. While it is a very expensive product, a small amount goes a long way and can be the foundation of a great meal.

AG: What seasonal ingredients do you most look forward to using over the next few months?

ER: I always enjoy the black truffle season. It’s probably my favorite seasonal ingredient, favorite ingredient, period.

AG: Do you have any guilty pleasures when it comes to food?

ER: I have no guilt! I eat everything in moderation. I love dark chocolate.

AG: What food could you eat forever and never get sick of? Is there any food that you detest?

ER: Black truffle — I could eat it forever. And I must admit, tofu I tend to detest.

AG: Great food deserves great wine. Do you have a favorite bottle, varietal or pairing?

ER: I drink only Bordeaux!

AG: I know you’re a fan of tequila. Do you have a favorite style or brand?

ER: Lately I’m really enjoying Casa Dragones, really wonderful for sipping.

AG: How has your business been affected by the economy?

ER:
No question, the economic slump has been rough on restaurants but back in January 2009 when things were quite bleak, my partner and I decided to announce that we would donate $1 to City Harvest (a local food rescue organization) for every guest who dined with us throughout the year. We wanted to combat all the negative news we kept hearing about and try to do something positive. We ended up very close to our goal of raising $100,000 during 2009.

AG: What do you see as being the new dining trends?

ER: I think interest in Asian food is continuing to grow and in particular Korean cuisine.

AG: How do you feel about the movement to eat more locally grown and produced foods?

ER: I think it is critical that we continue to move in this direction.

AG: Is American cooking and are American diners getting more sophisticated?

ER: Absolutely, I think the interest in food in our country is continuing to grow and I love that American diners are really willing to try many things and aren’t tied to one culinary tradition.

AG: What are the differences between American and French diners?

ER: I’d say French diners may be slightly more traditional than Americans. Americans are very adventurous and there is so much diversity in food here.

AG: How has your profession changed with the popularity of the Food Network and shows like Top Chef?

ER: TV coverage of food is great, it gets people talking about food and ingredients and I think can only be a good thing for our industry.

AG: What has it been like to go from chef to celebrity?

ER: I always say, it doesn’t help in the kitchen!

AG: What other chefs do you most respect? Whose restaurants would you always want to dine in?

ER: A tough question. The list is endless — I’m constantly inspired by what other chefs do and create.

AG: At the South Beach Wine & Food Festival you will be participating in the Tribute Dinner honoring Daniel Boulud. Why did you want to get involved?

ER: Daniel is an amazing chef and a dear friend. When I got the invitation to be a part of the celebration there was no question I’d be there!

AG: Do you have any favorite restaurants in Miami or South Florida?

ER: I love Casa Tua in South Beach for its great food and beautiful ambiance.

AG: Do you think you will consider opening a restaurant in South Florida?

ER:
You never know, but right now I’m really focusing my energies on Le Bernardin and the three restaurants we operate with the Ritz-Carlton (Westend Bistro in Washington, D.C., 10 Arts Bistro & Lounge in Philadelphia and Blue in the Grand Cayman Islands).

AG: What advice do you have for home cooks and aspiring chefs?

ER: For home cooks, I always suggest investing in good knives (a chef’s knife and a pairing knife as a basis), and good quality cookware. And try to work with the best quality ingredients you can. If you start with good product, you are more likely to end up with something good.

For aspiring chefs, I recommend spending some time in a professional kitchen and thinking very carefully about whether it’s a life you want to lead. It’s very demanding physically and mentally and you have to be ready for it.

AG: I cook often at home but want to make a special meal for my husband’s upcoming birthday. Do you have any advice on ingredients or dishes?

ER: There is a recipe in my latest cookbook, On the Line, which is I think is quite simple but very luxurious and delicious. We call it for shorthand “pasta caviar” — kind of like a carbonara pasta topped with caviar, perfect for a celebration.

AG: Avec Eric is a great show for anyone who enjoys traveling or good food. Are you planning another season?

ER: We are locking in details for season two now and we hope to travel to Japan, Louisiana and the Grand Cayman Islands.

AG: How do your travels affect your cooking?

ER: Travel is one of the ways I find inspiration. It is a very important part of my life and influences my cooking heavily.

AG: Where in the world would you like to travel to, where you haven’t already been?

ER: I would love to spend more time in Asia, maybe Vietnam, Thailand, Bhutan and Japan.

AG: What projects are you working on next?

ER: Continuing to evolve the menu at Le Bernardin and season two of Avec Eric.

AG: When you’re not working or cooking what do you enjoy to do?

ER: Smoke cigars!

Visit Chef Eric Ripert’s official site at aveceric.com.

For details on the 2010 Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival visit sobefest.com.

AG Pick Under $10: 2009 John B. Sauvignon Blanc-Colombar

If you’re looking for sunshine in a bottle with a price tag that will have you beaming, you’ll find it in the 2009 John B. Sauvignon Blanc-Colombar.  This wine comes from the Rietvallei Wine Estate, a family-owned winery in the Western Cape of South Africa.

John B. WhiteColombar, also known as Colombard or French Colombard, is a white wine grape that is grown in both the New and Old World wine regions.  In France it is among the permitted varietals in White Bordeaux and it can be used to make Cognac or Armagnac.  Often blended to add acidity, Colombar produces fresh and crisp white wines.

The John B. Sauvignon Blanc-Colombar is a fresh and fruity dry wine that you can enjoy any day of the week.  It opens with an inviting floral bouquet and fills your mouth with flavors of crisp lemon, white grapefruit, tropical fruits and a hint of minerals.  Well balanced acidity gives the wine a zesty, lingering finish.

This versatile white is a great match for seafood, salads and Asian cuisine.  It’s perfect for your next outdoor picnic — and you won’t need a corkscrew because it has a screw cap!

A bottle of the 2009 Rietvallei Estate John B. Sauvignon Blanc-Colombar is a great deal at $8.

Chatting Cocktails with “The Modern Mixologist” Tony Abou-Ganim

Take one part tradition and one part fresh, premium ingredients, shake it up with some passion and panache, and you’ve got a recipe for Modern Mixology!  At the helm of this cocktail movement is Tony Abou-Ganim, author of the upcoming book “The Modern Mixologist: Contemporary Classic Cocktails.”

Now entering his 30th year behind the bar, Tony was introduced to the craft of cocktail preparation by his cousin while growing up in Michigan.  After graduating from college Tony honed his skills in San Francisco and New York, and in 1998 was chosen by Steve Wynn to create the cocktail program at the Bellagio Resort in Las Vegas.  This February he’ll be shaking up drinks and sharing the art of mixology at the 2010 Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival.

I had the opportunity to interview Tony to learn more about Modern Mixology and what makes a great cocktail, plus his take on Miami’s most popular drinks.

Amateur Gastronomer: Growing up in the bar business, what was it that attracted you to cocktails?

Tony Abou-Ganim: I think the fascination of the environment.  There was something kind of magical about being in the bar.  There was a kind of romance that was behind opening that door.  There was a rush because I wasn’t supposed to be there.  And then, when I walked in and saw the mirrors, the red onyx pillars, the mahogany, the Tiffany chandeliers and my uncle standing behind that great bar . . .

AG: What do you consider the difference between a mixologist and a bartender?

T: First of all, I think we are all bartenders.  At the end of the day, I consider myself a bartender.  That being said, there are all different kinds of bars and all different kinds of people that tend those bars.  A mixologist is someone who has become more proficient in the art of preparing cocktails in his knowledge and understanding of the cocktails and their preparations and the spirits and products that compound those cocktails.

AG: What makes a good cocktail?

T: A good cocktail is made from premium spirits and the freshest seasonal ingredients, the proper balance of ingredients, and the love and passion of the individual mixing it.

AG: Why are classic cocktails making a comeback?

T: As more consumer interest is placed on the enjoyment of cocktails and more bartenders aspire to the profession, they are delving into the history of our profession.  By doing so, they are rediscovering many of these lost and forgotten treasures and are returning them to their rightful place.

AG: What are your favorite or must have liquors and ingredients?

T: Campari, sweet vermouth, a premium bottle of gin, Cointreau, Angostura bitters, fresh lemons, limes and oranges and really good ice.

AG: Do you prefer cocktails or wine with food?  And how do you suggest pairing cocktails with food?

T: Personally I wouldn’t order a cocktail instead of wine, unless the food lent itself to the cocktail — such as margaritas and tacos.  What I do is order a cocktail in addition to a wine.  The nature of a cocktail is to stimulate and inspire, and should act as an aperitif to prepare the appetite and the senses for the upcoming meal.

AG: What is your favorite cocktail to drink?  When you are not enjoying a cocktail, what do you drink?

T: The Negroni is my favorite cocktail.  If I am not drinking a cocktail, I am pretty much an equal opportunity imbiber.  I enjoy a proper pint of Guinness or a nice glass of rosé Champagne.  I also enjoy a good glass of junmai ginjo sake.

AG: What is your idea of the perfect martini?

T: As [Bernard] DeVoto stated, “the martini is the perfect marriage of a 94 proof gin and a harmonious vermouth at 3.7 to 1.”  I personally agree with Mr. DeVoto although I find it a tad arrogant to order 3.7 to 1 from a bartender and have thus “rounded up” to 4 to 1 (2½ oz gin to ¾ oz French vermouth . . . and make sure it is fresh).

AG: This February you’ll be mixing things up at the Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival, at the new Cocktail Clinic Tent inside the Whole Foods Market Grand Tasting Village.  What can festival goers expect?

T: I will be conducting two seminars — one entitled “Vegas Cocktails,” bringing a little Sin City to the beach, and the other is “Scotch Cocktails.”  I am very excited about bringing attention to the enjoyment of scotch as an ingredient in cocktails instead of just using it on the rocks in a highball.

AG: What are you favorite bars or restaurants for cocktails in Miami?

T: John’s cocktails at the Florida Room, Santiago’s cocktails at Nobu.  I used to love the little side bar at the Raleigh.  The Telephone Bar on Ocean Drive made a pretty good Mojito.  The Mandarin, I believe had a good collection of cachaça for caipirinhas.

AG: Is there a cocktail that may seem easy to make that bartenders just can’t seem to get right?

T: The mojito is probably the simplest, most difficult drink to make perfectly.

AG: Speaking of mojitos and caipirinhas, South Floridians (and visitors) can’t seem to get enough!  Do you have a twist to make them more interesting?

T: Everyone makes these drinks slightly different.  For both I employ the use of simple syrup in place of granulated or raw sugar as I feel it blends better and makes a more consistent drink.  In the caipirinha, I muddle the lime wedges with the syrup and shake with cachaça and crushed ice as opposed to simply building the drink in the glass.  For the mojito, I never muddle the lime itself.  I use only hand-extracted lime juice at the point [of] making the drink, to insure the freshest possible juice.

AG: What advice do you have for home mixologists in terms of stocking a bar and creating cocktails?

T: First of all you should stock the bar with the things that you and your drinking buddies like to drink.  Also, buying the proper bar tools and glassware will enhance your entire cocktail experience.

AG: Do you have suggestions for good value liquors?

T: Tasting is the best way.  I believe that enjoying a spirit is about the journey, not the destination.  It is hard to put a price on that.  You need to go out and taste.  A good bartender on a slow day will be happy to do a tasting for you to determine what you like the best.

AG: What is a cocktail that looks impressive but is relatively easy for the home mixologist to create?

T: A stirred cocktail, such as a Manhattan or Negroni, when properly prepared in a sexy martini beaker and served in a beautiful crystal cocktail glass, fresh from a frosting in the freezer, is simple, elegant, swank and sure to impress.

AG: What can cocktail fans expect in “The Modern Mixologist: Contemporary Classic Cocktails?”

T: The book is a fun, festive, entertaining journey into what it takes to make a great drink.  It teaches you more than just following a recipe and also helps the reader to understand what makes a great cocktail great.  It combines my anecdotes of my 30 years behind bars with stunning drink photos by Tim Turner.

AG: Do you have a favorite toast?

T: This is compiled loosely from David Embury’s “The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks:” “In the presence of a well-made cocktail, taut nerves relax, taut muscles relax, eyes brighten, friendships deepen and the whole world becomes a better place in which to live.”  Or if time is of the essence, I defer to my cousin Helen David and her single word toast, “happiness!”

AG: What will the new year bring for you?

T: It is such an exciting time right now in the American bar.  2010 will bring in my 30th year working in this fine profession of bartending.  I have been witness to many changes in the industry and I have been a small part of this cocktail resurgence that we are enjoying today.  I am proud of the contributions that I have made and I am so excited to see what comes next.  “What’ll you have!”

Tony Abou-Ganim is the author of “The Modern Mixologist: Contemporary Classic Cocktails,” out in February 2010.  For more information on Tony and to see his cocktail recipes visit themodernmixologist.com.

Tony’s recipe for a Negroni:
1 oz. Bombay Sapphire Gin
1 oz. Campari
1 oz. Cinzano Rosso Sweet Vermouth

Directions: In an ice filled mixing glass (Martini pitcher), add Bombay Sapphire gin, Campari and Cinzano Rosso. Stir until well blended. Strain into a chilled Cocktail Glass. Garnish with a burnt orange twist.

For details on the 2010 Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival visit sobefest.com.

photo credit Arnaldo Studio

AG Pick Under $20: 2003 Haras de Pirque Cabernet Sauvignon Elegance

On a cold winter day there’s nothing like warming up with a glass of red wine.  This bold and spicy Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile is perfect for keeping you nice and toasty!

The 2003 Haras de Pirque Cabernet Sauvignon Elegance is from the Maipo Valley.  From the labels to the horseshoe-shaped winery, Haras de Pirque is a tribute to horses.  The estate is home to a thoroughbred farm and the winery’s name honors Chile’s oldest thoroughbred breeding stud.

Haras EleganceThe Haras de Pirque Elegance has everything you look for in a Chilean Cabernet — pepper, spice, earth and tobacco.  And like many Chilean wines it is a great value.  A bottle of the Elegance costs less than $20 but it tastes like it could cost $30 or more.

The Elegance is deep purple-red in color with aromas of black fruit and spice.  On the palate are dense flavors of blackberries, black cherries, leather, cigar tobacco and espresso grounds, with a zesty, peppery finish that has a hint of green pepper.  Assertive tannins give the wine good structure and a mouthfeel of crushed velvet.  The flavors and texture culminate in a smooth, lingering finish.

This full-bodied wine is big all around, with 14.5% alcohol.  I recommend decanting it, especially if you get a younger vintage.

This wine pairs well with grilled red meats.  Just one sip will have you craving a juicy steak!

A bottle of the 2003 Haras de Pirque Cabernet Sauvignon Elegance costs around $15.  Want to try it tonight?  You’ll find it for $14.99 at El Carajo International, a great wine shop hidden inside a gas station convenience store at Southwest 17th Avenue and South Dixie Highway in Miami.