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NEW YORK — For four weeks over the course of the past year, Eric Ripert, the executive chef of Le Bernardin, holed himself up in a series of houses with an artist, a writer and two photographers. While Ripert played with new flavors and techniques, Valentino Cortazar painted bold still lifes of ingredients and local scenery, and Michael Ruhlman waxed poetic about Ripert’s creative process. Meanwhile, Tammar and Shimon Rothstein photographed the proceedings and Ripert’s assistant Andrea Glick documented it all for posterity.
The idea was to improvise and inspire each other, then collect the results in a cookbook. “A Return to Cooking,” the fruit of their labor, will be published by Artisan this month.
Cooking in unfamiliar houses freed Ripert from the stress and demands of running a four-star restaurant like Le Bernardin, where the technique is French and the menu relies on seafood and luxury ingredients. Then there are the meetings, business decisions, staffing issues and charity appearances that steal time away from the chef’s first love: cooking.
Ripert started the project with no preconceived notions. Rather, he let the locales and the seasons dictate what he would cook. He chose Sag Harbor in late summer for its abundance of fresh seafood, and San Juan in January because he wanted to cook with exotic fruits and vegetables and bold spices. Napa Valley in the spring brought access to fresh produce and such exotic ingredients as live baby eels, while Vermont in the fall seemed conducive to cooking rustic food.
If only Ripert had known how conducive. The house in Cavendish, Vt., had an old range with electric burners — a total turnoff for a professional chef. Ripert decided to cook everything in the fireplace, which gave rise to dishes like grilled magrets with arugula and cranberry, and fire-roasted vegetable and goat cheese parfait.
In Puerto Rico, the house’s oven didn’t work, so Ripert improvised, using a single burner on the balcony to cook stocks. While there are fish and seafood recipes in the cookbook, Le Bernardin customers will be surprised to learn that Ripert can butterfly a leg of lamb as expertly as he fillets a fish. In fact, he works with a variety of meats and cuts including oxtail, veal cheeks and even venison.
There could have been a clash of egos with six creative types working in close quarters, and Ripert admits that there was a little tension in the beginning. But by the second night, they were all old friends. Of course, there were epic meals, nonstop tastings and free-flowing wine. “We ate like pigs,” says Ripert. “But I lost weight because I worked so hard.”
Writing the book was “a big production, almost like making a movie,” says the chef. “We had to rent houses, rent cars, buy supplies and move equipment.” But Ripert gave his collaborators total creative freedom, so the experience hardly felt like work.
“It gave us the opportunity to live our passions fully,” Ripert says. “We didn’t even see the time passing by.”