Chef Eric Ripert is the chef and co-owner of the three Michelin star New York restaurant Le Bernardin. Raised in Provence, he learned to appreciate fresh herbs and produce as his mother prepared food for their family. As a parent, he brought weekly food adventures to life in his family’s home each Sunday with a region-inspired menu developed with his son, Adrien. Through these adventures, he was able to encourage more exploration with new dishes and experiences, all while developing a deeper bond with his son. Chef Eric just released his newest cookbook, Vegetable Simple.
Most of my early food memories take place in Provence. The gardens themselves were fragrant, and then there were dishes like soup au pistou, and tomates farcies that were so beautiful and fragrant and delicious from the time you start preparing it to when you get to eat it. The smells coming out of the oven with the tomatoes would fill the whole house. My grandmother and the other women in the kitchen didn’t ever let me do anything or help. I was a little bit of a monster. But honestly I was fascinated, mesmerized by the process. I almost didn’t want to break that magic of observing, and just watching them work. It was like watching a great movie. I found it so cool— but back then I didn’t have any intention of actually doing it. When I got older, I started to participate, but I was 13 or 14 at that point, and I mostly just peeled potatoes for French fries.
I did something for my own son, Adrien, that I think made him interested in food to maybe a slightly higher degree than other kids. Every Sunday night at my house, we opened a restaurant in our kitchen.
I was the chef, he was the maitre’d. First, he’d choose a country. I’d ask him, ‘So, where are we going tonight?’ And he’d pick China, for example. And from that point on he’d ask questions— “what do they eat in China? What is soy sauce?” And we’d go through that, and talk about what we could do to make my version of Chinese food that night, and I’d ask him to write the menus for us. I’d write down the date, and he’d choose a name for the restaurant. I’d write Appetizer, Main course, and Dessert, and he’d fill in the rest, decorating the menus for his mother, himself, and me. That would take him about an hour. Then he’d set up the table with the correct utensils, and we’d talk him through where the water glass, wine glass, and utensils were placed and why. Then he’d decorate the table. We did this every Sunday, and every week it was a different country. I tried not to let him repeat too often, though of course there were favorites. (We went to China a lot!)
With this interaction, I think it’s easier to influence your child to try something new if you make it seem like it’s their idea. It was an interaction where he felt very much in control over what he wanted to eat, and explore, and most importantly, we created a special experience for him. That experience is very meaningful and, I think, memorable for a kid. The only bad news was for his mom, who was the dishwasher!
What I did with Adrien is probably more realistic to connect with than what I used to do with my own mother. My mother was excessive. She woke up at 5am to put together the meals for the day, always setting up the table with different china, flowers, candles— I mean, who does that? Her tables were better than Le Bernardin! It was beautiful and very important to her, that whole ritual, but I think it’s a little disconnected from the reality of parenting today. But there are things we can take from it. For example, I think it’s important to eat on real plates, with real utensils, not disposable or plastic. It’s culturally important to me to do so. It gives you more of a real and full experience at the table, and almost everyone can do it. Even if you get food delivered, it’s always good to put it on a plate in my opinion, because it makes your eating experience more purposeful. I’ve noticed that it’s less of a priority here, and this spans the whole spectrum of wealth, for the record, this habit of using disposables. For me, there’s no pleasure, no experience. It’s just swallowing food to nourish your stomach, not your soul. There’s nothing exciting or interesting about that to me, and it’s a missed opportunity.
Everyone has some plates stashed away somewhere— don’t save the good plates just for Christmas! Pull them out and enjoy your dining experience anytime.
One instance where experiencing something new really changed my life was when I was able to explore vegan temple food in Korea with Jeong Kwan (a Buddhist nun and chef). It was a transcending experience. It gave me a new outlook on what can be done with food that nourishes both your body and soul, and is ultimately beneficial for the entire planet and all sentient beings. Temple food is a holistic approach to cultivating, harvesting, cooking, and eating. Food inspires us to be curious about ingredients, and other cultures. It teaches about the community at the source of the ingredients, including who cooks and serves the meal. It provides an opportunity to talk about good practices. This communication, this social aspect to the meal, also provides kids with interconnection. It teaches them about sharing.
Food has significant powers to teach and inspire all of us, kids and families included, in so many ways.