By Nevin Martell
Introducing a new series where mentors and their now independently successful disciples reunite to chat about their time together and what they learned from each other. Our first installment features celebrated chef Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin and Jennifer Carroll, a breakout star on Top Chef and the chef-partner of Requin.
Eric, what was your first impression of Jennifer?
Eric Ripert: When we hired Jen in 2003, we were impressed with her personality, her skills, her motivation, and passion to learn. At that very young age, she had her own vision of opening a restaurant and doing something on her own one day. So, we were very impressed by that drive.
Jennifer Carroll: I wanted to learn from the best and work at the best place possible. I was all about seafood, so the best and only place for me to go was Le Bernardin. I walked in off the street and dropped my résumé off. They called me to come in for a stage. I was so nervous and excited at the same time. It’s very intimidating walking into that kitchen. There are 40 cooks, and everyone is working and moving.
When Eric came in and I got to meet him, I totally froze. It was something I was looking forward to for so many years. I can’t even put into words how much that day and that meeting changed my life.
Eric, do you remember a pivotal moment when you saw the depth of her talent and what her true potential might be?
ER: At Le Bernardin, everybody starts on the cold side of the kitchen and then you move around to our many stations. Then we choose the best staffer overall to become the saucier, which is a very difficult task. We were impressed with Jen’s qualities of leadership, though we hadn’t asked her to be a leader, so we gave her the position. She did a fantastic job on the sauce. Very impressive. I believe she was the first female saucier in our kitchen, and that’s a big deal, because it’s a position of power and leadership. Then we mentored Jen to be a good sous chef.
At that time, we had the opportunity to open a restaurant in Philadelphia, 10 Arts Bistro [Which is now closed – ed.]. Jen was performing so well that I right away thought, “We are going to ask her if she would take that position,” because she got respect from her team. Respect is not something that can be given. The team is very tough in the kitchen. If you make mistakes and don’t know what you’re talking about, you won’t get respect, especially from older employees. But Jen earned that respect from them.
What was it like for you, Jen, when Eric asked you to head up 10 Arts Bistro?
JC: Each week, Eric and I would have a meeting. We would talk about life, goals, and the future. This meeting when Eric brought it up, I was definitely taken aback and shocked. I was not prepared to hear that. I didn’t think it would be happening at that meeting.
When Jen was going on to Top Chef, did you have reservations about her doing it or did you encourage her?
ER: Usually, I do not recommend for many of our cooks to go on Top Chef because it can be a very draining process. I don’t want people to look bad. I’m always worried someone may slip. However, I was very confident with Jennifer. We had many hours of discussion with her to get her ready. I was very confident we would be very proud of her, and she would be very proud of herself. I encouraged her, coached her, and reminded her that the show is not a real life version of the kitchen – it’s just entertainment. I reminded her to not let her ego get in the way.
What were your Top Chef training sessions like? Was it like the montage sequence in The Karate Kid with Daniel and Mr. Miyagi on the beach?
JC: We talked about technique and being natural. Eric threw fake challenges at me: what would you cook, why would you cook it, and how would you cook it? He always reminded me that I didn’t have to put on airs. I just needed to believe in myself, believe in my talent, and believe in my technique. And be okay with it if I failed.
Watching that season, it seemed as if you really didn’t want to let Eric down.
JC: I tried to win. Not only for myself, but for chef and the whole team at Le Bernardin – and my parents. I did my best. I thought I came across the way I wanted to come across. I was disappointed, sad, and scared to come back knowing I didn’t win. I made it to the finals, but I still didn’t win.
Eric, what was your chat with Jennifer after you knew she hadn’t won?
ER: Just to be selected to be on Top Chef is a big deal. And to be on the season for so long is a huge achievement. I was very impressed with the way she handled herself and the way she technically created the dishes she did for the challenges. We were very happy for Jen.
Was it hard for you, Eric, when she told you she was going to leave your employment a few years ago?
ER: I am not possessive. I know that a lot of cooks and chefs who are working with us are going to leave the team at some point. I always say, “When you’re ready to go, you can count on us for the rest of your life because you worked so hard, gave so much, and have been so important to us.”
I’m supportive. I left my mentors, and I’m deeply grateful that they supported me in my career. It was a bit emotional to see someone you like and whom you have a good dynamic with leave, but the most important thing is to support them in their life.
JC: I was ready to make the next move in my career. It was after many long talks with Eric about what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go, and if it was right for me or not. We had very candid conversations. He’s always been nothing but supportive and encouraging, while being nothing but honest and telling me things that I might not have wanted to hear.
When I decided to leave and I didn’t have anything 100 percent fully set up and ready to go, Eric questioned that. He questioned what my goals were and if it was the right decision or not. But at that point in my career, I was ready to go. Things weren’t set up, but I moved on and I survived. He’s always been there with the right guiding words that I need to hear.
Is there a particular piece of advice he gave you that had a particularly large impact?
JC: One of the most important things I learned under Eric was letting the food speak for itself and letting me be confident in my food, talent, technique.
Eric, was there something Jen taught you?
ER: When we opened 10 Arts Bistro, she was working 24/7. She was at the restaurant 24 hours a day. No joke. Maybe she went home for an hour to shower. I have never seen someone so motivated – to the point that I was worried for her physical and mental health. But she did that for months until she felt the kitchen was finally stabilized. That courage and strength stays with me.
JC: I loved my job. Maybe a little too much.
Is there a dish at Requin that really echoes your time with Eric?
JC: The bouillabaisse, for sure. That is my career at Le Bernardin. That dish can so easily be messed up, so it comes down to execution and consistency. And those are two things that I learned at Le Bernardin. To replicate that sauce over and over again, no matter what time of year it is. No matter if I’m tired. Making sure it’s perfect and the same every time, so someone can come back two years from now and enjoy the same dish.
Nevin Martell is a Washington, D.C.-based food and travel writer and the author of several books, including Freak Show Without A Tent: Swimming with Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations. Find him on Twitter @nevinmartell.
Eric Ripert photo credit: Daniel Krieger.