It was on Thursday, March 12, that Eric Ripert realized that the time had come to close the doors of Le Bernardin, widely considered the finest restaurant in New York City. The celebrated chef had been following the alarming news about COVID-19 not only in the United States but around the world, including his native France. “The situation was evolving very quickly, hour by hour,” Ripert recalls. “I talked to my staff that Thursday and said, ‘It doesn’t look good outside. I will to talk to you again tomorrow.’”
The next day, Friday the 13th, he shut down the famed dining room and kitchen on West 51st Street immediately after the dinner service — a full week before Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered the closing of all other restaurants and non-essential businesses across the state. “I didn’t feel comfortable about the safety of our workers or our customers,” Ripert says, "so I decided to be proactive.”
Long a leader in the restaurant industry, Ripert wasn’t prepared to wait out the pandemic at his homes in Manhattan and eastern Long Island. As vice chairman of City Harvest, he was already involved in a charity that collects 70 million pounds of food a year for soup kitchens and food pantries. He is also a close friend of Jose Andres, the Spanish chef who founded World Central Kitchen to bring food to victims of natural disasters in Haiti and Puerto Rico, and who was setting up shop in Harlem to respond to the COVID crisis. Consulting with those two groups, Ripert decided to do his part by feeding the 400 doctors and nurses who had come to New York City from out of state and were lodging in midtown hotels.
So in early May, he reopened Le Bernardin with four employees to prepare and package 400 meals a day, using City Harvest ingredients and relying on World Central Kitchen trucks for delivery. “Every meal is about a pound of food, and we try to make them not too similar day by day,” Ripert explains. Most offerings consist of meat or eggs along with a vegetable and a starch, but Ripert also accommodates several dozen vegetarians among the first responders and makes sure that fish — Le Bernardin’s specialty — is on the menu twice a week.
In the absence of eating out, meanwhile, Ripert has been helping out home cooks by posting recipes on Instagram and Facebook, complete with short instructional videos. Instead of the fancy dishes that he has perfected for Le Bernardin, his social media is full of classic French standbys that he learned from his mother and grandmother as a boy in France, from potato-leek soup to coq au vin, which Ripert demystifies by calling “quick chicken-and-red-wine stew.”
“I show recipes with ingredients that are readily available, and with techniques that aren’t very hard,” Ripert explains. “I don’t want to intimidate people, but to encourage them.” Sharing a recipe for vegetarian lasagna made with leftover pasta sauce and frozen vegetables, for example, he warns followers that “if you are a lasagna purist, do not look at this post.”
A "Smaller Team"
Ripert is also planning for the day when Le Bernardin will be back in business, but he is realistic about what that will mean. Even if the shutdown is lifted, he doesn’t think it will make sense to reopen during the slow summer months, particularly with no tourists in town and so many New Yorkers sheltering elsewhere. If the coast is clear by September or October, Ripert anticipates restrictions on how many diners he can serve — perhaps as few as fifty “covers,” or tables, per night — as well as on the size of parties.
Under those circumstances, he says Le Bernardin can still operate, but it will have to do so with a “smaller team” than its current 180 employees, and perhaps with pay cuts for a while. For those employees who are kept on, it will be a new world of masks, gloves — and no more wine lists. “Maybe we will have the wine list on an iPad that we will clean after every use,” Ripert imagines.
For the restaurant industry as a whole, Ripert laments that the Paycheck Protection Program, the hastily-passed government loan program meant to tide over small businesses, hasn’t provided more help. Under the current terms, PPP loans are forgivable only for businesses that retain or rehire three-quarters of their employees by June, which is unrealistic for most restaurants that are still closed and may only be able to bring in half of their previous revenue when they reopen.
Ripert hopes to see those PPP benchmarks revised, but otherwise he says the key to survival for individual restaurants will be their ability to renegotiate payment arrangements with suppliers, realtors and banks. “Cash flow is king for all restaurants,” he says.
Even in the rarified world of famous four-star restaurants, Ripert expects to see permanent changes once the COVID crisis has passed. “The future of fine dining will be less about refinement in the details, and much more about conviviality,” he predicts. “People will want to feel part of a community when they go to a restaurant, to feel the warmth. That will be the trend.”
Ripert points out that the modern era of haute cuisine started more than fifty years ago with the French chef Paul Bocuse, one of his boyhood idols, cooking in a modest but welcoming restaurant in a small inn outside Lyon. So when Le Bernardin does open its doors again, diners can expect to see fish still be on the menu, wine listed on an iPad — and Chef Eric Ripert coming out of the kitchen to welcome guests back and make them feel at home.
“The future of fine dining will be less about refinement in the details, and much more about conviviality. People will want to feel part of a community when they go to a restaurant, to feel the warmth. That will be the trend.” Eric Ripert