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New York Chef Produces Valuable Book: "Puerto Rico Was Our Wild Card."
By William Rice, Tribune food and wine columnist
May 21, 2003
Remove a Manhattan chef from his splendidly equipped restaurant kitchen, take away this brigades of assistants, ask him to cook and what happens? He produces a valuable book.
"A Return to Cooking," by Eric Ripert and Michael Ruhlman (Artisan, $50), created with painter Valentino Cortazar and photographers Shimon and Tammar Rothstein, is artistic, exotic, even spiritual.
Ripert's recipes often require more ingredients, but he provides straightforward directions that are easy to follow.
Big, weighty and beautiful, "A Return to Cooking" is a bona fide coffee-table book. There's more between the covers, though, much more. The first impression, vivid and even mouthwatering, is provided by the photographs and paintings of Ripert's food and the well-written recipes for preparing it.
What lifts the book to another realm is the text, presented in unrelated blocks in which Ruhlman gathers Ripert's spoken thoughts and traces dishes from their inception in the chef's head to completion.
It took more than a year to bring everyone together and to complete location work on Long Island and Puerto Rico, in Vermont and the Napa Valley. It was a dream realized, according to Ripert: "It would be absurd and unnatural to try to bring out the best of the ingredients and the best of myself if the food isn't to be shared and enjoyed. And those moments of sharing are a kind of religious experience for me, an actual communion."
Restaurateur on sabbatical went back to basics
Even though he is partner and chef of New York City's top-rated Le Bernardin restaurant, it took Eric Ripert three years to find a publisher to buy his book proposal.
The inspiration was the chef's desire to be free of restraints, to face a collection of ingredients with only his instinct and his experience directing him.
"It was too wacky," Ripert said. "One publisher would do it, but only if his editor could control the content with a script written out in advance.
" `No experiments,' they said. But the whole premise is based on experiments. I needed to be able to fail, to change ingredients or the method of cooking on a whim."
Ripert chose to work in home kitchens instead of restaurants for the project.
"It was important for me to start with the raw ingredients and do everything myself," he said. "I had no brigade of helpers. I didn't want them.
"At the restaurant they touch, peel and prepare the ingredients. But something is lost for me, not doing that. When you touch and cut a tomato, your hand tells you a lot and plays a role in the creative process.
"Creativity, by the way, is more than making something new. It is remembering your mistakes in the past and not repeating them. For example, changing your recipe when you realize the tomato is too ripe to stuff and bake, that it would explode in the oven."
For his experiment, Ripert chose four settings: Long Island, Vermont, Napa Valley and Puerto Rico.
"We chose Long Island to begin because I knew the territory," he said. "We were close to New York if something went wrong and there are very good ingredients available there late in the summer.
"In fall, Vermont has marvelous foliage and is not cold. If we waited until winter, we would have little local produce. Napa in spring is just the best place for a cook to be. There are so many choices.
"Puerto Rico was our wild card. We wanted someplace exotic, sexy even, and it delivered."
Ripert, who credits his boyhood eating experiences as seminal, did not consider doing a section of the book in France.
"No, I wanted this done in America," he said. "To simply rediscover my roots would have been too easy."
Many of the ingredients in the book are not easy for a home cook to find, Ripert acknowledged.
"I did not intend to write a teaching manual," he said. "My hope, my expectation is that this be seen as an inspirational book. It's not about feeding people; it's about cooking as an art, and at that level you need great ingredients.
"I hope that young cooks will learn, not just the recipes, but how to connect with their ingredients."
In writing the book, he said, "I learned how to follow my instinct, to trust it absolutely, to let creativity flow without any restriction. And, doing that, I realized that cooking can be very spiritual."
Eric Ripert's mussels with spicy Italian sausage
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
From "A Return to Cooking."
1. Place the olive oil in a large heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the shallots and garlic, season with salt and pepper, and cook until translucent but still have a bit of crunch, about 3 minutes.
2. Add the sausage to the pan and cook, stirring to crumble, for about 5 minutes, or until thoroughly cooked. Add the wine and rosemary and bring to a boil. Lower heat to medium, add the mussels, cover the pan and steam until the mussels open, 3 to 5 minutes.
3. Sprinkle the parsley and bread crumbs over all. Divide the mussels among 6 bowls and ladle the broth and sausage over them. Serve with crusty bread.
Nutrition information per serving (calculated by the Tribune):
250 calories, 48% calories from fat, 13 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 55 mg cholesterol, 475 mg sodium, 9 g carbohydrate, 22 g protein, 0.1 g fiber