Since 1988, Food & Wine magazine has named Best New Chefs, an award that has launched the careers of dozens upon dozens of chefs. Among them are Wylie Dufresne, the chef/owner of New York City’s WD-50 and a James Beard Award nominee for Best Chef New York for the last six years; Eric Ripert, the chef/owner of Le Bernardin in New York City; and Thomas Keller, the chef/owner of The French Laundry in California’s Napa Valley and the holder of multiple Michelin three-star ratings. The chefs discussed pivotal moments in their careers, upcoming projects and their legacies with Food & Wine editor Dana Cowin.
Cowin: What are the mantras you live by?
Ripert: Because we are a seafood restaurant, it's always been "Fish is the star of the plate." Everything we do at the restaurant is designed to pay homage to fish.
Keller: Our goal is to strive for perfection, and as such it's all about the extra effort that you put in.
Dufresne: Our mantra is to always ask "Why?" All of us in the business do lots of repetitive things, like cook a chicken or an egg the same way. But why do we have to cook the things we cook the same way all the time? Is there a better way to do it? It pays to keep asking yourself that question.
Keller: That's a good point. It's about evolving and constantly moving forward. For years at the French Laundry we would poach lobster in butter on the stove. That left it to the skill of the chef and knowing when to pull it out of the butter. At Per Se, we decided to take the human risk element out of it and put the lobster in a bag and poach it in a circulator so it comes out perfect every time. But the health department has issues with us doing sous vide, so we went back to poaching it in butter until we realized that we could poach the lobster in a circulator without the bag. It's about finding a better way.
Ripert: The world is always changing. It's shrinking so we can fly to Asia easily and we can get products from all around the world that will influence our cooking. Improvements in technology are helping the chef but they're also helping purveyors. New technology is helping fishermen deliver fresh fish better than ever. If you don't evolve, it's boring. Remember, 25 years ago nobody in this country was eating sushi.
Dufresne: This is the information age, so we have instant access to all sorts of information that can change and help us improve what we do. It's easy for us to find out what chefs are doing in Asia, Scandinavia and everywhere. It didn't used to be that way.
Cowin: Has the interest in French food waned?
Ripert: Good food is good food, and success is about harmony on the plate. Though a lot of us were trained to use French technique, we don't necessarily cook French food. We use the ingredients around us. My inspiration comes from New York and its products.
Keller: I don't think we've lost our appreciation for French food, but now we have access to so many other great cuisines, there's a lot to pick from.
Tasting menus, pivotal career moments
Cowin: Are tasting menus tyrannical or a good thing?
Dufresne: At WD-50 we switched to a tasting menu. It's not about imposing my will on diners; it's about showing them what we're excited about cooking and eating.
Keller: At the French Laundry we were doing a prix-fixe five-course offering, and then we added a tasting menu. Then we added a vegetarian tasting menu. But we have a rule about not repeating any menu items, so we were preparing dozes of dishes each night. After some time we realized that 90 percent of the people who were coming in wanted the tasting menu, so we limited ourselves to the nine-course tasting menu and a vegetarian tasting menu. It took a lot of pressure off the kitchen.
Ripert: Every night we sell 80-90 tasting menus. Customers love them and so do we because it allows us to tell a story. When Pink Floyd released its concept album, Dark Side of the Moon, it was telling a story. That's what chefs do with tasting menus.
Keller: You also have to consider that if a restaurant is offering a tasting menu, it's because it's successful. If tasting menus didn't sell, they wouldn't do it.
Cowin: What was a pivotal moment in your career?
Keller: Opening Rakel in 1986 in the center of the universe, New York City. And equally as monumental was when it closed in 1991. That was hard. So I moved to California and had a goal of opening the French Laundry, even thought I didn't have the finances. I thought about it every day until I realized the dream.
Ripert: A big moment in my career was at Le Bernardin when I was working as a chef under Gilbert Le Coze and he died of a heart attack. I was 26 at the time and I was happy doing what I was doing, but I had to take over. The New York Times critic Ruth Reichl was not so sure about me and she came in 12 times before we got our review. She finally gave us four stars. It was a sad time for me, but I was so focused and that review had a huge impact on me.
Dufresne: In May 2011 my daughter was two years old but I rarely saw her because I was constantly working. I was wearing myself out and I got the shingles. David Chang told me then that I had to take a month off. I had never taken time off, but I knew I had to change. I had built a good team of people who could run the restaurants without me, and I had to trust them. It has changed my life for the better.