The changes he’s seen extend to culinary schools as well. “It costs sometimes $30,000 to $40,000 a year to go to a culinary school, and people have an expectation of getting a return on their investment right away. I don’t want to name any culinary school, but very often the school makes the people believe that when they graduate that they are very close to being a chef. It’s a bit of misleading here, and then they realize obviously that it takes maybe 10 years more after the graduation before you start to call yourself a chef or have the title of a chef in a good restaurant.”
Early mentorship to learn the craft makes for a strong chef in the end. The road to being a chef is long, and it requires on-the-job experience. Skipping a few steps won’t fly.
“You won’t be respected by your staff because you won’t know what you’re talking about. If you cannot show them the right way, then they will have no respect for you.”
The industry would grind to a halt without mentorship, not only because it trains the next generation of chefs, but because it also keeps the current chefs and mentors on their toes. For Ripert, mentorship is not a one-way street. When asked if being a mentor keeps him from becoming stale creatively, he agrees wholeheartedly.
“Definitely. It cultivates creativity. It is almost like going to the gym for your muscles. This is like training your brain in a certain way.”
All of the training that one accumulates over the years, the lessons from solid mentors, the sauces and knife skills, the things that can’t be learned from a book, the management of a team, being firm without being abusive, earning the respect of a team—all of these things come together at last, and a chef is born. It’s monumental, the amount of work required, the dedication of young cooks and the chefs who mentor them.
Ripert never forgets his own mentors. He notes each one, and what they taught him, with fondness—even Robuchon.
“I started in La Tour d’Argent, which was a very traditional restaurant in 1982. The chef was Dominique Bouchet. He taught me the classic techniques. Then at 19 I went to work for Joël Robuchon at Jamin in Paris. I knew the classics already, so he taught me precision, and rigor, and discipline. And, of course, excellence in the details. And then I came to America at 24, and I worked for Jean-Louis Palladin at the Watergate Hotel, and he basically taught me how to become creative, to free myself from the pressure of the style of my previous mentors and to become myself. You have to make mistakes; you have to open your mind; you have to create. And so, he helped me tremendously how to become creative. Then I came to Le Bernardin, and Gilbert Le Coze taught me to manage a kitchen and how to be responsible for many aspects, including, obviously, the financial aspect, which is very, very important in a restaurant. Those were great mentors of mine.”
It took Ripert 12 years to become a chef. He often reminds young cooks of this, when he feels they haven’t yet mastered a station and need to spend some more time on it. “In 10 years, having to spend another six months or three months on a station will have no impact on your career, except the fact that you add some very strong basics, because we didn’t let you go too fast.
“If you don’t have strong basics, then at one point in your career you cannot go to the very top. You will always be limited.”
Through the Eyes of the Student