The livelihood of a chef depends on his or her ability to get every element of every dish right every time. Hundreds of customers. Thousands of plates. Millions of details. In the world fine-dining, where customers are splashing out for a meal, chefs don’t offer excuses. It doesn’t matter if the fishmonger came in late or the sous chef is hungover or the kid is home sick. The job is all-consuming. This means, naturally, that striking the balance between being a good dad and a good chef is exceedingly difficult. Both, after all, require exquisite concentration to the exclusion of each other.
That’s why I made the trek uptown to the three-Michelin starred restaurant Le Bernardin, one of Manhattan’s fanciest dining spots, to sit at the feet of Chef Eric Ripert. He is, I think, a man who has two very hard jobs and is doing both of them extraordinarily well while also — and this is the thing that floors me — leaving some room for himself.
Naturally, I had another motivation as well: pleasure. Times slows down a bit when you walk into Le Bernardin. The carpet is soft and the voices are hushed. It’s like Midtown goes on mute. There’s something both monastic and luxurious about the place. A massive painting of the ocean that takes up an entire wall. The waves look fierce but, captured in oil on canvas, serene too. It’s a tidy metaphor for the restaurant and for Ripert himself, how to hold on to your seat amidst incredible intensity.
I’ve known Chef Ripert since 2010, when we first met and when Ripert convinced me to change my life. Ripert, a handsome French-speaking Andorran who hasn’t lost his accent despite decades in the states, is a Buddhist and, following our conversation and several years of practice, I converted from Judaism to Buddhism too. I didn’t do it to emulate him, but I did do it to be more like him. Something he told me on our first meeting shook me like an olive tree at harvest. “Like I teach my son who is six years old, nobody is happy to be angry. You cannot mix those feelings. You are either happy or you are angry.”
At the time, I was not yet a father, but his view of anger — which I had struggled with for years — was revelatory. I’m now a father of two and a bit mellowed, but I still think about Ripert constantly. So, recently, I reached out. I told him that I wanted to ask him about how he balances his professional life with fatherhood. I knew he had a radical theory about priorities and because I wanted to talk to him again.
He invited me to his subterranean office in Midtown. To get to the office you have to walk out of the restaurant and into a large open space between 51st and 52nd street full of white-collar smokers. There’s an escalator that descends, a few doors, and a few sensors between the nerve center of Le Bernardin and the street. Inside, there are carpets, cubicles, and cabinets. It’s very normal except that there’s also a large wooden head of the Buddha and a conference room entirely filled with cookbooks. This is where Ripert wants to talk. This is where one comes to here the gospel of Ripert’s philosophy on life, the “Third-Third-Third.”
“I dedicate a third of my life to the family, a third of my life to the business, and a third, totally disconnected from both, on myself,” Ripert explains, “It’s not x amount of time every day, It’s more in the philosophical kind of vision.” Ripert found his vision after years of fuzzy wandering. “What I realized was that, with my life so intertwined, I was not really giving 100%, 100%, 100%. I realized I needed to compartmentalize.”
He takes a few swings at the word “compartmentalize” before it comes out right, (“That’s a long word for me,” he laughs.) It sounds artificially formal but that’s the whole point. Ripert is, on some level, an advocate of inorganic rigidity, another word for which is discipline.. He does not always go with the flow. “If you don’t have a clear vision and create guidelines and of course maintain a certain discipline,” he says, “you cannot really be very efficient or realize what’s good for your family or yourself or work. You are reactive to what’s happening in your life, not proactive.”
Ripert’s day starts like this: He wakes up between six and seven a.m., spends some time alone. His son, now 14 years old, wakes up at 7:30. His wife, Sandra, wakes up around this time too. The family talks for a little bit. Then his son goes off to school and Ripert returns to the meditation room, where he spends between an hour and two hours in contemplation. Then he walks through Central Park, always alone, to his restaurant. He stays at Le Bernardin well into the evening but returns home to spend time with Sandra. His weekends are totally devoted to family.
About once a year, Ripert goes on a long retreat, often to the Himalayas, where he treks through the mountains and stays at monasteries. Sometimes his trips aren’t as far-flung. When I spoke to him, for instance, he had just returned from a 10-day retreat on the private island of Mustique, where he stayed at the private villa of Maguy Le Coze, the co-owner of Le Bernardin. “I didn’t want to deal with the jet-lag,” he tells me.
My first reaction to this, I have to admit, was dismissive. How great for you, I said to myself, that you can fuck off to a private villa in Mustique for ten days? But I recognized that voice. My voice. The voice inside of me. It was the same one that used to always tell me that anger was strength. I know what fear sounds like inside my head. If I accepted that Ripert’s vision might be sane, then what would it mean for me?
As a father, I already struggle to balance “work” and “life.” And the latter for me, and for many of my dad friends, has been undifferentiated between me and my family. I wish I could say it was half and half, but life seems to be the thing one crams in when one isn’t working. Life is mortar to work’s brick, the cracks in the sidewalk of labor. But here was Ripert, who was not only making the important distinction in “life” between his life as an individual and his life as part of a family but saying that each deserves a share equal to work.
How did it work, I wondered? “When I leave the restaurant, I close the door and it’s like being in another room,” he says. When he’s at home, he leaves work too. “As a family, we all talk about our day, except for me” he says, “. I never discuss my day at work.” And when he focuses on himself, he’s only focused on himself. By this time, his family knows not to ask to join him on his walks and, from what I understand, they are not invited to the Dharamsala. This sort of serious alone time, he says, is like, “standing on top of a mountain and looking down. I need that distance.”
It sounds great and seems to be working out well for Ripert. But when I imagine, just for a second, what shit would go down if I told my wife that I was going to head to India for ten days on retreat, I taste adrenaline on my tongue. Not only that, but I have more deadlines than a cemetery. I explain that I envy him, but can’t follow his lead despite my almost overwhelming desire to do so.
Ripert nods but isn’t having any of it.
“That’s what I hear from all my friends,” he says, good-naturedly, “‘I tried to…I tried to…’ And I’m like, ‘Guys., you have to implement it. You just have to do it.'”
Ripert is fortunate in more ways than one. Not only is he financially and professionally successful but he has a wife who accepts his need to be alone. “She’s accepted it from the beginning,” he says. But how I wonder, do you convince a skeptical spouse? The answer, Ripert rather predictably insinuates, lies in Buddhist doctrine. He cites Mahayana, the notion that one must be in the right mental state to be of true service to others, as both an inspiration and a way to explain what could be misconstrued (or not exactly misconstrued) as selfishness.
For what it’s worth, this notion of preparing oneself for service is not just Buddhist. It’s the oikeiôsis of Stoicism and it’s written into scripture. “The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature,” reads the Gospel of Luke. “But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.”
In other words, Ripert’s doctrine is radical in its expression, but ancient in its essence. Like most of what I’ve learned from Ripert over the years, his Third-Third-Third schema feels like something to aspire to more than like something to implement in the near term. But in the face of all of my excuses — too much work, an angry spouse, too much Netflix to watch — I hear his simple words repeated. You just have to do it. You just have to do it. You just have to do it.
So, the evening after our conversations, I didn’t bring up work during the family dinner (chicken nuggets and frozen peas). I didn’t even mention Ripert. Instead, I listened to my sons chat about Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh. And, after they’d gone to bed, I put my phone on the kitchen counter and went for a walk by myself, a minor victory in retreat.
Illustrated by Kreg Franco for Fatherly.