Chef Eric Ripert of the famed Le Bernardin in New York City is one of the world’s best chefs, an Emmy-winning cooking show host and a cookbook author. But while Ripert was building a name for himself in the heat and the stress of a fine-dining restaurant kitchen, he also became a practicing Buddhist.
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The chef sat down with ABC News’ Dan Harris for his live-stream podcast “10% Happier” to talk about his daily meditation rituals, how he found Buddhism after being raised Catholic and how he got to where he is today.
“Until I discovered Buddhism, I was kind of lost,” Ripert said. “Lost in a sense that I was trying to be a good person and I couldn’t succeed at the level of where I wanted to be, and Buddhism was, for me, a revelation.”
Since its opening in 1986, Le Bernardin has earned three Michelin stars and four stars from the New York Times all five times the restaurant has been reviewed. Ripert has been with the restaurant since 1991, but his road to success was not always smooth.
In his memoir, “32 Yolks,” which came out in May, Ripert describes a tumultuous childhood growing up in France. His parents divorced and then both remarried. His stepfather was abusive, both physically and verbally, Ripert said, and he was sent off to a boarding school where he said a predatory priest tried to sexually abuse him.
“I ended up being a very angry teenager that led into a very angry young man,” Ripert told Harris. “I wanted to be at peace.... I wanted to find guidance, I wanted to find life and Buddhism did that to me.”
In 1989, Ripert said he was at the airport leaving France to come to the U.S. when he picked up a book on Tibet. As the story goes, he was actually going to buy a Playboy magazine but changed his mind at the last second. The book included some Buddhist theories and Ripert was instantly fascinated. He has since spent years reading and studying Buddhism and attending events given by the Dalai Lama.
“It has been a slow process but I like the spirituality of Buddhism,” he said. “I like that it can be proven, the theories of Buddhism can be proven in a secular way, in a scientific way. It’s something that speaks to me and a great inspiration in my life today.”
Ripert has a ritual he practices every day. Each morning, he said he goes into the meditation room he set up in his apartment -- not even the cats are allowed in, he joked. He lights some candles and incense, “I do some prayers and I study and I meditate,” he said, for about one to two hours. He does the Tibetan Buddhist practice of “water offering,” where he places seven bowls filled with water in front of a statue of Buddha.
“After that, I do a confession of all my bad deeds,” he said. “Then I rejoice for all the good deeds that I have done, and then I ask to be lucky to have a long life and good health.”
Ripert’s meditation practice has helped change the way he operates in the kitchen, he said, to focus on being a good teacher to his staff instead of putting them down for mistakes. He hopes he can serve as an example to others to change the culture in high-stress restaurant environments.
“We shouldn’t be proud of chefs who are screaming in the kitchen,” Ripert said. “I’m always thinking about that TV show ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ or ‘Kitchen Nightmares’ and that promotes this behavior of screaming at people, insulting them and humiliating them. This is not something that should be on TV actually. And it’s sending the wrong message. We have to fight that.
“Sometimes the kitchen is designed to challenge you to stay calm,” he continued. “I think I at least inspire people to think, ‘Oh wow, maybe he’s right, maybe screaming and being abusive is not the right way to manage. Maybe a good leader shouldn’t be like that.’”
Chef Gordon Ramsay, who starred in the reality TV cooking shows "Hell's Kitchen" and "Kitchen Nightmares," did not return ABC News' request for comment.
Other famous chefs have gone on to build their cooking careers into giant brand empires, from opening multiple restaurants to hosting TV shows to producing cookware lines, but Ripert said he never wanted that. Today, he has Le Bernardin and another restaurant in the Cayman Islands, but doesn’t have plans to expand.
“I don’t want to conquer the world,” Ripert said. “I want to make the best black bass in the kitchen downstairs with the team.... I don’t care about being No. 1. It’s about doing something that I have passion for and transmitting the knowledge and the passion to the people who are with me and making a living out of it.”