Feb. 14, 2008 -- When he isn't dancing to techno music or making medicinal teas, chef Eric Ripert is busy overseeing the restaurant Zagat rates as having the "best food" in New York City for the past four consecutive years: Le Bernardin.
"I had passion for food and cooking since a very early age. I was about 4 or 5 and I was already extremely passionate -- first eating, and then cooking," Ripert said. "But at 15 is when the teachers called my parents and said, 'Your kid is really bad in school. We have to find a solution. '"
The world-famous chef grew up in Andorra, a small country in the eastern Pyrenees on the border between France and Spain.
"An inspiration for me comes from my life experience," Ripert said. "It comes from the time when I was a kid and obviously I created certain tastes because of my education and near the Mediterranean border I have a lot of passion for olive oils and spice and herbs and garlic and onions."
In his hometown people cook on smooth split layers of slate rock mined from the mountains, a method he recommends in the U.S. as well.
"It doesn't stick and it gives an amazing flavor," Ripert said. "In Andorra we cook a lot of rabbit on it. "
"Nightline" followed Ripert into the kitchen where he explained how to make lamb chops on slate. CLICK HERE to see the recipe.
Ripert left Andorra at 15 to attend culinary school in Perpignan, and just two years later moved to Paris where he eventually began working at the well-regarded restaurant Jamin, where famous french chef Joel Robuchon made his mark.
His rapid ascension in the restaurant business continued after he left Europe for the United States in 1989, and spent time working with Jean-Louis Palladin at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. Soon after moving to New York he was recruited as executive chef for Le Bernardin. By the time he was 29 he had been working in the food industry for 14 years, and he earned the first of many four-star ratings from the New York Times.
'I Learned How to Cook With A Soul'
Ripert's grandmother had a large influence on his life. When he was very young she would make him croque monsieur, a kind of grilled cheese and ham sandwich. Sometimes he ate three or four at a time for lunch or dinner.
She used "a very traditional kind of instrument where you press the bread with a design of a little heart on top and it was, I think was the best croque monsieur ever," Ripert said. "And then when she passed away, I wanted to pay homage to her."
Ripert's kicked-up version has smoked salmon and caviar but is "directly linked to the memories of the real deal."
"She taught me how to create flavors which are comforting. She was cooking with a strong soul and I think I learned how to cook with a soul because of her."
While cooking with "Nightline," Ripert also shared a dish traditionally made in France.
"We don't have Thanksgiving in France but we have Christmas and we always do poultry," said Ripert. "A capon is a rooster that's been castrated and it makes him a bit lazy and it gets fattier and when you taste it is very juicy with great flavors."
"We used to do it with less truffles and less foie gras ... when I worked with Jean-Louis Palladin, which was the first chef in the U.S., he was doing a capon stuffed with only truffles and foie gras. So, I use a little bit of his influence with my dinners in France."
Ripert stuffed the rooster with black truffles, white porcini mushrooms and foie gras. After a generous helping of butter -- viola! The bird was ready for the oven.
'Food Means Pleasure'
The one ingredient Ripert said he can't live without is black truffles. The pricey pieces of fungus, also known as "black diamonds," must be painstakingly unearthed from the soil by a pig or a trained dog. An example of how expensive -- a 2.7 pound truffle can cost more than $100,000.
"Probably if I could all my life be exposed to black truffles -- that would be really the goal!" Ripert said. His one guilty pleasure, however, is dark chocolate.
Ripert also loves his condiments: his fridge is always stocked with mustard and marmalade. But like every other New Yorker, Ripert finds it difficult to cook in his apartment's tiny kitchen.
"When I come home it is too late and I would be eating by myself at that time, it is unhealthy," Ripert said.
Instead, he chooses to cook on weekends in his small country house. His ideal weekend menu? A T-bone steak.
"Food means pleasure and as simple as that. I don't try to intellectualize food too much … I like to eat food and depending on where I am it connects me to where I am," Ripert said. "Food brings people together. It's a lifestyle. It's a very healthy lifestyle and it is my passion as well."