In the year 2000, (insert Conan O’Brien intro) I was working at Restaurant Daniel in Manhattan and applied for the Gilbert Le Coze James Beard Scholarship. The winner received a one year apprenticeship at a tiny little restaurant called Alain Ducasse, in Monaco. The applicants got widdled down and the finalists’ last interview was lunch at Le Bernardin, with of course Eric Ripert. Not with Eric Ripert cooking, but with him sitting right next to you dining. I was one of the two finalists. In what I’m sure will be a shock to you all, I was the runner-up.
I am, quite honestly, much more of a seafood guy than Hosea. I completed a fellowship at my alma mater, the CIA, in the fish kitchen. I’ve put to rest and cooked thousands of lobsters. I’ve filleted just as many salmon. And yes, I’ve pinned down eel, and cut everything from Opah to Shad. My first chef position was at a restaurant that had a fish tank where a poisonous blowfish resided. When that fish passed away, I cut it. Just to know I’d done it.
All of that being said, my meal that afternoon at Le Bernardin is one of, if not, THE most memorable meal of my life. And I eat a lot. I remember a raw dish of mackerel like the first time I kissed my wife. And I had the same physical reaction probably. I was just stumped. I thought it was a trick. It had to be hamachi I thought. Mackerel is strong. A bloody, stinky, pig of a fish, best left for a smokey grill. At Le Bernardin, mackerel is Miss America (who I met this weekend BTW).
The chefs get a chance to experience Le Bernardin themselves. They are all in awe, as they should be. Except for Jamie, who gives us that Top Chef cliche line, “It’s just not my kind of food.” This carries some weight when the challenge is flipping eggs at a greasy spoon or making an appetizer from a vending machine. It’s just silly when you’re at a three-Michelin star legendary restaurant.