Tom Colicchio

Tom Colicchio talks about the challenge at Le Bernardin and what it must have been like for the chefs to cook under Chef Eric Ripert.

on Feb 4, 2009

As a child, I loved going crabbing and fishing with my grandfather. Growing up in an Italian family, crabs meant one thing: crab gravy. We would cook the crabs, clean them, remove the shells and simmer them in marinara. What does this have to do with eels? Everything. We’d often catch eels in the crab traps — a bonus. We’d fry them up with other fish we’d catch along the way and have a big fish fry along with the crab marinara, and, quite honestly, the fried eels were often the highlight of the meal. But that was the payoff for hard work on my part: Upon returning from fishing or crabbing with our catch, my grandfather would head upstairs for a nap, and I’d be left to clean all the fish, eels included.

Stefan’s method of nailing the head of the still-squirming dead eel is one way to do it. The other way, though not quite as gruesome, is still not for the squeamish. You cut through the other side of the neck, straight through the bone to the skin, without cutting all the way through the skin. You then work your thumb between the meat and the skin, take a dry rag, and grab the bone and whatever meat you can get some purchase on (with the towel, since it’s slimey), grab the head with one hand and strip the eel inside out with your other hand in one deft move. — There you have it – my eel-skinning technique. Good luck with it, y’all!

Moving from the slimey to the sublime: Le Bernardin, the only restaurant in New York to get four stars from The New York Times at the time it opened … and retain them. Eric Ripert has been a very good friend over the years, so I was hesitant to approach him about opening his restaurant to Top Chef. The producers of the show did, and I was so surprised that he agreed not only to permit Top Chef into his restaurant, but to do so on a night that the restaurant was open for service to other diners. It’s hard enough to provide perfect service over the course of an evening, never mind while six cameras are moving around the space, and yet the restaurant still managed to do so. It is a testament not only to Eric but to his entire team.