By Chris Mohney
Zagat Stories presents Restaurants 20/21, a collection of interviews with leading voices in hospitality, food, media, tech, politics, design, and more. Each story takes the turning of the calendar as an inflection point to consider what happened in 2020, or what’s likely to happen in 2021, in the world of restaurants and hospitality. See all stories here.
Eric Ripert has served as executive chef at New York’s Le Bernardin since 1994, where he also became part-owner in 1996. The restaurant has earned multiple awards over the years, including four stars from the New York Times and three Michelin stars. Le Bernardin shut down in March 2020 due to the pandemic, then reopened for indoor dining in September 2020. Ripert was also the first person interviewed for Zagat Stories.
When we closed for the pandemic in March, it was a very quick decision. I think we had the right instincts, and we did the right things. I thought we were closing for two weeks. I was convinced we would be back in April. Unfortunately, we were not. If we have to close again, we will do exactly what we have done before. We learned from what we did in March and April and the month after that.
But closing the restaurant in March was not an easy task. We had to make sure that we were smart about managing many things, including our finances, just to have the chance to reopen and have a good relationship with our purveyors and employees. When you’re a chef-owner, you have a lot of responsibilities. That took a lot of time and energy. And, of course, I spent some time with my family—much more than usual. While we were basically in lockdown in the end of March and the beginning of April, I was posting on Instagram and Twitter some recipes that were easy to do at home, just to inspire people.
We started to work with José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen in May. It was all through the months of May, June, July, August, and September. In the beginning, the food was going to the people on the front lines, the doctors and nurses that were staying in hotels in New York. They were from out of state, reinforcing the teams here. We still do 400 portions every day that are being delivered to the Bowery Mission.
We reopened when the governor allowed us to reopen, which was September 30. We didn’t expect the 25 percent indoor occupancy limit, which is very challenging. Now we’re talking about potentially closing again. We don’t know if it’s going to happen or not. My job is to make sure that Le Bernardin is a safe place for the employees and for the purveyors that come to interact with us, and obviously for the clients, and to make sure that no matter what that Le Bernardin is in good shape to run. If we have to close, we have to be in good shape when we reopen. It’s basically a lot of office work, a lot of accounting projections and calculations. And it’s a big job. It’s not easy.
We have been very fortunate to have no employees getting sick, no cases of coronavirus reported from people interacting with us. Since we reopened—knock on wood—it is the same thing. We have an incredible safety protocol. Not only the gloves and masks and so on, but now we also have a system inside our vents that sends millions of ions into the air.
My concern was, are people going to be shocked to see waiters with masks? Are they going to be like, “Oh, I’m not going to go to that restaurant. It’s not cool to have a waiter with masks.” But we are seeing people with masks everywhere. It’s not really shocking for the clients—it’s actually reassuring for them.
I think when people come to Le Bernardin, they are surprised how good the energy is in the room. It’s almost like before, because before we had good spacing between tables already. Obviously now we have even more spacing, but the energy has been saved. It was very important for people to come here, and as soon as they sit down and take their masks off, there are the menus that are very similar in style to what we used to have before—just slightly shorter.
It’s really a Le Bernardin experience on the food level, and in terms of the service it is exactly the same. They probably have much more attention paid to them because we are 25 percent capacity. What I notice every night is that people seem to be very happy to be here. And what is not a surprise, but makes me very happy, is that they do anything to support us—ordering expensive wines and taking tasting menus, or ordering expensive items like caviar just to support the income of the restaurant and the livelihood of the employees.
We ran a GoFundMe for employees that was a huge help because we got almost $220,000. And then someone else who wanted to be anonymous—I know who it is, but I can’t say—he gave a quarter million dollars to our employees. But when you look from March to December, those many, many months, when you divide that money among the staff for all those months, it is not that much. But still, it’s a great help, and it’s a great gesture.
We decided to sell in auction about 25 percent of our wine cellar. We did that in June. We still have a huge inventory. Nobody would know that we sold part of the wine cellar because we still have so much variety and quantity. But we’re starting to buy some wines again. We have relationships with the vineyards, and they keep some vintages for us.
Most of the concerns of my friends who have restaurants are about being sustainable financially. Can we open with the limited capacity? Are we going to break even, or at least and generate some money to pay employees and purveyors? Some of my friends decided to do some takeout. Some have a terrace for outdoor dining. Because of the location of Le Bernardin, we couldn’t have a terrace. We are near Times Square, so it is not ideal. I didn’t think it would be a Le Bernardin experience to have a terrace outside. We also decided not to do takeout, because I thought Le Bernardin food is not really at its best when you deliver it. It’s cooked at the very last minute. So our businesses are different, but ultimately it’s always the same topic among my friends. What can we do to not only survive, but thrive during the crisis?
Our regulars are still coming. It’s not a surprise, but I’m very happy to see a very young clientele. What I call “very young” is young millennials—they’re coming to Le Bernardin very well-dressed, extremely elegant. They are coming here for the experience. When I look around the room, I’m like, “Wow.” I’d say 70 percent of the 25 percent occupancy is like that. I’m very, very happy to see that, of course.
I know they want to support us by spending more. But at the same time, they probably want to maximize the experience. If you come to Le Bernardin and you have two courses, it’s not the same as having the tasting menu with the wine pairing, where you have a holistic experience.
This pandemic is the challenge of our generation, of many generations. It’s the biggest professional challenge of our lives. Nobody has a crystal ball. We don’t know what’s going to happen or not going to happen. Yes, some restaurants will not come back, but I believe that a lot of restaurateurs will reopen—maybe with different models. Between the landlords and the government and relationships with the purveyors and so on, we will be able to find solutions and come back as a community. In the beginning it will be fragile, but slowly we will rebuild. It’s going to take years, not a couple of months. Probably in two or three years, it will be a bad memory.
We don’t necessarily need a bailout. That’s the ultimate luxury, but I don’t think a bailout is realistic. I think they could make some changes to the restrictions of the PPP loans, and that money could be used in different ways. That would be definitely helpful for a lot of restaurants. It’s still very unclear if you can use that money other than for paying your staff and the utilities and rent. It’s not clear if you can pay your bills with that money, even if the loan is not forgiven.
What is very important is to stay optimistic, to stay very disciplined, and to be strong mentally. When you are the top of the company, if you’re the chef or the owner, you have to show the right example to your employees. You have to give hope to the employees. And you have to help them as much as you can.