Standing around in Whole Foods Huntington Beach waiting for Eric Ripert to arrive is a singular situation already. But when the chef finally does walk in, right through the main door near the produce there, surreality takes over. That’s Eric Ripert and his beautiful, unmistakable hair, walking under the fluorescent lights in the Whole Foods produce section. And, even though planned, expected, not a surprise or chance sighting, the incongruity lingered a bit.
Chef Ripert met me by the fish counter before his enthusiastically overbooked appearance at the store last week, wherein he showed a montage of eps from the second season of his “Avec Eric” PBS show, signed copies of the eponymous companion book, and answered audience questions. And I can attest, all that happened.
However, the first item on the docket was which fish would Ripert, executive chef and part owner of New York’s seafood icon Le Bernardin, find worthy of purchase and preparation. Meaning: What fish would I be preparing for dinner tonight? He surveyed, walking the horseshoe-shaped fish counter a couple of times, but it was obvious his mind had been made up on his first pass—the whole tai snapper (misspelled Thai on the sign, by the way, Whole Foods) wild-caught near New Zealand, nestled on and blanketed by ice with only a big, nice and clear, eye, part of a shoulder (if fish can be said to have shoulders) and part of its teeny-teethed mouth peeking out.
Enough, apparently, to be chosen by Eric Ripert. Doing my own surveying before he’d arrived, I’d examined that eye and that shoulder, and saw those teensy teeth, and thought this fish looked pretty good. But, compared to Eric Ripert, what do I know? Indeed, compared to Eric Ripert, what does anyone know, about fish?
I was especially happy with this selection, not only because of having sort of pre-agreed with the likes of Eric Ripert about a fish, but because I had already had a recipe in “Avec Eric” (Wiley, 2010) marked with one of the pink Post-It flags I use for this purpose that I guessed would be a good application. Would this fish work for the whole roasted red snapper with Thai spices in “Avec Eric”? The word came down from the man himself, with a thoughtful nod: Yes.
I arranged with the nice young man behind the counter to scale and clean the snapper, which I would be back to collect after the chef’s presentation. There were only a few additional things I needed: Coconut milk, cilantro, lemongrass. Jasmine rice, fresh ginger, garlic, coriander, I had. Basil, too, I thought—at least enough to eke out a handful of leaves from my moribund plants, but as it turned out the previous night’s 32-degree low had finished them off. So, no basil.
There was a strong element of serendipity, even so. The recipe called for a couple of limes, and I was secure in the knowledge that I had in my kitchen already a few of the fabulous plump, powerfully flavored organic limes from Sahu Subtropicals, scored at the Newport Beach Farmers Market the previous Sunday. What a perfect home for them this dish would make.
The fish for dinner, the most important thing, out of the way, I wanted to talk about caviar, about which I have a bee in my bonnet. I remember reading Michael Ruhlman say, in his blog or elsewhere, something about how regular consumers can’t even hope to buy the caviar that Eric Ripert turns away at Le Bernardin’s delivery door, let alone get the really good stuff. This irks me; I find it nearly impossible to find caviar of a quality that not only justifies its price, but is even good-tasting. Decent salmon caviar has been marginally easier to secure than the various varieties of sturgeon, but only marginally.
Chef Ripert said there is no more wild caviar—not from Iran, not from Russia. Farmed caviar coming from Germany and Israel, he said, is very good. He counseled to work with a merchant that would allow one to look at and even taste the caviar before buying, an almost fantasy-level holy grail of a caviar supplier in the world of regular consumers. But the German and Israeli lead is a good one, for the next time I’m in the market for caviar.
Ripert conjured another simple yet luxurious food item on the level of caviar, answering an audience question about what would he choose for his last meal. He said he would want bread, a black truffle, and a glass of wine, sitting under a tree with his family around, the sound of the wind blowing through the tree branches above. The unexpectedly simple, poetic picture prompted an audible, collective ohhhhh from the assembled.
The contrast of the simple and the luxurious is something of a hallmark of “Avec Eric,” book and show. Rich ingredients like butter and crème fraîche are used generously, but with purpose and refinement, not hidden in complex preparations. And then there are simple, even homely things like a granola with honey that Ripert was inspired to create after visiting a Northern California honeybee preserve.
These juxtapositions are a little curious, even startling, but nice—perhaps reflective of Ripert’s Buddhist perspective.
The recipe for the whole snapper, (as well as that granola with honey), will be coming up in ToOC.