Best of the Best 2002: Dining: Best Chefs
Master of the Sea
As a chef, Eric Ripert’s greatest attribute might be his ability to select the freshest, tastiest seafood for New York’s Le Bernardin. Or, it just might be the restraint he shows in preparing it, allowing the natural flavors to speak for themselves. Whether it is serviche of black bass, baked turbot, or poached halibut, Ripert’s appreciation for ingredients is unflagging. In Le Bernardin Cookbook: Four-Star Simplicity, which he cowrote with Maguy Le Coze, the restaurant’s owner, he states his philosophy: “In my kitchen . . . every fish gets treated according to its personality . . . I also feel what I do . . . When I cook a carrot, I become that carrot. If I don’t feel the food, I will only be a great technician, never a great chef.” The result? Unforgettable flavors of the sea from a man who cooks from the heart.
Born and raised just outside of Strasbourg, France, in the Alsace region, Jean-Georges Vongerichten is that rare French chef who is able to honor the culinary traditions of his homeland while reaching globally for new ideas and ingredients. At New York’s Jean Georges, the crown jewel in his restaurant empire, the focus is decidedly on France. You might enjoy a young garlic soup, scallops, and cauliflower with caper-raisin sauce, or a classic halibut en papillote. The earthy, aromatic food is likely inspired by his years spent working beside some of France’s greatest chefs: Paul Haeberlin (Auberge de L’Ill), Paul Bocuse, and Louis Outhier (L’Oasis). But at Vong (located in New York, Chicago, London, and Hong Kong), Vongerichten builds on his formal training and experience to create, with his executive chefs, Asian-inspired dishes such as rice paper rolls of shrimp and herbs, seared tuna with Szechwan peppercorns, chicken with lemongrass, and pork in caramel sauce. The cuisine goes beyond fusion—no flavors are muddied, no combinations are made for effect. Tastes dance and embrace on the palate. It’s a marriage of East and West, where both cultures maintain their integrity.
Everything Thomas Keller touches turns to gold—or green, or red, or orange, or yellow. His food is so beautifully displayed it seems a crime to dig in. From the beginning of a meal to the end, whether it’s a puree of English pea soup with white truffle oil and Parmesan crisps, vine-ripe tomato sorbet with tomato tartare and basil oil, spotted skate wing with braised red cabbage and mustard sauce, or a strawberry and Champagne terrine, Keller’s cuisine appears to have been lifted from an artist’s canvas. The craftsmanship obvious in the smallest details of each presentation is a visual Pavlovian bell to the palate. Before you’ve tasted anything at The French Laundry, his restaurant in Yountville, Calif., you feel intoxicated by the anticipation of the plea-sure that awaits. Keller’s ability to evoke desire just by showing you what you will eat makes him a Cézanne of the kitchen.