Chef Eric Ripert Says the French Feel Our Froid

Le Bernardin chef Eric Ripert knew he was in for it shortly after John McEnroe walked onto the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theater. On Feb. 27, Mr. McEnroe stood in for the shingles-afflicted David Letterman on CBS’ Late Show, and as Mr. Ripert watched on a monitor in the Green Room, the former tennis pro told the audience “we have a chef from Le Ber-Na-Deh” in that loud and slow way that hostile Americans and show-off schoolboys attempt to communicate when they’re in a foreign country.

“That’s French,” Mr. McEnroe said with a straight face. We don’t like French people.”

The groans rose up from the audience, but so did applause.

“I’m kidding,” Mr. McEnroe said quickly, but the Grinch-like smile that had blossomed across his face said that maybe he was not.

“You know what? I was not prepared for that,” Mr. Ripert told me two weeks later. This was his third appearance on the Late Show and, he said, Mr. Letterman had never treated him that way. “For the Letterman show. It was a big surprise,” he said. “Because, usually, I have never seen on that kind of show, some people attacking your nationality or where you come from.”

As France continues to be an obstacle for the Bush Administration’s need to go to war and publicity-starved restaurant owners stage photo ops by pouring ginger-ale-filled Dom Perignon bottles down toilets, Mr. Ripert and some of his culinary colleagues have begun to wonder whether the cartoonish anti-French sentiment being sown by the hawks and The New York Post will take root in the city that they have helped transform into the culinary capital of the world.

For a few weeks now, the subject has been the proverbial elephant in the room of the city’s restaurant industry. French chefs and restaurateurs, who are usually quite eager to be interviewed, have suddenly been unavailable, in part, because they don’t want to discuss the topic. But because Mr. Ripert had had to deal with these very sentiments on national television, I decided to ask him about it.

“It’s a very touchy subject,” he agreed.

And it should be. The Russians and the Germans and the Chinese are opposing the war in Iraq too, but no one seems to be upending bottles of Stolichnaya or dumping Mercedes or Peking Ducks into the East River. “I don’t care what the French government thinks or not. I’m not pro-French action or not,” Mr. Ripert said. “But, you know, the Russians are the same. Why don’t they pick on the Russians?”

For some reason, the lion’s share of exported American rage is being directed at the French, and when I asked Mr. Ripert why he thinks this was happening, he said: “In some ways, the U.S. is such a big country. And France is such a tiny country. And the French, I think, are in the way of what the American government would like to do. And they’re like why are these little guys breaking our balls? Maybe the French have their own agenda and the Americans have their own agenda. And at the end, they’re fighting for something. But we don’t know what.. They’re not going to tell us,” he said, then added: “At the end of the story it’s definitely about power and money for sure.”

Some of this also has to do with the weird cultural dynamic that exists between the U.S. and the French. We beguile and intimidate each other to a standstill. And whenever conflict erupts, the aggrieved attacks the other culture. When the French are pissed at us, they go after our entertainment industry complex. Remember Jack Lang attacking Dallas ? Practically any American movie that makes money around the world becomes the object of scorn in Paris.

And when we get angry at the French, we tend to focus on the food. French cooking and wine symbolizes everything about the French that intimidates us: their sophistication, their sensuality and thanks to the status-conscious dining experience codified by the pioneers of French restaurants in this country, their arrogance. The French dining experience has loosened up considerably since the days of the imperious Henri Soule-have you read Truman Capote’s “La Côte Basque” lately?-but the perception still lingers. And that is why you’ve got squirrelly looking restaurateurs in New Brunswick, N.J., flushing Merlot down the loo. We understand liquor and automobiles because this nation’s backbone was built on bootlegging and Henry Ford’s assembly line. And now that Chrysler is a German car, Americans have come to accept even that . But give some people a French menu and they forget Lafayette and start muttering about a thousand years of snobbery.

But New York is a city that loves and understands its restaurants. It is also one that seems to be largely against the war. As might be expected, Mr. Ripert said that so far, the anti-French impact has been limited to some people-even some regulars-who “don’t want to drink French wine. And don’t want to eat French cheese.” He also recalled a woman who complained throughout her entire meal. “And at the end, when she got up, she said, something like, ‘You French people, you should go back to your country.’

“There is nothing we can do because her reaction was so irrational and so unfair,” he said. “You cannot do anything except smile and be nice.”

But way out west-in that great middle expanse that starts with Hoboken and ends in Toluca Lake-Mr. Ripert has seen what could be. On March 7, the chef had flown to Vail, Colo., to cook at a dinner benefiting handicapped children. On his way out of the airport, he said, he passed a bar where the patrons sat watching a televised speech by Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, the handsome, fox-faced member of the French government who has infuriated Americans. He addressed the U.N., and the crowd’s vehemently negative reaction to the French official left the chef with a distinct reaction.

“For the first time in my life I was scared to be French,” he said.

And given that The New York Times put the New Brunswick, N.J. restaurateur on the front page of its Metro section, others are wondering how far things will go. “At the beginning I didn’t take it seriously at all,” said Ariane Daguin, who is the daughter of celebrated French chef André Daguin and the owner of D’Artagnan, a New Jersey based purveyor of foie gras, as well as a Midtown restaurant by the same name. “Now I get remarks from people. And I think things that I wouldn’t think before. For example, on Sunday, my daughter was wearing a rugby shirt from France, and I thought, ‘Am I going to tell her to take it off or not. You know?” Ms. Daguin let her kid wear the jersey “and it as fine,” but she added: “I’m afraid about what’s going to happen Monday or whenever they go to war, and what the French are going to do.”

On Mar. 10, Ms. Daguin went to the Manursing Country Club in Westchester to introduce a new product to approximately 60 chefs from a group she called The Association of Country Club Chefs. While she was there, she said, one of the chefs told her “I’m not going to buy French until you change your policy.”

“I said, hey, I have 112 employees, most of them are American or not. But they are not French. You are going to make them suffer because I import one French foie gras?” And everybody said, “It’s a joke, we’re just talking. But still, somebody said it.”

Ms. Daguin’s comments are another example of why the city’s French chefs and restaurateurs are itchy about all this anti-French talk. And why it really needs to end. They may serve their interpretation of French cuisine but they’re cooking with mostly American ingredients and employing New Yorkers.

And they are also supporting New York and American charities In the aftermath of Sept. 11, chefs Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten cooked for rescue workers. Mr. Ripert serves on the board of City Harvest and participates in at least 20 charity events a year. “We are New Yorkers,” he said, “and we live in this country.”

And this country is still a Democracy, “Even if we are French, we have the right to like our origins.” “We have the right to say it’s good to be French. We shouldn’t be ashamed. The beauty of this country and the beauty of New York is the diversity.”

That’s pretty much the same attitude that Mr. Ripert exhibited on Late Night when Mr. McEnroe finally did pounce. “Enough about cooking,” Mr. McEnroe said shortly after the segment with Mr. Ripert had begun. “What about the French not supporting us in the war?”

Mr. Ripert looked, for a moment, like he’d been punched in the gut, but then he did something interesting. He didn’t apologize or attempt to explain his country’s politics or stalk off the stage. Instead, he handed Mr. McEnroe a mortar and a pestle and asked him to crack the pepper for a shrimp dish he was making.

“The French portions seem pretty small,” said Mr. McEnroe. “Can you tell me why they’re so small and expensive? Twice the price and half-as-much. It’s great.”

Then that beautiful American Tom Arnold, special cooking guest, jumped in. “You don’t see a lot of fat French guys over there,” he said.

Mr. Ripert looked at him. “You know what we do at night,” he said. “We’re very busy.” The audience suddenly remembered something about the French that they liked.

Soon after that Mr. Ripert got shrimp gunk all over one of the pant legs of Mr. McEnroe’s beautiful pinstripe suit. And Mr. Arnold stopped complaining about the French as soon as he’d been fed.