Monday, May 9, 2011

Washington Social Diary

Ruth Buchanan and Don Larrabee arriving Georgetown’s Tudor Place for its annual garden party.
by Carol Joynt

New Yorkers may assume full claim to Le Bernardin chef Eric Ripert, but Washington has a piece of him, too. Not only is he partners with the Ritz Carlton hotel chain in the West End Bistro here, but in the late 1980s, when Eric moved from France to the United States, his first stop was the nation’s capital. He was 23 years old, didn’t speak a word of English, but followed some good advice.

At the time he had been working the “fish station” at Jamin in Paris and suffered extreme wanderlust. His dreams were of Brazil or Spain. His then boss, Joël Robuchon, had another idea. He sent him to the kitchen of Jean-Louis Palladin, who was cooking up a French culinary revolution at Washington’s Watergate Hotel, where President and Mrs. Reagan were among the regulars.
Jean-Louis Palladin.
Left: Ripert's former boss, Joel Robuchon, at his acclaimed L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon. Right: Brother and sister, Gilbert and Maguy Le Coze, before his untimely death at age 49.
For Ripert, the job in Washington – again at the “fish station” – was the beginning of a career in America that has made him a world class success and a celebrity, earned through talent and a face and demeanor made for television.

You’ve seen him on Bravo’s “Top Chef,” and you should make a point to check out his own show, “Avec Eric,” which airs on PBS stations and online and just this past weekend won the 2011 James Beard Award for “On Location Television Program.”

The beauty of the show is that he takes the viewer to fascinating places where food is produced or celebrated, whether it’s the Chesapeake Bay, an organic farm or a Buddhist retreat.
In this episode of "Avec Eric," chef Eric Ripert visits the Chesapeake Bay to learn about catching and cooking soft shelled crabs.
Ripert was in Washington last week and during his visit did an interview with me for my local cable show, The Q&A Cafe, which is taped at the Georgetown Ritz Carlton hotel. The audience of more than 100 fans and friends was brought together by the Ritz.

We talked for almost an hour, covering subjects that ranged from his devotion to City Harvest, his early career, his mentors and inspirations, the relative safety of Pacific seafood after the Japan earthquake, what he’d cook if he made a home meal for President and Mrs. Obama (paella), memories of 9/11, and his devotion to Buddhism. He also had fond words for Palladin, a dashing and brilliant chef, who died from cancer. Eric said Palladin taught him to fly free, to push the creative boundaries, and to explore possibilities outside of his classical training.
Just before the interview began, Eric Ripert charms his host.
Ripert moved from Washington to New York and was already number two at Le Bernardin when its sensational founding chef, Gilbert Le Coze, died suddenly in 1994. His was a large void to fill but with Gilbert’s sister, Maguy, at his side, Ripert stepped up, kept the seafood restaurant going and took it to greater heights of culinary splendor and success: routinely at the top of Zagat, routinely winning the maximum 4 stars from The New York Times, routinely scoring the top 3 stars from the Guide Michelin.

But New Yorkers know all that. What they may not know are some bits of other news we discussed in our interview.
Eric Ripert at The Q&A Cafe.
The set of The Q&A Cafe at the Ritz Carlton Georgetown.
For example, after the Obamas moved into the White House they offered Eric, who is an American citizen, the job of executive chef. He did not boast of this but mentioned it in a line of questioning about Michelle Obama’s commitment to sustainable foods and the potential for the role of what is essentially the nation’s “First Chef.” He was sincerely flattered but turned down the offer because the salary did not match the responsibilities, which I pointed out could be said about the President’s salary, too. He did say, though, that he’d like to prepare something from the First Lady’s kitchen garden on the White House lawn.

While he did not want to dwell on his religion, Ripert did talk about how he discovered Buddhism. It was back at the moment he left France for America. He was at the airport in Paris, had one dollar to spend and was about to purchase Playboy when he noticed a book on Buddhism for the same price. He chose the book and has been a follower of the Dalai Lama since. I asked about Buddhism because I wondered if it was at the root of his famous serenity, of being a chef who's known to be calm and not a kitchen screamer. “I think I would have been that way, anyway,” he said.
After the interview, Eric drew the name of a lucky audience member who won a trip to a Ritz Carlton resort.
The audience at The Q&A Cafe at the Ritz Carlton Georgetown.
We also talked about the planned closing and several million dollar renovation of Le Bernardin, which is set to start in August. Eric said the dining room is a relic of the 80s and it is time to bring it into the new century. He hopes the result sets a standard other restaurants will want to match. When it reopens, he said, Le Bernardin will be a model of sustainability – both in the food and the use of resources.

As a longtime fan of that dining room I asked if the paintings of the sea, fish and fishermen would be part of the new décor. Nope. But then he sought to give me reassurance. While his plans are top secret, from what he said off the record I predict Le Bernardin’s patrons will be thrilled and, in between bites of Eric’s boundless creations, easily inspired to grab the tiller and toss a fish net.
Italy? No. Georgetown and The Tudor Place Mansion on a May evening.

Georgetown’s Tudor Place clearly has good weather karma. No matter what, the sun seems to always shine on its annual garden party. This year was no different, even though it was a rainy day up until about an hour before the party got underway in a big tent and on the beautiful sloping lawn of the museum house which was built in 1816 as the home to Thomas Peter and Martha Custer Peter, granddaughter of Martha Washington. The Peter family lived there, generation after generation, for 180 years.

Today it is a crown jewel of historic Georgetown, a popular stop for tourists and locals, and hosts many cultural and social events. The annual garden party is a fundraiser and an opportunity to honor someone who has made a contribution to preservation. This year it was Richard Moe, former head of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Even though the sun broke through the clouds, the weather was chilly for early May. But this party draws the city’s cave dwellers, a notoriously rugged bunch. Rather than complain, they ate and drank. The party is famous for its bountiful buffets and plentiful bars, well stocked with premium brands and rapid-fire bartenders. The drink of the evening was a Tudor Place rum punch, which neatly delivered the warmth.
Arriving at the party, Ruth Buchanan and Don Larrabee.
Greeting arrivals, Elizabeth Powell and Catherine Nottingham.
Don Larrabee, Ruth Buchanan, Muff Allen, Cathy Kerkam, and John W. Gill.
Checking out the program, Mary Grover Ehrgood and Ellen MacNeille Charles.
Sassy Jacobs, Elizabeth Powell, and Sarah Cannova.
Georgina Horsey. Hugh Jacobsen and son Simon Jacobsen.
Jeffrey Powell, Chris Cannova, and Chris Jacobs.
Jane Matz and Kathryn Baker.
Hugh Jacobsen and Niente Smith.
Page Smith. Lisa Mullins Thompson.
Timothy Matz, Judy Cox, and David Dunn.
Ruth Nobel "Baba" Groom, Robin Johnson, and Amy Bondurant.
Edith Schafer. Leslie Buhler.
The lawn.
The buffet. Ev Shorey at the buffet.
Lee Child and Susan Rappaport.
Ed Solomon and Bill Starrels.
Ruth Jacobsen and friend. Pam Moore.
One of the many bars.
Replenishing the drinks. Replenishing the buffet.
Leslie Buhler on stage, honoring Dick Moe, former head of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, on the right.
Dessert and flowers. The roses.
Tudor Place gardens at twilight.
Carol's upcoming memoir is Innocent Spouse, excerpted at