|Eric Ripert, in the kitchen of Le Bernardin; photo: Gabi Porter|
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Zagat: How do you keep things from getting stale after being open for so long?
We're in New York City, and it's always reinventing itself, it's a very competitive city. I see competition as a blessing, not as a threat. I enjoy the fact that we see talents coming from all around the world. Every morning when we come here, we have to look at ourselves and what we have done here and say, "This is not enough." We can improve here - in the bar, or in the dining room, or our welcoming at the desk or the quality of the food. We always update ourselves, rejuvenate ourselves, reinvent ourselves.
Zagat: How have things changed since the last guide came out?
In between the last guide and this guide there has been a major transformation. We want to be contemporary, we want to be timeless and create a different experience for our clientele, so we created this lounge. Before we had a waiting area with a little bar - now we have a very dynamic lounge with a different energy. We felt that our dining room was a little formal; we have a very young clientele and we decided to break everything and not wait to be outdated, just be proactive. We redid the dining room to make it much more contemporary and less formal, and we added the lounge.
Zagat: How long was the renovation in the works?
We started to think about it three years ago, and then it took us a year to say yes. And then it took us another year to say, "Ok fine, obviously to break a restaurant and rebuild is obviously a huge investment." And then we said, "Ok, when should do it?" We closed last August for five weeks and reopened with a brand-new restaurant. And we redid the kitchen entirely - it's exactly the same layout as the old kitchen but with all new equipment.
We have created a green restaurant. There's less heat in the kitchen - technology has evolved. The air-conditioning is 26 years old - it's different than what it used to be. We've used materials that are organic and recycled - it's a long list.
Zagat: How do you work changes into the menu and where do you find inspiration for new dishes?
We change 90% of the menu in one year, on average. The menu is a collaboration between my sous chefs and myself. We print the menu in-house - as soon as we have a new dish that is better than the old dish, it goes on the menu. Inspiration comes from the surroundings, being in New York. As you know, we are exposed to all these cultures and different cuisines and techniques. I like to say all the time that Le Bernardin is a New York restaurant with a New York cuisine. There's a natural fusion between cultures.
I'm lucky to travel from time to time, so I bring some inspiration back with me. We always keep our mantra that the fish is the star of the plate, and therefore whatever we put on the plate is to elevate the qualities of the fish.
Zagat: How do you keep the service fresh?
We have a team that is very loyal to us, for many, many years. Ben, our maitre d' at the front desk, has been with us for, I think, 19 years. Some captains have been here for about the same time. We keep our staff, and every day we meet and we talk about what we can do to improve service, and what is the need of the people? What are they looking for?
We do this without compromising our soul and the fact that we are a luxurious restaurant. For instance, in 1986, the waiters were keeping their feet parallel and were very still and were not interacting with the clients. Today people want an experience that is much more relaxed, but also very efficient. Little details are very important to us.
Zagat: When the next guide comes out a year from now, what do you envision happening at the restaurant?
Well, we're not going to destroy this restaurant and build it again [laughs]. Our food will evolve again, our service will evolve again - I cannot predict in a crystal ball what will happen here, but I suspect that we will still be relevant, still be passionate, and we'll deliver the experience to the clients that they are looking for.