5 Minutes with Eric Ripert & Anthony Bourdain

By: Erin Byers Murray

They bicker. They jab. They debate one another on food and life. And this Friday, Eric Ripert and Anthony Bourdain are sizing each other up in front of a Boston audience. “Good vs. Evil: An Evening with Anthony Bourdain & Eric Ripert” brings the two master chefs (Ripert of Le Bernadin and PBS’s Avec Eric; Bourdain of The Travel Channel’s No Reservations) to the Symphony Hall stage where they’ll swap stories, debate food theories, and generally roast one another to a crisp. We spoke to both chefs to learn who was good, who was evil, and most importantly – where they’ll eat while they’re here this week.

The Good Interview: Eric Ripert

How did “Good vs. Evil” come about?
This was Anthony’s idea so I blame it on him. He sort of comes up with these topics and I think I am the “good” and he is partly the “evil” but he may think something else.

We’ve seen Anthony take jabs against you on Top Chef and tease you on No Reservations. Is there a beef or is it all an act?
There is a lot of controversy in our relationship and Anthony is very opinionated and not very diplomatic. He can be judgmental. I challenge him often and we tend to disagree. But we have an authentic discussion and he is always trying to convince me that I’m wrong. Sometimes I am right and he acknowledges that when it’s the case.

You recently raised issue with Chef Gordon Ramsay’s anger issues – via Twitter – after a recent episode of his FOX show, Kitchen Nightmares. The tweet read: “anger=weakness.” Do you think the same applies to your friend Anthony?
I would say that, often times, when Anthony is being judgmental or opinionated he is really being sarcastic, not angry. He can be very straightforward or get excited, which may come across one way but really, I think he is being honest.

How would you say the Boston food scene ranks in comparison to other U.S. food cities, like New York or Los Angeles?
It’s hard to classify. Boston is a large cultural center with lots of different ethnicities: a large Asian population and a very large Latino community. I eat in Chinatown late at night and it is a big part of eating in Boston, but it is not all that you get. When I am in Boston, I eat at Clio or Radius, or Bistro du Midi… I am friends with these people and when I eat there, I eat very well. So when I eat a meal in New York or in San Francisco, is it a great meal between one city and the other? No. It’s a great meal. I feel the same when I eat on Nantucket, I go to The Pearl. I’ve had amazing meals there – and in Boston.

Where will you eat while you’re here this week?
I’d rather not say because I want to eat in peace (laughs). We will tell everyone after.

The Evil Interview: Anthony Bourdain

How did you come up with this panel idea? Eric blames it on you.

You know the way these things work out in this claustrophobic world of chefs: We found ourselves sitting on the same panel together. And we’re very good friends and I came to be all too aware that it’s much more difficult for Eric to answer some questions frankly and with complete candor like I do, you know? He’s got a reputation to protect.

What do you mean, ‘he can’t answer them frankly?’
I can unload my opinion on anybody at anytime. He’s got three Michelin stars to protect and four New York Times stars, a swank restaurant, and a high-end clientele. That’s an institution with a lot of employees who he feels responsible to. Plus, frankly, he’s a Buddhist. He’s nicer than me.

And so, this became an excuse for a public discussion.
Well, his discomfort is exquisite and I think some of the teasing back and forth…we realized that it’s funny, people enjoyed it. We are very good friends but obviously very different with very different backgrounds so it kind of grew into this tenuous thing. There’s not very much prepared material, we just sort of have a free-ranging conversation slash ball busting, you know, taking turns trying to provoke each other. I was very pleasantly surprised that from the beginning people really seemed to enjoy it and get that a) it’s funny and b) if you want to seriously ask questions about sustainable farming or food or fine dining, Eric is well qualified to provide an authoritative answer. And I can be counted on to at least tell you what I think. We’ve been doing ridiculously well with this thing. When we don’t have a moderator throwing questions to start the conversation, I’ll just sit him in a chair and basically cross examine him as if I were a prosecuting attorney in a criminal case. You know, very combative, very aggressive, and start asking him about his career, his art, his opinion, things he may or may not have said at various points in his career. And then we reverse positions and he’ll do that to me.

Will you have some questions prepared or will it be off the cuff?
I will be prepared with my line of questioning worthy of a seasoned district attorney. I will crack him like a walnut.

So is the banter – what we see on TV and what we’ll see on Friday – real?
It’s genuinely fun. I mean, like on Top Chef, if I can make him look like the bad guy, you know that’s a good day at work for me.

Which you did, during this season’s Top Chef: All Stars.
Yeah (laughing) and he’s like the nicest guy in the world. I know how to press his buttons, he knows how to press mine. But, you know, he’s getting a little more unpredictable these days. The last one of these, he got the biggest laugh of the night. And it was a joke! Which was awesome.

You just shot an episode of No Reservations in Boston a few weeks back – what’s your relationship to our city?
Well, I started my whole career cooking on the Cape so all my friends went to BU – Boston is no stranger to me. I’m not familiar at all with the fine dining scene though. [The episode we just shot] was more about my relationship with a particular slice of Boston that I’ve always found fascinating and poetic and beautiful. It was not about the best restaurants in Boston because the best restaurant in Boston is going to be similar, no matter how good it is, to the best restaurant in New York or the best restaurant in Chicago – the food is going to look the same. So we’re always looking for a stylistic way in. I’m obsessed with the George V. Higgins book and film, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, an early ‘70s Robert Mitchum film. So we shot it in that style with my sidekick from the legendary Boston band called The Un-band. I think they are one of the only bands to ever be completely banned in their own hometown. So we shot mostly in Southie, Dorchester and East Boston. It was very working-class food, a lot of bars. Hard-core Boston area foodies are going to be apoplectic with rage and betrayal. But if you want the “best of” or fair and balanced overview, go right over to Samantha Brown. Or Guy Fieri. I’m sure they’ll be able to do the usual suspects.

You start every show with a preconceived theory about what you might discover – did you go into this one thinking you’d find out anything in particular about Boston?
Well, no, I mean I had a pretty good idea. I mean, listen: I’m a Yankees fan. And I went right into the heart of hardcore Sox fandom, places where, basically, you get a beating if you’re wearing a Yankee warm up jacket. I had an awesome, awesome, awesome time.

Where will you eat when you’re in town this week?
I would just love to bring Eric to Murphy’s Law around closing time. I’m just having a hard time imaging it (laughing). But if he ever got a beating, that I’d feel bad about. The place I’ve been meaning to go – the heavy pork centric, what’s it called… the gut centric…

Craigie on Main?
Craigie on Main. That’s the place that’s number one on my list so if I have any time, I would love to go there. All my chef buddies in New York think very highly of Craigie on Main.

Event details:
“Good vs. Evil: An Evening with Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert”
Friday, March 4, 8 p.m.
Symphony Hall, 301 Massachusetts Ave., Boston
Tickets ($35, general admission; $200, VIP admission) online at Ticketmaster.com