En español | How many times have we heard that New York City is cold and indifferent? There’s a bit of truth to that, but those who really know this city can attest to its kindness and compassion toward those most in need. On this stage enters City Harvest, an organization founded in 1982 to alleviate hunger among New Yorkers. Each year, close to 27 million pounds of food are distributed among the neediest all over the city. The food comes from markets, stores, cafeterias and restaurants, from the smallest and most humble to the most prestigious, exclusive and globally renowned ones.
This last category describes Le Bernardin, a French restaurant that has earned a four star rating from The New York Times and has been honored with three stars by Michelin. If you are a culinary professional, then you already know this represents the maximum achievement, the pinnacle of success. And yet, for Eric Ripert, co-owner and Executive Chef, personal fulfillment doesn’t end with those well-deserved stars. He goes beyond the call, to the sphere of humanitarian aid. For this, Ripert also deserves as many stars as possible.
Le Bernardin donates more than 30,000 pounds of food every year, to date totaling over 200,000 pounds of high quality products. Every day, a City Harvest truck arrives at the restaurant to pick up dozens of pounds of top quality vegetables, fish and meats. Ripert has made much of this project his own, heading the organization’s Food Council, a group of more than 75 chefs and restaurant owners who have joined forces to fight hunger in the city. Today, Ripert considers his work with City Harvest an essential part of his life and career.
“Ripert is one of the project’s champions and daily contributors,” says Jilly Stephens, City Harvest’s Executive Director. “He has donated incredible auction prizes and has raised thousands of dollars in donations. He has even implemented a fixed price menu named after City Harvest in his restaurant to raise funds in support of our work.”
Every little bit helps
What made you get involved with this organization?
“I have my health, a restaurant that is doing very well, and I live in New York, the center of capitalism but a place where many people do not have the money to buy fresh food,” he tells me. “I live in a city that has many riches but also extreme poverty, and I decided I would do my part.”
During our conversation, Ripert spoke about the exhilarating growth City Harvest has experienced in the last 18 years, growth in both to the number of people and businesses that participate and in the amount of donations received. He also claims to have learned that hunger is not only something helpless people in extreme circumstances bear; it is also a phenomenon affecting working families.
Eric Ripert has experimented with and studied cooking from around the world, excelling, naturally, in French cooking, as he was born in Antibes, France, and was raised as a youth in Andorra, a small country between France and Spain. He also conspiratorially mentions Puerto Rican cooking, with which he has firsthand experience, his wife hailing from Puerto Rico.
When I ask him what has most influenced him, he answers simply: “My grandmothers, my aunts and my mother, traditional cooking, and the great masters I worked with, among them Joël Robuchon and Jean-Louis Palladin. Puerto Rico continues being my inspiration. In reality, the entire Caribbean and also Mexico, Brazil and Peru.”
Ripert defines himself as a man completely dedicated to his work, who only thinks about working and serving others, not about success or fame. This is precisely his advice to the new generations of chefs who aspire to reach the same stature and prestige that he’s earned after many years: put your entire heart into everything you do, without thinking about what people will say, only on what you can give.
You don’t have to be rich to eat well
City Harvest doesn’t only provide food to the neediest. It is also teaching thousands of people to prepare healthier food, in which vegetable, together with grains we have often never heard of, play a very important and nutritional role.
“Everyone wants to eat healthy,” says Ripert. “But there are people who can’t afford to buy organic products, and thus do not eat them. Access to organic foods is often considered a luxury, something for the rich. But this is changing; little by little we are seeing more affordable organic foodstuffs.”
This is a revolutionary nutritional concept, based on the principle that you don’t have to be rich to eat well, in which creativity, the willingness to try new flavors, ingredients from other cultures, and being interested in the health benefits of a balanced diet play key roles.
I asked him what he would recommend to Hispanics, who often associate eating well with a full plate. His words reveal a philosophy of balance: “Don’t eat a lot. There are many cases of diabetes among Hispanics. Above all, do not eat so much fried food. Eating sweets doesn’t hurt as long as it’s done in moderation. It is better to balance the diet with vegetables, fruits and fiber.”
I asked him if he thought this balanced diet would be adopted in our culture. He smiled and answered with his own question: “Do you think anyone thought an effort like City Harvest would be possible in a city like New York?”