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NEW YORK, May 7 — Before coronavirus struck New York, one of the world’s premier seafood restaurants Le Bernardin was offering tasting menus including striped bass truffle tartare and grilled lobster mi-cuit.
Today it serves up hundreds of plastic trays of roast chicken, rice and cabbage to feed the city’s medical workers.
Eric Ripert, a three-star chef originally from France, reopened one of his Manhattan kitchens on Wednesday for the first time since March 13 — where from Monday to Friday four of his 180 currently unemployed staff will prepare some 400 daily meals.
Balanced menus including pasta bolognese with broccoli, meatloaf, couscous or tajine are set for delivery to health workers sheltering in the central neighbourhood’s hotels, who descended on the embattled city en masse to reinforce hospitals overwhelmed with patients.
“For now it’s important to help out the overall community, specifically doctors and nurses,” Ripert, donning a mask and gloves, told AFP.
The goal, said the renowned chef, is to assist “people who take enormous risks, see horrible things during the day — when they return to their hotel, they can relax and eat something tasty.”
Even if the pandemic has slowed its once relentless pace in New York, the city remains the nation’s coronavirus epicentre, with more than 19,000 confirmed or probable deaths linked to Covid-19.
The 55-year-old Ripert’s project to deliver meals is in collaboration with the Jose Andres-founded World Central Kitchen aid organisation.
Authorities have not yet projected a date to begin relaxing confinement measures. Ripert hopes he might be able to re-open Le Bernardin in September.
Though that dream date seems far off and isn’t fixed, he can’t help but consider the famous restaurant post-pandemic.
He doesn’t plan to offer elegant dishes to go, as some Michelin-starred chefs have done the world round — but “it definitely won’t be the same Bernardin it was before the closure,” he said in a slight accent hailing from France’s south, still audible despite 31 years in the United States.
Still, “Le Bernardin is a fancy restaurant with three Michelin stars — we will try to continue to be able to create this experience for our diners,” he said.
There will have to be more space between the tables and less capacity, said Ripert: currently, without counting two reception lounges, the restaurant can host 120 people.
Staff will need to work wearing masks and gloves while using plenty of disinfectant, Ripert emphasized.
But the economic equation remains in question for the restaurant co-owner, who is used to seeing his establishment full for both lunch and dinner.
Ripert, who since the pandemic began has posted simple, affordable recipes for his nearly 600,000 Instagram followers, declined to offer insight into his accounting.
But he expects he will need to reduce his staff from 180 pre-crisis down to 40 or 50 employees.
And international clientele, some 30 to 40 per cent of his business, will likely drop off until foreign travel is once again in full swing.
Staff before stars
But will he keep his stars?
“We will do everything we can to work for our diners to have a quality time at Le Bernardin, and keep our employees able to work,” the chef said.
“Then the stars will come — or not come.
“Today it’s not really what’s important, when we think of the global crisis we are living,” he added.
Ripert doesn’t doubt his adopted home’s ability to bounce back.
“We’re not going to overnight — to be as full of energy as we were takes time,” he said.
“But New York will always be New York, and New York will return to the level it was,” said Ripert, complete with the “creativity and energy” the city embodies. — AFP-Relaxnews