By Ellis Henican
Éric Ripert had no idea what to expect.
“It’s kind of surreal,” the French-born chef admitted, still in the grip of the weirdest year ever. “We never thought life would stop like that.”
Yet meeting and surpassing expectations is the life he has chosen and the business he is in, pandemic or not. That’s what it means to be the chef and the face of Le Bernardin, the three-Michelin-starred Manhattan seafood restaurant known for its sustainably minded catches and refined dining room.
Many questions have been flying at Ripert, as they are at any chef or owner who’s trying to reimagine restaurant life in COVID-rattled New York — only more so.
Will the seared yellowtail hamachi and Wagyu beef be perfect? What kind of energy will the room on West 51 Street have when capacity is capped at 25%? Can a staff of 50 operate with the same precision as a staff of 180 did? Until the restaurant reopened at the start of October, Ripert didn’t know the answers to any of that. Nobody did.
“Now, I’m feeling good because we are reopened,” he said in a tone that landed somewhere between giddiness and relief. “So that’s the good news. It’s a lot of solidarity with the clientele. They come in to support us every night. So that’s good news too. But at 25% occupancy, it’s not sustainable for too long. So hopefully, we’ll get some better news very soon because we need to go to the next level of occupancy.”
City Hall has been hinting at a hike to 50% capacity for inside dining, but there’s still no firm date.
There are what the chef calls “technical differences” that have come with the city’s safety protocols. “The machinery that cleans the air in our air conditioning and heating system,” he said, ticking them off. “Taking the temperatures. Wearing a mask. The distance between the tables. In the back of the house, checking the employees every day.”
But is dinner at Le Bernardin still dinner at Le Bernardin? The regulars who are returning seem to think so. The cover count is staying full, and no one’s leaving their expectations at home.
“We have been able to keep the energy and the ambiance of Le Bernardin that we used to have before,” Ripert said. “Every night, it is a lot of good energy in the room. People seem to appreciate being here.”
As for the longer-term prognosis, many New York restaurants may not make it, he said. But he is confident Le Bernardin will. “I have no doubt we will go back to normal. But the timing? I wish I had a crystal ball.”
It’s much the same story — strong encouragement and aspirational timetables — at top places downtown.
“People want to go out,” said Drew Nieporent, whose long-running lower Manhattan restaurants include the refined Bâtard, the sushi temple Nobu and the (normally) bustling Tribeca Grill.
“Overall, I am optimistic,” Nieporent said. “I’m looking for a vaccine after the election. I’m thinking things will get back to normal in the spring of next year.”
With the city’s current safety protocols, he said, restaurant profits are still just a dream. “Every dollar I spend is a dollar out of my pocket, but we’re doing it. The only thing I don’t feel good about from a business standpoint is the 25% capacity.”
The current formula is especially hard on smaller places, he said. “If you have a 60-seat restaurant, you can’t make it on 15 chairs. Why not just let restaurants distance the tables 6 feet apart and follow the proper guidelines?”
The whole goal, he said, is breaking even and staying afloat until the fear lifts.
A summer of outdoor dining helped, but for how much longer? “In November, I’m not eating outside in a coat,” the restaurateur said. “I don’t care if they do have a heater.” And some diners aren’t yet comfortable coming in. “I am married to someone who will never go indoors to have dinner at this moment,” he said.
But Nieporent has reason for confidence. His three downtown restaurants, which are 25, 30 and 35 years old, survived 9/11 and the 2008 crash, not to mention the trend of vertical dessert and the whims of celebrity investors.
A lot of it, he said, comes down to business practicalities. Tribeca Grill didn’t reopen until the start of August, a solid month after some other places in the neighborhood. The timing, he said, had as much to do with labor consideration as medical ones. “My workers were all getting $600 in additional unemployment. It worked out to $1,100 a week. They were asking themselves, ‘Should I not work for $1,100 or work for who knows what.”
But things are heading in the right direction, Nieporent said. “And I’m feeling pretty good.”
Ellis Henican is an author based in New York City and a former newspaper columnist.