Seasons by the Sea: Culinary Memoirs

Food is the bond that connects us to family, friends, places, and experiences

Eric Ripert’s autobiography “32 Yolks” and Peter Gethers’s culinary memoir “My Mother’s Kitchen” are similar in many ways and distinctly different in others. Both men come from prosperous families with strong mothers and colorful fathers. Early influences for Mr. Ripert were the gardens tended by his father and grandparents in the South of France and Andorra, and meeting a chef named Jacques at a very young age. His book is humble and modest, his childhood somewhat harrowing, and it covers his life from early childhood to the moment he first comes to America to work for Jean-Louis Palladin in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Gethers’s book is brilliant and darkly funny at times. It covers his family’s history and a time in his life when his mother was mostly incapacitated by a series of strokes. It was during this time that he attempted to cook her favorite dishes for her, from breakfast to lunch to dinner. The recipes range from the simplest, matzo brei, to the ridiculously complicated, salmon coulibiac from Spago and quail with rhubarb from Yotam Ottolenghi. His mother, suffering from aphasia (loss of speech due to brain damage), comes alive and is able to find her words when her son cooks for her. It is touching, happy, and sad all at once.

Eric Ripert’s father was a banker and his mother owned fashionable boutiques. They divorced when Eric was young, and forever after he pined for his father, who died of a heart attack when he was 11. His mother remarried a man who became a layabout around the house, constantly taunting and occasionally beating the young boy. His mother, after working long days six days a week at her shop, would cook elaborate meals for the family, always with a dessert, starched linens, and fresh flowers. This was the only pleasure in her son’s life: good food. After school, he started hanging out in the kitchen of Chez Jacques. Jacques never put him to work, he just let Eric sit on the counter, gobbling baba au rhum and chocolate mousse and peppering him with questions.

“Proust had his madeleine and because of Jacques, I have my mousse. Every time I dig into a bowl of that chocolate velvet, I am a kid again, running to Chez Jacques after school. It is the taste of friendship. It is the taste of belly laughs, and war stories, and the memory of a man who could jump out of planes and make a leg of lamb with equal amounts of skill and ardor. But more than anything, chocolate mousse is the taste of being welcomed; of Chez Jacques, where for me, the door was always open.”

When his mother and stepfather find out there is no room at a nearby military school, Eric is shipped off to a Catholic boarding school at the age of 8, because he is “turbulent, hyper, ‘espiegle,’ mischievous.” Here, a priest who seems to be a father figure/mentor attempts to molest him. These experiences are interspersed with rhapsodic reveries about dishes and farmers markets and grandparents’ gardens and memorable meals, as if he doesn’t want us to be too traumatized by what he suffered through.

After culinary school and a stint at one restaurant, he ends up in Paris (at the ripe young age of 19) at Joel Robuchon’s Jamin. The time spent there was brutal and punishing; everything had to be made from scratch, twice a day. Mr. Robuchon had already earned two Michelin stars and was aiming for a third. The title of the book, “32 Yolks,” is inspired by Mr. Ripert’s first attempts at hollandaise sauce. He messes it up several times, while Mr. Robuchon screams at him “Thirty-two yolks! Thirty-two yolks!”

After serving time in the military, which he finds exceptionally relaxing compared to the Jamin kitchen, he returns for more abuse and works his way through various stations at the restaurant. Believing it is virtually impossible to accomplish all the mise en place (prep work, “everything in its place”), he starts to hide various prepped vegetables, rabbit terrines, and sauces from his boss. He has constant nightmares about ducks. At one point, Mr. Robuchon tells the chefs to peel individual peas and remove the tiny sprouts inside. He also begins keeping a log of their bathroom breaks. Mr. Ripert cheekily filled in the log: “Ripert: 2:00-2:07, pee-pee. Ripert: 4:27-4:31, caca.” The log disappeared shortly after.

By the end of the book, Mr. Ripert is about to take off for America to cook for the late, great Jean-Louis Palladin in Washington. Perhaps there will be another book from him someday, about his staggeringly long and successful career up to now, as head chef and co-owner of Le Bernardin. What we learn from “32 Yolks” is his philosophy on food and whether you get the best results from your staff by abuse or by encouragement. Mr. Ripert learned from both and he chose the path of honor and encouragement.

Peter Gethers’s mother, Judy, came from a restaurant family. Her father owned Ratner’s, the iconic kosher dairy restaurant on the Lower East Side. But it wasn’t until later in life that she became a cook, teacher, and author. Mr. Gethers, a playwright, editor, screenwriter, producer, and author, wrote this memoir while his mother was slowly fading away from a series of strokes, and eventually cancer. Mother and son always bonded over food. When he was young they would bake cakes together. His was full of mud and random toys. When it was time to bake it, his mother would send him off to nap time. When he awoke, his cake had miraculously turned out perfectly.

When Mr. Gethers starts to prepare his mother’s first favorite meal, in a series of three, she becomes alert and bossy, correcting him on the amount of water to use to soak the matzo. The matzo brei turns out very much to her liking, they eat it together with cherry jam, and she pronounces it “as good as I remember. It felt authentic.” He writes: “Watching her lick the last remaining bit of cherry preserve off a knuckle on her left hand, I must admit, I felt authentic, too.”

His foray into eggs Benedict got a bit more complicated. He hates following directions, apparently. But Judy declared this “delicious.” Another success.

The lunch menu she chose was celeri remoulade, chocolate pudding (a childhood favorite of his made by his nanny, Louise Trotty), Joel Robuchon’s mashed potatoes, and Yotam Ottolenghi’s quail with rhubarb sauce. (At this point I should warn the reader to buy this book for the words, not the recipes, necessarily. They are a bit inaccurate. The remoulade calls for one and a quarter celery roots, but this is too vague, as they come in many sizes. Also, the mashed potato recipe calls for one pound of butter per two pounds of potatoes. Mr. Gethers calls this two sticks of butter, but it’s actually four.)

His mother enjoys the celeri remoulade but declares the mashed potatoes lumpy. Oh, well. Before his next foray tackling her favorite dinner recipes, he takes a knife-skills class. After successfully learning these basics, he goes to his mother’s apartment to demonstrate his newfound talents. “I performed for my mom as if I were an eight-year-old Penn and Teller, amazing my audience with this view into a world of magic where few dared to tread. When I was done, my mom smiled. I’m not sure she was impressed. But I am sure she was pleased.”

The final meal was elaborate and not one that his mother was able to enjoy. But Mr. Gethers learned a lot along the way, about himself, about his mother, and about food. “Food is not a be-all and end-all. It doesn’t provide meaning, though it does provide pleasure. Nothing that provides pleasure can do so in a vacuum. It is sharing our pleasure that provides REAL pleasure.”

At some point in “32 Yolks,” Mr. Ripert says that cooking meat “brings out your soul, fish brings out your elegance,” meaning that meat is pretty much solid and malleable, whereas fish can be delicate and one must be carefully respectful. 

Which brings us to Joe Gurrera’s “Joe Knows Fish.” Mr. Gurrera is the owner of Citarella and this new book is an excellent primer for those who fear buying, seasoning, and cooking seafood. The book is nicely designed and meant to be for beginners, but it would be useful in any kitchen. There are helpful hints called “Joe Says,” a few side dish and sauce recipes, and lots of tantalizing pictures and stories.

While some may know Citarella locally as a convenient and reasonable, well-stocked gourmet store with three locations in our area, it originally began as a small seafood shop on the Upper West Side. When Mr. Gurrera bought it in 1983, he expanded it to include cheeses, meats, produce, and more gourmet items. The rest is history. The Citarella markets throughout the Northeast sell over two million pounds of fish per year.

The best advice in the book? Joe’s Number One rule: “Never overcook your fish! It’s a rookie mistake that inevitably leads to poor results.” Buy this book for your scaredy-cat friends.

Reading “32 Yolks” and “My Mother’s Kitchen” back to back was a true joy. In completely different ways, Mr. Ripert and Mr. Gethers tell us, no, REMIND us, that food is the bond that connects us to family, friends, places, and experiences. Taste is our strongest sense memory, and these gentlemen have shared theirs, from the funny to the difficult, the heartbreaking, and the glorious.