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With Veronica Chambers

“Only if you cook what you love and truly understand will people be happy with your food.”

Good food—how it can sustain you, both physically and emotionally—is the centre of these memoirs. Eric Ripert, a well-known chef, writes about growing up in France and Andorra, and his early years in the kitchens of Michelin-starred restaurants.

Ripert didn’t have an easy childhood. His adored parents, Monique and André, split up when he was very young, and André moved away. His stepfather Hugo bullied him when Monique wasn’t around, which was every afternoon after school. At 7 years old, there wasn’t much that Ripert could do.

Not surprisingly, he became a “difficult child”. When he was 8, his mother sent him off to a Catholic boarding school, something he saw as an ultimate betrayal from the one person he relied on. He didn’t stay long at the school because the priest who took him under his wing tried to molest him—yet another betrayal from an adult he trusted.

The bright thread running through these years was a love of food, inherited from Monique, a superb cook. One of the joys of the summer holidays spent with his grandparents was watching his grandmothers cook. As he says, “when things were bad, and later, when bad went to worse, food became my main source of comfort, my most consistent pleasure”.

When he was 11, André died. Ripert was devastated. To try to cheer him up, Monique took him to a small but well-known Andorran restaurant, Chez Jacques. Jacques took an immediate liking to Ripert, who would spend afternoons listening to Jacques’s war stories and watching him cook, instead of being at home with Hugo.

Inspired by Jacques, Ripert went to a cooking school and got a job as a junior chef in La Tour d’Argent, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris. Nothing he had done so far had prepared him for the gruelling work in a restaurant kitchen. The first day was a disaster. It took him 20 minutes to separate 32 eggs for his first task: to make a sauce hollandaise. The pan became unwieldy. “I didn’t have the strength to move thirty-two yolks and make a light and foamy sabayon. … I couldn’t ask…so I failed, at this simplest of tasks.”

But he worked hard and eventually got a job in Jamin, a two-Michelin-starred restaurant under Joël Robuchon, a chef with a terrifying reputation. Working at Janin made La Tour d’Argent seem easy. Robuchon lived up to his reputation and ran his kitchen on fear. There was no chatter, no kidding around—just a kitchen full of people determined not to upset the chef.

The book is poignant, heartbreaking and vivid. You get the feel of what it must be like to work in the kitchen of a high-end restaurant—the constant pressure, the heat, the lack of space and the dynamic between the people. His descriptions of food are mouth-watering: his grandmother Maguy’s apple tart, where “[t]he scent of butter and apple was sunshine itself”; Monique’s soupe au pistou, with “the basil brightening the flavour of the white beans”; and his first taste of caviar: “the saltiness, the richness, the briny finish as I swallowed it”.

And there is the way that food can capture a moment in time. In Ripert’s case this was the chocolate mousse he had the first night at Chez Jacques. “Proust had his madeleine, and because of Jacques, I had my mousse. … 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.”