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WRITTEN BY GREG ATKINSON

The Artistic Adventure
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Valentino Cortazar's still life of vegetables is among the paintings, photographs, observations and recipes gathered in chef Eric Ripert's new book, "A Return to Cooking," which explores the relationship between cooking and art, the journey from raw products to finished pieces.
In 'A Return to Cooking,' we're along for the creative ride

Nothing enhances a book like a good ghost story, but until I opened Eric Ripert's "A Return to Cooking" (Artisan, $50), I had never seen one in a cookbook. Even so, I have known since childhood that anything can happen between the covers of a good book.

As he launches into a recipe for a croque-monsieur made with smoked salmon, thin-sliced chives and bits of preserved lemon, the chef takes his readers on a journey of transformation as unconventional as his version of this classic ham-and-cheese sandwich.

"We have spirits who look after us," writes Ripert. "I don't know why it is Grandma Ripert who looks after me — there were other relatives I was closer to. But it is she who is with me, and so I must make the croque-monsieur, an homage."
 
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By the end of his "Ghost Story," which serves as an introduction to the book and feels as comfortable as a conversation over lunch, it's clear to the reader that this book is more than a glamorous collateral piece for Ripert's restaurant.

In order to create it, Ripert took several leaves of absence from the four-star temple of gastronomy, Le Bernardin in Manhattan, where he reigns as one of the country's best chefs. The mission, in Ripert's words, was "to explore the relationship between cooking and art and produce a book about cooking and spontaneous creation, a book about art and the creative mind and the process of transforming raw products into finished dishes, into finished paintings, a big book, filled with canvases and stories and recipes."

Organized around four adventures in cooking, the text follows the chef and his companions first to Sag Harbor on Long Island, where, according to co-author Michael Ruhlman, "Ripert was manic, not knowing what would happen," then to Puerto Rico, Napa Valley and Vermont. The book is more than a travel journal with recipes; it is an account of Ripert's evolution. By the time he and his collaborators reach Vermont, more than a year after the project began, "Eric is easy and confident . . . matured even."
 
Recipe

Photo
 Sautéed Summer Vegetables with Garlic and Herbs
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Ruhlman, who infiltrated the Culinary Institute of America to write "The Soul of a Chef," and forged a powerful working relationship with chef Thomas Keller to write "The French Laundry Cookbook," was uniquely qualified to chronicle the transformation. "Tell the story," he was told . . . "but you are free, too. You can write poetry if you want to!"

Painter Valentino Cortazar and photographers Shimon and Tammar Rothstein were invited to see it all through their own eyes, and assistant to the chef Andrea Glick was assigned the task of recipe writing and testing.

Born in Antibes, France, and raised in Andorra, Ripert paid his dues as an apprentice before he worked under master chef Joel Robuchon in Paris, who was charmed by him and sent him to work for Jean Louis Palladin in Washington, D.C. When he came to Le Bernardin in New York, he was chef de cuisine to Gilbert Le Coze who died tragically in 1994. Gilbert's sister approached Ripert then, and asked if he'd like to be the chef. He said yes; he was 29.

The kitchen thrived under Ripert's direction, and the young chef was thrust into the national spotlight retaining the restaurant's four stars from The New York Times. But he felt something was missing.

"Looking to improve the food at Le Bernardin," he writes, "I began going to art museums. I had always sensed that food and art were related, and I thought I could raise the level of the food by studying art . . . I would then return to Le Bernardin and play with composition. But I was wrong. A chef's primary focus shouldn't be on presentation. Presentation must be in the service of flavor."

Cooking outside the restaurant for his friends in the course of making this book, Ripert found what was missing. "When I talk about art in cooking," he says, "I'm attempting to convey a message that food is sacred. I'm paying homage to God, to our mother Earth, to the life force of this world . . . (cooking for friends), those moments of sharing are an actual communion for me, a religious experience . . . Artists are craftsmen with a spiritual message. And cooks may convey spiritual messages as well."

Seattle writer Greg Atkinson is author of "The Northwest Essentials Cookbook" (Sasquatch Books, 1999).

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