Chef on Call

Party for 12, in Need of Ripert

Chef Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin in New York City and Westend Bistro in Washington, D.C. helps "Chef on Call" student Sarah Rothleder prepare a New Year's Eve dinner that will amaze her guests. Video by Garrett Hubbard
By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Sarah Rothleder was already intimidated about hosting 10 people for dinner on New Year's Eve. Then she found out that coming to teach her how to pull off this fete was none other than Eric Ripert, three-Michelin-star chef.

"Holy cow! Really?" she exclaimed. "Does he realize he'll have to truck out to the suburbs to hang out with a housewife?"

Actually, when Ripert answered Rothleder's plea to Chef on Call, he arrived at her Fairfax home in a chauffeured car, not a truck. At his side was Michelle Lindsay, his director of operations and former sous-chef at his famed Le Bernardin in New York City. To say that Rothleder was flustered would be an understatement.

Tall, fit and unmistakably French, Ripert commands attention with his appearance (thick, wavy salt-and-pepper hair; drowsy blue-gray eyes; aquiline nose) but holds it with nice-guy likability. His accent is so thick it sounds like a parody. Ripert, 42, has a sense of humor about it, though, and even told Rothleder a hilarious story about appearing on Bravo's "Top Chef" as Santa Claus and being unable to aspirate the "h" in "ho, ho, ho" despite coaching by the show's host.

"Padma [Lakshmi] said, 'Say, 'Oh, oh, oh,' and I said, 'I'm saying 'Oh, oh, oh,' and she said, 'No! 'Oh, oh, oh. . . .' "

Rothleder, 40, giggled at the story, but soon enough it was time to get down to business.

Her trepidations about dinner parties, it turns out, were not born of a lack of organizational skill. As a wife (her husband, Neal, 41, sat in on the lesson), a mother of two (Eli, 8, and Simon, 5) and the owner of a Web-based business she runs from home while also consulting, Rothleder is no stranger to multi-tasking. But she tries to prepare overly ambitious foods for dinner parties and loses control of the time. What she needed from Ripert was not only help in creating a doable menu and advice about wine pairings, but also strategies for preparing enough in advance that she wouldn't be popping up from the dinner table like a jack-in-the-box every few minutes.

Ripert, whose Westend Bistro recently opened in Washington, was up to the task. The word "bistro," after all, is said to derive from the Russian word for quick, and Ripert thought a bistro mentality was just what Rothleder needed to pull off her dinner. He provided her with a three-course menu of dishes similar in style to those he and chef Leonardo Marino serve at the fast-paced Westend: smoked salmon croque monsieur with caviar paired with a watercress, green apple and cucumber salad; roasted veal loin with black truffle Madeira sauce, mushroom packets, sauteed greens with ginger and garlic, and braised salsify and Jerusalem artichokes; and citrus segments with Grand Marnier sabayon and sorbet for dessert.

Rothleder asked about her biggest concern: how to get everything to come together and reach the table at the right time and while still hot.

"Each course has only one element that needs to be done at the last minute," he told her. "For the first course, it's putting the salad together with the dressing. For the main course, it's sauteing the greens. For the dessert, it's making the sabayon sauce."

Ripert laid out the plan of action.

"You toast the croque monsieur ahead of time and then only heat it up for a few minutes before serving. The veal is seared and ready for the oven. The sauce is made ahead of time. The vegetables are prepped in the morning," he instructed.

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