'Top Chef' Judge Eric Ripert on the New Season and His Secret Weapons in the Kitchen

The celeb chef and new 'Top Chef' star explains what it's like behind the judges' table

Critics regularly declare Eric Ripert one of the best chefs in the world. The French-born chef has earned Michelin stars and James Beard awards for his New York restaurant, Le Bernardin; penned several cookbooks; and stars in his own TV show, Avec Eric. So what's next for the culinary superstar? Top Chef, of course. Ripert talks to iVillage about joining the judges' table for the new season.

How did you end up on the show as a judge?
Well, I'm not a permanent judge. I replaced Gail [Simmons] whenever she could not be on set, which was about half the season. I've always enjoyed the show, and because it was filming in Washington, D.C., where I have a restaurant, I could film and check on my restaurant at the same time.

You've been involved in the show in other ways over the years. What's different about being at the judges' table?
As a guest chef, I participated in the Quickfire Challenge. In that you have an interaction with the contestants and get to know them a bit. As a judge, there's much less contact. You see them at the table and that's it. I liked it better, actually, because you could judge the quality of the food without being too personally invested.

What did you enjoy most—and least—about the show?

I know Padma [Lakshmi] and Tom [Colicchio] well. It was almost like a vacation for me to just be hanging out and eating with them. The challenging part is that you need to be very fair and very careful with what you say as a judge. You don't want to alienate or insult someone by using too strong of a word.

Where do you rank in terms of toughness as a judge?
I'm very true to myself and very honest. I don't think I'm too soft or too tough. I'm just saying what I taste. I was never pressured to be more dramatic because I was on TV—nobody ever told me what to say or how to behave.

Would you ever do Top Chef Masters?
I don't think so! I think I'll stay behind the judges' table.

What was your favorite challenge?
Cooking at the CIA. And that's not what you would think—the Culinary Institute of America—but the Central Intelligence Agency. I can't say much more, but it was very interesting.

Let's talk about your own food life. What three things are always in your fridge or pantry?

Dark chocolate, Fage nonfat Greek yogurt and good-quality honey.

What are your secret weapons in the kitchen?
Japanese knives. They are the best quality. In my restaurant, I have a set of Japanese knives that only I can use, and then other knives for sharing with the rest of the kitchen.

What's your guilty-pleasure food?
I have absolutely no guilt when it comes to food. I eat whatever I want whenever I want. If I decide I want to eat in the middle of the night, I don't worry about it.

Is there anything you won't eat?
Brains. I've never liked them. I also will not eat food if it isn't fresh—if it doesn't smell right or fresh, I won't eat it.

You have a young son. What's your advice for parents feeding picky eaters?
You have to make eating fun and engaging for kids. I think the choo-choo train strategy is a good one. For older kids, if you involve them in the cooking process, even in small ways, they have a connection to the food and they're more likely to eat it.

What's been your biggest kitchen disaster?

Well, I don't know if this qualifies exactly as a disaster, but it is a funny story I've never shared. When I was younger, working in France under Joel Robuchon, I was assigned to the fish station, in charge of sauce. One day early on, Joel came up to me and asked me to make a saffron sauce. I had no idea how to make it, and the guy who was training me at the time was out for a cigarette. So I just faked it: I took out an empty pan and started whisking nothing. I panicked. I didn't know what else to do! After a few minutes, Joel realized what was happening and just screamed at me.

Today, my saffron sauce is very good.

Which Top Chef judge would you most like to have dinner with? Chime in below!

Like this? Read these!
- 11 Questions with Top Chef's Gail Simmons
- Top Chef Finalist Carla Hall's Blog
- Padma Lakshmi's Baby Daddy Revealed

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