Eric Ripert: I learned the hard way that you don’t get better results if your team is scared


By Eric Ripert

My greatest mistake was leading from anger.

When I was a young chef at Le Bernardin in 1992, hired to run the kitchen by brother-and-sister owners Gilbert and Maguy Le Coze, I had a really bad temper. It was my first chef position, and I was acting up a lot in the kitchen. I was screaming at staff, breaking plates, throwing food on the floor when I didn’t think it was good enough. I was miserable and was making my staff miserable, too.

I was brought up in kitchens in France in the ’80s, which was a difficult environment. We were being verbally abused, sometimes physically abused—kicked, punched. There was constant criticism and screaming and humiliation in those kitchens in general. I don’t want to give names, but some of my previous mentors were like that. So when I took control of the kitchen at Le Bernardin, I was 24, and I was basically emulating my mentors. 

At that time in France, they believed that you would take young talent in the kitchen, break them psychologically, then rebuild them and make them champions, basically. Obviously it was the wrong philosophy, but that’s how I was educated in the kitchen. So at Le Bernardin, I was applying that philosophy for a period of about three to six months after I started. I saw a lot of our best employees leave the restaurant. I was also extremely unhappy in my own life, and had no idea why. 

Around that time, by accident I started to read books by the Dalai Lama about Buddhism. He was popular then because he’d won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. I found the books very inspirational. I was new to Buddhism—I’ve now studied it for years—but it was starting to kick in that anger is not a strength, it’s a weakness. I was also realizing that in your brain, you cannot mix anger and happiness. You cannot be both angry and happy at the same time. The books I was reading spoke of universal values—peace, compassion, love, respect—in a secular way, using language that would touch everyone, from atheists to religious people to angry chefs. It took me a bit of time to put together what I was reading with how I was acting professionally, to connect the dots in my own life, but these realizations it led me to totally reassess how I was approaching my work. 

After an accumulation of bad days in the kitchen, I ended up in my apartment very late one night after I finished my day—it was about midnight or 1am. I was unwinding and just felt so unhappy. When I closed my eyes I tried to picture beautiful things, like a field of flowers. But I could see only darkness, I could not see anything nice.

Eric Ripert: I learned the hard way that you don’t get better results if your team is scared

I realized I was in a bad mental place, but I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with my life. I was thinking: I have a great job, a beautiful restaurant, I have a team. What is wrong? And then suddenly I had like a flash, almost like a “duh” moment. And I just knew: You cannot manage that way. You cannot promote being angry and humiliate people and have this kind of attitude. I just knew that what I’d been doing was totally wrong.

I stayed up for a few more hours, just analyzing more in-depth what was going on. In my life outside work, I was a very peaceful person—polite, respectful. But I was angry. Outside of work I would suppress that anger, while at work I exploded. It’s interesting because I was a victim of this kind of abusive behavior in kitchens during my young years, and I was not enjoying it. I hated it. But now that I was in a position of power, I was doing the same things I hated, which was fueling my anger. It was like a domino effect. It was negatively affecting everything in my life. 

That night I said to myself, This morning, when I wake up, I’m going to totally change the way I manage and my attitude. I’m going to reinforce my team, I’m going to treat them with respect, I’m going to encourage them to work on their weaknesses, but with respect and patience. And I’m going to work on myself, on my anger, on my weaknesses.

I went to bed, slept a few hours, and when I went back to Le Bernardin, from that day on, I’ve been working really hard on making sure that we treat our staff with respect and I don’t promote anger. And since that day my level of happiness, personally and professionally, has grown tremendously. Today, I’m a very happy person. But the shift in my behavior and Le Bernardin’s culture was a big challenge. I trained the sous chefs, the management, to be just like me, and suddenly I’m telling them the contrary of what I’ve been saying for months. It was a difficult job to retrain the staff and say, guys, I was wrong, and we have to stop that. 

It has been a work in progress for many years, but today Le Bernardin is a safe environment. People aren’t being treated poorly, the staff stays longer and people seem happy. Maintaining a good culture is an ongoing process. We have people coming in from all different backgrounds and with all different personalities—some of them have been in kitchens that were abusive, some have a temper, some have bad habits. We’re always retraining people. It’s constant work, but ultimately if you came into our kitchen or dining room now, you’d see a really peaceful team where people feel like they can learn and blossom in a safe environment without fear.

I’ve been criticizing Gordon Ramsay and the producers of his shows Hell’s Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares, because in those shows, he’s yelling at people, not treating them with respect. It’s a shame to promote and glorify this type of emotional violence. My generation, we fought this type of abuse, and now I see them promoting abuse to the next generation. It’s unacceptable, and It’s very wrong on every level. 

For one, and this is true for any industry, even if you’re selfish and you don’t care about people, you’re not going to get better results if your team is scared. Especially in the kitchen, if your staff is shaking and distracted because they’re scared, they’re not going to do a better job than someone who can focus their energy on creating beautiful dishes.

It’s also totally wrong in the human, psychological aspect of managing a team. You might get immediate results by yelling and leading with fear, but you will not get long-lasting results. There’s no strength to this type of leadership. When you have patience and train people in a respectful way, that’s much more powerful. You build a more solid base with your team, and you get better results.

If I could talk to 24-year-old Eric, obviously I regret my mistakes, but I would say congratulations for changing, because it’s not easy to question yourself and change, especially when you’re in a position of power. Nobody challenges you really. You are the only one who can challenge yourself.

As told to Marina Khidekel

Fast Company