August 03, 1998 12:00 PM

Though the sun will not rise over New York Harbor for a few more hours, Eric Ripert is already running his fingers over the North Carolina soft-shelled crabs that have just arrived at the Fulton Fish Market. And scowling. “Non! This is no good,” he exclaims in a strong French accent, picking up a one-clawed crab. Fishmonger David Samuels heaves an exaggerated sigh. “My grandfather would roll over in his grave,” he says of Ripert’s pickiness.

Crippled crustaceans don’t cut the moutarde at Le Bernardin, the mid-town Manhattan restaurant where executive chef Ripert stirs up what critics call the finest kettle of fish in the country. At May’s James Beard Awards—the Oscars of the culinary set—Le Bernardin was named the best restaurant in the U.S., and Ripert, at 33, New York City’s top chef. “The fish at Le Bernardin is somehow not like other fish,” GQ’s Alan Richman wrote last year. “It is minimally embellished, inordinately fresh, lovingly cosseted and unabashedly admired.”

Ripert (pronounced Ree-peart) spares no expense—prix fixe dinners start at $70—in transforming the denizens of the deep into haute cuisine for such devotees as Uma Thurman and Mick Jagger, who can dine on truffle-sauced Scottish salmon and caviar-topped Chilean oysters.

The handsome young chef has impressed the food world not only with his piscatory prowess, but also with his strength in the face of adversity. In 1994, his mentor, charismatic Le Bernardin founder and chef Gilbert Le Coze, died suddenly of a heart attack at age 48. A devastated Ripert, Le Coze’s No. 2, immediately took over; the restaurant didn’t miss a meal. “He stepped up to the plate and kept standards absolutely where they had been,” says New York Times critic Ruth Reichl, who renewed Le Bernardin’s four-star rating in April 1995.

“I still miss [Le Coze] a lot,” admits Ripert, who now co-owns the restaurant with his former boss’s sister and business partner, Maguy, 53. She oversees finances and habitually strolls the serene, 120-seat dining room. “I don’t know that I would have made it without Eric,” she says.

To hear Ripert tell it, his destiny was preordained. When he was 10, a psychic visiting his family in Andorra, a tiny country between France and Spain, told him he would become a chef in a grand restaurant. (The superstitious Ripert, who was raised Catholic and now studies Buddhism, still wears a gold pendant the psychic gave him. The one time he took it off, he says, he was accosted by two knife-wielding muggers on the Paris subway.)

Ripert grew up “with a passion for food.” For his 8th birthday, he asked his banker father and clothing-importer mother to take him to Paul Bocuse, a renowned restaurant in Lyons, France. After graduating from a French cooking school and working at top Paris restaurants, he carried his toque to the U.S. in 1989. He worked as a sous-chef at French restaurant Jean-Louis in Washington, D.C., for two years, then as chef de cuisine at Le Bernardin. “Right away you could see he was going to be a leader,” says Maguy Le Coze.

Sandra Nieves thought so too. The Brooklyn native, now 31 and a financial associate at J.P. Morgan, met Ripert five years ago, when she was working as a hostess at a restaurant he frequented. One night, they chatted about the artist Wassily Kandinsky. “I thought, ooh, he knows how to cook and he’s cultured,” she says. He proposed last year at Lespinasse, another four-star Manhattan eatery, and the pair wed July 4, honeymooning in Bali.

With Ripert’s 12-hour days and penchant for predawn fish-buying excursions, the couple, who share a two-bedroom Manhattan apartment, sometimes see each other awake only on weekends. Such is the price of seafood superstardom. “The day I don’t have fun anymore, I won’t do it,” says Ripert. “It is a passion, not a job.”

Samantha Miller

Julia Campbell in New York City

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