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Fine Dining Hall of Fame: Per Se

Well-known precision elevates East Coast 
sibling of Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry

Not many restaurateurs are capable of transforming the meaning of an everyday Latin phrase, but that’s what Thomas Keller did. 

After it was announced that the chef-owner of The French Laundry was going to open one of the flagship restaurants in New York’s Time Warner Center, he was repeatedly asked if it was going to be another branch of his Napa Valley restaurant.

He said, “It’s not going to be The French Laundry per se,” and realized that the Latin term for “as such” actually made for a nice restaurant name.

Per Se opened in February 2004 to wild acclaim. It won the James Beard Foundation Award for the year’s best new restaurant and went on to receive top ratings from practically every other source available, including four stars from The New York Times and three stars from the Michelin guide.

Although Per Se is not The French Laundry, it is a close relative. Keller said he spent 3 ½ years working on Per Se, which he designed in collaboration with Adam Tihany.

He closed The French Laundry for five months as Per Se opened, relocating 30 staff members to New York and “inoculating” the rest of the team, as Keller said it, with the Napa Valley restaurant’s culture of precision, attention to detail and practice of using the best techniques possible on the finest ingredients to create the memorable tasting menus for which both restaurants are known.

Menu items this past fall included a salad of marinated young onions with sweet onion flan, haricots verts, mâche and shaved Burgundy truffles; mascarpone enriched parsnip agnolotti with honey crisp apples, young onions and a pickled mustard seed beurre blanc; and rack of lamb with cauliflower fondant, Meyer lemon, globe artichokes, arugula and pine nut vinaigrette.

Although Keller’s two flagship restaurants are on opposite sides of the country, the kitchens are literally in constant contact — connected by a closed-circuit television.

“I was trying to think of a way to maintain a cultural connection between the kitchens,” Keller explained. The “squawk boxes” that Wall Street companies use to be in constant contact with their offices across the globe gave him the idea for the television connection.

“When it was first installed, it was a little bit awkward,” said chef de cuisine and Brooklyn native Eli Kaimeh, who was one of Per Se’s opening cooks.

“Most kitchens aren’t used to people watching them the whole time,” he continued. “But now, if it’s not on, we feel like something’s missing. We’re constantly supporting each other with recipes and ideas. It’s really nice to see our comrades doing the same things that we’re doing. It’s almost like a security blanket.”

Kaimeh slowly transitioned into the chef de cuisine position as his predecessor, Jonathan Benno, arranged his departure this past January.

“It was a very smooth transition. He took one step back every day,” said Kaimeh, who was working as a cook at Gramercy Tavern when Benno and other members of The French Laundry team were doing some prep work there, he said.

“I knew it was a great opportunity for me to try to get my foot in the door,” Kaimeh said. “So I basically chased him around for a few days trying to get his attention.

“Finally, on his last day, I said, ‘Look, you can’t leave without giving me the opportunity,’” Kaimeh continued. After several weeks of e-mail exchanges, he joined the team. 

The restaurant continues to evolve, Kaimeh said, as the staff continues to seek out the best ingredients and further improves its techniques.

“Over the past six years, we’ve really educated ourselves — working with The French Laundry and honing a much more precise method of cooking,” he said. Whether it’s a traditional French confit process or finding new uses for immersion circulators, he said they continue to strive for culinary perfection.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected].

RELATED: Read more about other inductees in this year's Fine Dining Hall of Fame.

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