After introducing myself to the hosts at Per Se and asking if I could just take a peek at the dining room during the evening’s service, I was invited to have a seat at the anteroom/bar and enjoy a drink. I was wearing a rather dapper outfit, the highlight of which was a camel hair sport coat from Brooks Brothers, so I decided to head to the bar.
Just looking at the wine list is enough to make any oenophile’s tongue water with anticipation. Since it was the holidays, I selected a glass of Veuve Cliquot champagne to celebrate, well, just to celebrate everything. I was in New York City. I was filled with anticipation of what the night would bring. Who knows what was going to happen.
The bartender introduced himself as also being from Tampa and that his girlfriend was also from there. I got the feeling this guy knew what I was going through…my first time being at Per Se in New York…if you’re a foodie, this is like being in the Vatican. His conversation calmed me down. And that’s when the food started to come out.
Amuse after amuse came from the kitchen, delivered with grace by waiters and waiters that walked like runway models. Each with compliments of the chef, who was “honored” to have me in his restaurant (on a night when the tasting menu was $250, not counting the supplements that only made it more expensive). I had the world-famous salmon coronets, popcorn with black truffles, wagyu beef, and, of course, the oyster and pearls with sabayon and caviar that may be Keller’s best. I counted twelve or so mini-courses, all the while I’m enjoying champagne older than me.
It was on the third glass of Veuve that things became interesting. First of all, I had on me about two-hundred fifty bucks, which was about the price of the bottle of champagne I had intended to only have one glass from. I was drinking my way through the bottle and beginning to wonder how I was going to pay for it. So I said to myself, hey, you’re here, enjoy this bottle and then go home and it will be a night you remember.
While doing the math in my head, the bartender asked me a question I had to have repeated to fully comprehend. “The Chef has invited you to the kitchen.” Now, I’ve met three presidents, several governors and senators, world-famous athletes and many stars, but never was I as nervous meeting someone as I was heading in to that kitchen to meet Chef Keller (plus I’ve had a bottle of bubbly!)
Just imagine the cleanest place you have ever seen and that will only begins to compare to the brightness and order found in the kitchen at Per Se. Godliness cannot even stand next to the cleanliness of this kitchen, that’s how beautiful this room was — a room with food being prepared in every direction. As for the operation of the kitchen, a team of Delta Force commandos does not operate with the precision Keller’s brigade performs at (the cooks at Per Se probably have better technology too; they’re linked in real-time to their colleagues at Keller’s flagship French Laundry.
“Good evening, Mr. Schorsch,” he says pronouncing my last name perfectly.
“Good evening, Chef,” I reply with a nod to him and the other chefs around him. He said nothing more, nor did I, as I just stood there and watched perfection being plated. After about fifteen minutes, I am given the rest of the tour of the kitchen and the restaurant. I am simply awe-struck by the discipline found throughout the entire building. Not one knife is out of place. Not one finger-print can be found on a plate. Nothing except blinding whiteness and gleaming stainless steel reflection.
Dazed, I return to the bar, take it all in, text a few colleagues in the restaurant business to let them know where I actually am and then ask for the bill. On the bill, which was in excess of the two-hundred fifty dollars I had on me, was one word:
The bartender, by now a brother in arms who probably remembered what it was on his first day at Per Se, instructed me: “The Chef would like you to take what you learned here tonight with you to Florida. It has been our pleasure.”
No, the pleasure was all mine.