For nearly a decade, Thomas Keller was content to remain in Yountville, Calif., where, as chef and owner of the French Laundry, he had forged his reputation as the finest American-born chef. He did not need a successful New York restaurant to confirm his culinary excellence, and he still does not. Keller does have some prior experience with the city, having served as chef for several years at the French establishment Rakel, which fell victim to the stock market crash of 1987. The 49-year-old was convinced to return to Manhattan and open Per Se when he received an offer that was too tempting to decline. In addition to a 13,000-square-foot space in the new Time Warner Center that afforded breathtaking views of Central Park, plus control over the interior design and an impeccably equipped kitchen, the deal allowed Keller to select the chefs who would become his neighbors. Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Gray Kunz, and Charlie Trotter were among those who responded to his invitation.
“There’s no one reason why I accepted the offer,” says Keller. “I cut my teeth in New York. A lot of my colleagues are here. The Time Warner Center was a compelling project. And it was a challenge, and I wanted to challenge myself. The question is, can I do it? Can I rise to the challenge, overcome the obstacles, and be successful in New York?”
Keller encountered his first major obstacle in February, shortly after the restaurant’s opening, when a kitchen fire forced Per Se to close temporarily and cancel hundreds of reservations. As limited as the blaze was, it shuttered the 16-table restaurant for months because of insurance-related issues. “We used the downtime to prepare ourselves for the reopening and to get stronger,” says Keller. “We’re always analyzing how we can do a better job.”
Keller, a notorious perfectionist, has entrusted Per Se to chef de cuisine Jonathan Benno, who was previously the sous chef at Craft, Tom Colicchio’s restaurant. “Jon was my first choice,” Keller says, explaining that he and Benno worked together during the first year-and-a-half of the French Laundry’s existence. “I was impressed by his ambition, focus, dedication, and confidence. He showed great promise.” Benno left Yountville in 1996 to sharpen his skills in New York, experience that further convinced Keller. “I have great respect for the people he worked with here—Boulud, Colicchio, Christian Delouvier—all of whom I know well and have confidence in.”
Among the flavorful marvels coming from Benno’s kitchen are hand-cut tagliatelle with shaved Perigord truffles, and Iranian osetra caviar with pickled Granny Smith apples. Per Se’s dishes also include French Laundry favorites such as white truffle custard with black truffles, and a salmon “chop,” a Keller creation that makes inventive use of the meat from and near the cheeks of the fish. However, Keller insists that the New York restaurant is not a clone of the Napa Valley establishment. “Per Se is not the French Laundry. It’s not a French Laundry brand,” he says. “There are philosophical ties to what we do here, but Per Se is going to evolve.”