Per Se: Part I (The Stage)

"Sense of Urgency" There are a million tiny details about Per Se that I could bore you with (how I shredded black trumpet mushrooms into a million pieces, pitted 180 olives, or lined up dozens of tiny baby leeks to cut into perfect one-inch slivers). These details, while fascinating to me (Dave said I sounded like a kid on Christmas as I recounted them all to him), will most likely not have the same effect on you. Instead, I'll tell you that the phrase above is placed strategically around the kitchen (above doorways, mostly) and that because of it (and the fact that they're working for chef Thomas Keller) everyone there either runs or scurries. At all times.

Oysters and Pearls at the pass

At Per Se, Oysters & Pearls goes by OandP (from server to the pass, those letters rang out all day during my stage, or kitchen trail). Chef Keller came up with the idea in 1995 - he was inspired by the word "pearls" written on a box of tapioca and decided to pair them with their source of origin, the oyster. Today his tapioca/oyster/caviar dish is served daily at both Per Se and The French Laundry.

While the point of my visit was to watch the dish prepared from beginning to end, I picked up more than a few basics. I got to glimpse of the inner workings of a perfectly engineered machine.

I arrived at the restaurant (on the 4th floor of the Time Warner Center) at noon and was promptly taken on a kitchen tour by Gerald San Jose, the restaurant's culinary liaison. The 5,300 square foot kitchen (the whole restaurant is 12,500 sqft), he explained is broken down into pastry, storage, prep, private dining, and the line (there are also offices, more storage, 18 reach-in refrigerators and a temperature-controlled chocolate room). We walked through dry storage where they keep the very few canned items they use as well as their cooking vinegars and oils. ("The finishing vinegars are kept under lock and key," he said with a short laugh.)

From there, it was on to the line where I met chef David Breeden, the intricately tatooed sous chef who took me through the paces. The line, or main kitchen, is small for what it produces, but every section is strategically placed. The pass, where dishes are expedited to servers during service, is actually a stainless steel island in the center of the kitchen that acts as a prep station during the day but is transformed before service into a paper-covered counter - the chefs stand on one side, the servers approach from the other. It's also covered with every menu for the night; there are several prix fixe menus plus the salon's a la carte menu along with that day's menu from The French Laundry. The famous closed-circuit flatscreen TV system which connects the two kitchens by a webcam is perched directly overhead so the two staffs can watch each other work.

Chef David introduced me to Kenny Cuomo, canape chef de partie, who I'll get back to in a minute. Following our oysters, I spent an hour with seafood butcher, Santiago Jimenez, a friendly, towering guy from the Dominican Republic who's worked there since the restaurant opened in 2004. He had a plastic bin of Island Creeks at his station and was quickly opening and separating them. (He shucks around 1200 oysters per week which puts him at about 300,000 over the course of his career.) As he shucked, he told me how he'd just broken his favorite shucking knife (it was 7 years old) and showed me his other butcher knives which had been sharpened and sheered down to practically nothing. With each oyster, he was careful not to puncture the belly but slid the knife gingerly between the top muscle and the shell before scooping the meat and all of the oyster juice into a plastic deli container. He then trimmed the bellies by holding the oyster meat flat against the top of his palm snipping away the outer meat with a pair of needle-nosed scissors. In three quick snips he had a perfect almond-shaped nugget (the trimmings were also reserved). He handed me the scissors to try a few, then put me to work trimming the rest. (Careful not to trim too much, I got the hang of it after about 30 but once Santiago started snipping beside me I realized what a snail I was - he finished 4 in the time it took me to do one. Practice.)

So, the oysters are separated: bellies, juice, trimmings. The three containers are sent to Chef Kenny at the canape station. Kenny was a whirling dervish, kind and funny but always moving, always gliding through projects and his work. Each day, Kenny prepares O&P and each day, he strives for absolute perfection. "There are variables, always variables, that can change or adjust the dish. But my job is to make it perfect regardless," he told me quietly as he worked.

We started with the tapioca, which had been soaked in milk for 8 hours. In a pot, he heated milk and cream, then added a deli container of oyster trimmings (from about 170 oysters). While they steeped, he got his sabayon mise en place ready: 14 egg yolks, 170 ml of oyster juice, and a bain marie (hot water bath).

Thomas Keller has been making this dish since he opened the French Laundry, Kenny explained. "That's 15 years of perfection every day," he said a little wide-eyed. He showed me the dishware that was specifically designed for O&P by Raynaud (the flat, round dish has a 2-inch round cup in the center and a subtle, white-on-white houndstooth check around the trim).

the dishware

Back at his station, he whipped heavy cream in a mixer and set it aside. He strained the oyster trimmings from the cream infusion, then added the tapioca pearls and the infusion to the same pot and returned it to a low heat. He started his sabayon, whisking the egg yolks and oyster juice together.

"Both have to come together at the same moment for this whole thing to work," he said as he stirred both seemingly at once. He handed me the tapioca spoon.

I stirred and watched him whisk until the tapioca became firmer -- then suddenly Kenny declared, "We're ready." He folded the sabayon gently into the tapioca and handed me a black pepper grinder. "100 cracks, please, chef," he said as I got busy counting to 100 (something I'm used to on the farm). He folded the whole mixture together and then quickly moved us over to the patisserie station where he had room to set up his dishware.

Taking a little of that reserved whipped cream, he folded some into the tapioca to keep it from firming up (which it would do as the mixture cooled). Using a large spoon, he doled perfect portions into each of the dishes (90 covers for the night; he got 89 servings out of his batch) before setting them aside on trays to chill until service.

In the meantime, he pulled together the poaching liquid: 1.8 pounds butter, 125 ml oyster juice, 125 ml champagne vinegar, 250 ml Noilly Prat vermouth.

At that point, Kenny was off to work on other dishes and I got busy helping with some other prep work. As I was slicing olives later on, Kenny leaned over and whispered: "Look at you, Chef. You're cooking at Per Se." Ha! I laughed a little. Actually, I was chopping at Per Se. But it certainly felt grander than any other chopping I'd done in my life.

Chef de Cuisine Jonathan Benno introduced himself in the middle of the day and while I didn't get to spend much time with him he was helpful and accommodating. Skip, Shore, and Matthew love Benno, or JB as they call him. And he, in return, gives them an incredibly hard time about the Red Sox (during a pre-meal staff meeting, he presented them with "I heart NY" t-shirts and a couple jabs about the World Series win).

I was invited to stay for a small part of dinner service and watched as the kitchen transformed into its "hectic" pace. The energy shifted ever so slightly; folks moved a little faster and heads were buried together at the pass while finishing touches were put on a dish. Nothing seemed frantic or harried, it just moved, rhythmically and in sync, like a well-rehearsed dance. (Though at one point, the phone rang and the whole kitchen stopped and held its breath. All eyes went towards the television and then to the phone's caller ID. JB picked it up, spoke quietly, hung up, and went over to whisper something to Chef David. Later, I asked JB if that was Chef Keller on the phone. "No," he said. "But when the kitchen phone rings during service, it's only one of two people. Chef Thomas or someone at the French Laundry.")

I stood beside Kenny as he plated a few O&P's. The dish moved quickly: the order came in (the sous chef calls out the ticket and the whole kitchen repeats the order in unison, then by station - "table 26!"-- "table 26 CHEF!"), Kenny pulled a prepared dish off a prep tray. It went into a warming oven while he put two perfect oyster bellies into a small pot along with a ladle of poaching liquid and some fresh chives. The pudding came out, Kenny spooned the sauce and oysters over top of the pudding, filling the cup almost to the brim.

Kenny pulled out Ossetra or sturgeon caviar and carefully draped it atop the dish, which was then sent to the pass and given a swipe with a towel. Chefs Jonathan and David examined the plate, which was then carried out of the kitchen by one of the waitstaff.

Oysters & Pearls: the plated dish

Of course, this description is brief and utterly simplified but the level of precision that is achieved within it, and every dish at Per Se on a daily basis, is mind blowing. Every minuscule component is pored over: every sliced olive, every oyster, every perfectly slivered artichoke heart. I stood beside an extern from the CIA, Ethan, as he tirelessly diced a small stack of Aji Dulce peppers until they were practically liquified (he was stretching his forearm by the end). Those peppers appeared as a mere bite on a cod dish later that evening but his efforts seemed monumental. From beginning to end, O&P probably takes Kenny and Santiago a combined three hours to prep and serve. Once on the table, it's gone in about four bites. There is a standard here which has been set higher than almost any other restaurant in the world -- and the preparation behind every dish lives up to that.

Of course, the chefs I met seemed content to be right where they were. At 4:20 on the nose (ahem), a server delivered plates mounded with staff meal (barbecue pork, two different salads, sauteed greens, and a macaroon) and throughout the entire day, no matter how high tensions would rise (a dish wasn't thoroughly worked out for a VIP that night; timing was tight on prep) no one raised their voice and everyone calmly and respectfully addressed each other as "chef." Granted, there was ribbing and poking fun (a good amount directed at me) but overall, there wasn't an ounce of attitude or pretension.

On top of it, they fed me well. Both here and when we sat down to dinner a few hours later (stay tuned for part II).