Per Se, New York City
Celebrity chef and owner Thomas Keller’s restaurant in the Time Warner Center marries the essence of traditional European fine dining with contemporary design and E&S. Attention to detail is evident throughout, including the 5,339-square-foot back of the house comprising three dream kitchens, a full bakery, a butchery and separate pot- and dishwashing rooms.
All dishes prepared in the dining room kitchen come together at the pass station (front and center).
Built on two tiers, Per Se’s 1,600-square-foot, 15-table dining room is designed by Adam Tihany Design. The wood sculpture is made of hand-carved French oak with polished steel supports and custom leather panels. Other elements feature Australian walnut walls; bog oak wainscoting; a marble fireplace, floor and steps; and flower arrangements of foxtail lilies.
Featured in the lounge are bog oak wainscoting, bronze reveal channels, a bronze mosaic floor and limed oak table. The lounge is adjacent to the bar and satin-etched mirror.
A European-style cooking suite is the heart of the dining room kitchen. The suite supports four stations, which are set up clockwise from left: canapé, fish, meat and entremettier.
Under the double shelving on the stainless-steel cooking suite in the dining room kitchen are two French-top burners, a plancha for fish, two gas ovens and two electric ovens. Mounted on a wall at the far end of the suite is a rotisserie.
FOH photos courtesy of Adam Tihany Design
BOH photos by Joseph Scafuro
When Per Se was awarded the Illy Best New Restaurant Award by the James Beard Foundation in May, chef and owner Thomas Keller and his chefs were thrust into the media spotlight. Recognition, awards, praise, critiques and scrutiny are all part of daily life for the culinary group that now inhabits one of New York’s finest and most exclusive restaurants.
Located on the fourth floor of the Time Warner Center, the 12,500-square-foot establishment consists of a 15-table, 66-seat, two-tiered dining room overlooking Columbus Circle and Central Park; two private dining rooms, one with 10 seats and another with up to 60; a salon; and wine cellar. It is all driven by a 5,339-square-foot, $1.2 million production engine that features three kitchens, a full-service bakery, a butchery and separate pot- and dishwashing rooms. In designing the restaurant, Keller and his chefs worked alongside Adam Tihany of New York City, who designed the interior space, and foodservice consultant Timothy Harrison of San-Francisco-based Harrison, Koellner, LLC, who designed the kitchen and its layout.
The initial buzz about Per Se centered on Thomas Keller himself, who had returned to the Big Apple 10 years after a disastrous experience with the restaurant Rakel in the 1990s. During those years, Keller opened The French Laundry in Yountville in Napa Valley, Bouchon Bakery in Yountville, and Bouchon (a bistro) in Yountville and Las Vegas. Keller, now highly acclaimed in the world of culinary arts, took a notable leap back into New York City by opening Per Se in what has become the largest and most talked about structure to be completed since 9/11.
A few days after opening, an electrical fire forced the restaurant to close for two months. Since then, Per Se’s food and service have been available for dinner daily and lunch Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Customers may select from three menus that change daily: a five-course menu with selections; a nine-course tasting of vegetables; and a nine-course chef’s tasting menu. All menus are $175. “In order to produce the variety and caliber of food served at Per Se,” Harrison recalls, “Thomas, who trained in France, wanted a kitchen with historical reference to the European fine-dining restaurants. He desired a traditional staffing brigade in which each person has a designated place. Thomas, several chefs and I talked for a year-and-a-half about how this might be accomplished before anything was drawn.”
What eventually transpired was a sleek kitchen equipped with European cooking suites, sous vide tanks, refrigeration and raised rail containers at each station, and an array of state-of-the-art E&S. Impeccable attention to detail is evident in everything from brass fittings on storage drawers and walnut knife blocks to stone floors to the 37-inch-high countertops and recessed drainage pans in wet areas.
A porter at the loading dock on the parking garage level takes delivery of all food and supplies. The porter then rings in the orders and alerts crew in the various departments to come down to pick up their shipments and take them to the fourth floor on a dedicated elevator.
One of the first noticeable differences between Per Se and many other restaurants is the absence of walk-in refrigerators and freezers. “Rather than design the kitchen with walk-ins, which occupy unused space and compromise temperature whenever they are opened, we placed refrigeration throughout the kitchen at stations where it is needed,” Harrison says. Refrigeration includes custom-built, 99-inch reach-in refrigerators and conventional refrigerators, stand-alone and undercounter units, and freezers.
“The health department thinks this is the wave of the future,” Harrison says, “because we can separate fish, meat, produce, dairy and every different type of product.” Also appealing to the inspectors: A single, remote tracking device calibrates and monitors temperatures for all the refrigeration, and raised mise en place rail containers are positioned at every station.
In the prep kitchen, which serves both the main dining room and private dining kitchens, staff cut ingredients, combine and cook them in four 50-gallon stockpots on burners. For cooling, staff place the pots in a stainless-steel tub filled with circulating cold water.
Also in the prep kitchen is a combi oven and a unit that seals airtight bags containing products prepared for sous vide cooking. A small sous vide cabinet/tank, located in the dining room kitchen, prepares butter-poached lobster. Other tanks are portable, which allows staff to place them where they are needed when cooking items such as squab, foie gras, lamb and brisket, according to Rory Herrmann, sous chef. “The sous vide equipment allows us to control the temperature levels so products can be cooked very slowly, just until they are tender,” he says.
Items prepared in the prep kitchen are brought into the dining room kitchen. Situated beneath a 12-foot-high ceiling are dedicated stations, each with their own refrigeration and mise en place rails. On one side of the kitchen’s perimeter, undercounter drawers contain chefs’ knives and other equipment.
To the left facing toward the center of the space is the garde manger station, where staff prepare cold first courses, including salads, foie gras and terrines, and cheese courses. In addition to refrigeration, including a cheese refrigerator inset into a wall, this station is equipped with a cooking suite built with two electric ovens, a countertop with a double electric induction unit, ceramic radiant burners and a salamander.
The heart of the dining room kitchen is a European-style suite, which supports four stations: canapé, fish, meat and entremettier. At the canapé station, cooks prepare dishes such as a sabayon of pearl tapioca with oysters and Sevruga caviar. Some of the dishes cooks prepare at the fish station include sautéed fillet of Atlantic halibut, pan-seared Florida snowy grouper and grilled Columbia River sturgeon. At the meat station, duck breast, rib-eye veal and grilled beef are among the featured fare. At the entremettier station, staff produce seasonal vegetables such as split English peas, oven-roasted roma tomatoes and grilled young fennel. Staff also prepare sauces at the suite. Menus may change seasonally and daily.
Also on the suite are two French-top burners, a plancha for cooking fish such as tuna and a crispy skin fillet of Japanese Medai, two gas ovens and two electric ovens. Mounted on a wall at the far end of the suite is a rotisserie.
Cold plates are stored in the garde manger area; heated plates are kept in a compartment beneath the front of the suite or inside the mobile, stainless-steel, marble-topped pass station that has a built-in plate heater.
Located on the fourth floor of the Time Warner Center, the 12,500-square-foot Per Se consists of a 15-table, 66-seat dining room overlooking Columbus Circle and Central Park; two private dining rooms, one with 10 seats and another with up to 60; a salon; wine cellar; and a 5,339-square-foot production wonder with three kitchens, a full-service bakery, a butchery and separate pot- and dishwashing rooms. The restaurant is open for dinner nightly and lunch Friday-through-Sunday. Each menu is written daily and features seasonal ingredients. Per Se employs 140 staff members throughout; 15 on average per night in the BOH.
Chef/Owner: Thomas Keller
Chef de Cuisine: Jonathan Benno
Director of Operations: Eric Lilavois
Executive Sous Chef: Chris L’Hommedieu
Sous Chefs: Rory Herrmann, Matthew Accarrino and Phillip Tessier
Private Dining Chef: Joshua Schwartz
Pastry Chef: Sébastian Rouxel
Pastry Sous Chef: Richard Capizzi
Interior Designers: Adam Tihany, New York City
Foodservice Consultant and Kitchen Design: Harrison, Koellner, LLC, Mill Valley (outside San Francisco); Timothy Harrison, partner, and Suzanne Brinker, associate designer
Equipment Dealer: SML Stainless Steel Group, a division of SaniMetal, Quebec City, Canada
All dishes come together at the front end of the suite, home to the sous chefs, and are next sent along to the pass station for final approval by the chef du cuisine. Per Se does not use heat lamps.
“This production is like a symphony,” Herrmann says. “The timing must be perfect.” In order to maintain the rhythm and coordination, he explains, station chefs speak to one another only when necessary and listen for the chef de cuisine’s instructions.
Also in this kitchen is a dessert service station with a pastry suite that includes a radiant unit for warming sauces, and shelving for mignardises assembly.
Adjacent to the dining room kitchen is a similar facility for private dining. “This operation is completely separate from the dining room kitchen so the two production cycles don’t conflict,” Herrmann explains. “The chef’s philosophy is there’s a specific place for everything and everyone. Throughout the back of the house, everything is at our fingertips. No expense was spared. No shortcuts were taken.”
On the opposite side of the kitchen is a two-room bakery. One, chilled for making chocolate creations, is equipped with a glass-fronted stainless-steel cabinet that holds four tiers of flat containers on each side. The other room is equipped with a 60-quart mixer, induction burners, a four-burner range with conventional oven beneath, ingredient bins, a fermenter, a proofer, a sheeter, a spiral mixer, a French bread dough molder, combi oven and a four-deck bread oven. Bread is made twice during dinner service so it is fresh each time it is offered. Per Se also plans to use the equipment to produce products for Bouchon Bakery, scheduled to open in the Time Warner Center in September.
To handle the large volumes of soiled cooking and dishware, the pot and pan washing area is separated from the dishwashing section. Again, attention to detail is evident from the recessed wall cabinet, where pots and pans hang so they don’t get scratched, to the recessed drain pans in each area to prevent water backup and slippery floors.
Though the Time Warner Center was a new structure and, therefore, allowed Per Se to be designed with high ceilings and spectacular views, the project was not without its challenges. For example, after 9/11 the city mandated that structural elements, such as angled six-foot by 45-foot concrete columns, had to be installed to reinforce the inner core of the building. “These weren’t in the original drawings,” Harrison recalls. “We had to work around them in various parts of the kitchen as if they were trees in a forest.” The positioning of an iron duct and precipitators also required a creative engineering solution. “We selected a UV hood so we could substantially reduce our requirements for air flow.”
As the staff at Per Se continues to carve a place for itself in fine-dining history, the story told about this New York City venture will undoubtedly be one of creativity, courage and confidence to compete in one of the most competitive — and certainly most scrutinized — cities in the world. And it will also be about commitment to tradition in a dream kitchen where every facet of the E&S is a sight to behold.