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In the Gilded World of Per Se’s Kitchen

Source: The New York Times May 28, 2009

ROOMS In the Gilded World of Per Se's Kitchen By ALAN FEUER

In the kitchen of Per Se, the wallet-busting restaurant on Columbus Circle, there is a sign of blue tiles reading "Sense of Urgency" on the wall. That -- the urgency -- arrived a little early last month when, at 6:15 one evening, there were already eight tickets -- seven tasting menus and an à la carte snapper -- stacked up on the rail.

The pleasant hush of the cocktail hour was over, and three calottes de boeuf grillée were sputtering like split wicks in a pan. Platters clanked; saucepans sizzled; the harried garde manger was fidgeting with his peach palms. The servers at the marble-countered "pass" -- there to receive the finished dishes -- shifted from one foot to the other like gamblers waiting anxiously at the track.

Then another dupe came in, and David Breeden, the head chef for the evening, called the ticket loud enough for everyone to hear. "Order for two -- one tasting, one veg!" he shouted like a captain of artillery. "One and one!" the kitchen shouted back.

You would think that in a lingering recession, the real urgency at Per Se would come from money matters, from the natural inclination of budget-conscious eaters to set aside their Visas for the moment and sate themselves on $13 Kung Pao chicken dinners instead of on a menu whose base cost is $275 a head.

But in fact, the kitchen -- 5,000 steel-and-tile square feet of it -- is a lesson in the little-known field of gastro-economics: When it comes to fine dining in New York, the fiscal situation is often irrelevant. Elites will always and forever be elites.

"People are still going out to eat," said Jonathan Benno, the chef de cuisine. While Per Se has endured a 10 percent drop in reservations and has started offering a less expensive à la carte Salon Menu in the lounge, Chef Benno said that this provided the chance "for the concierge at the Mandarin to call up Mr. and Mrs. Smith from Chicago and quickly slip them in."

His kitchen, which is brighter than a beach house (and only slightly smaller than the dining room itself), has something akin to a gold vault or the Queen of England's bedroom, existing in an atmosphere above such trivial indignities as battered stock portfolios and recessionary slumps. Even as the rest of the planet scrapes together money for the rent check, there seems no end to the bountiful provisions that stream in through its doors: 30 two-pound pompanos from Florida; a box of fresh langoustines from Scotland; 20 whole rabbits from Vermont.

The space itself is endlessly divided, with separate sub-kitchens devoted to pastries, ice cream, bread, fish, spices, produce, animal and vegetable stocks and the rendering of freshly butchered meat. The main -- or cooking -- kitchen is an inhumanly immaculate expanse of burner rings and countertops where, according to tradition, the stations move clockwise from canapé to entremetier. Above it all, there is a video screen with a real-time uplink to Per Se's sister restaurant, the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., four time zones and 3,000 miles away.

By 8 o'clock, the dupes were 20 deep, and Mr. Breeden called successive orders with a scowl. There was $5,500 on the rail, and out there, in the untouched world, somebody was paying for it all.

Per Se serves its world class dishes on Raynaud's Hommage Collection, pictured above. Please click here to view this collection.

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