Sunday, August 30, 2009

I Got a Golden Ticket! My Day with Chef Thomas Keller


I have seen the light! More exactly, I was fed the light. Saturday's dinner at Per Se was definitely one of the best meals I have had in my life.
Several months ago, I received an e-mail from American Express. It was their standard monthly e-mail listing of upcoming events for cardmembers. There, among the concerts and sporting events, was Chef Thomas Keller doing a demo at the French Culinary Institute followed by dinner at Per Se. I was so in. I immediately lunged for the phone to dial in when I noticed that tickets were not on sale yet. As the days wore on, the memory of the event slowly faded. Another e-mail from Amex reminded me of the event, and it has been on sale for some time now. This time I did lunge for the phone and dialed in for a reservation. I was lucky and space was still available. It was a total Charlie Bucket finding the golden ticket in a Wonka bar moment.
I waited for the day with the same excitement of a 6 year old waiting for Christmas. When the day finally arrived, I had to find chores around the house to keep myself from showing up 4 hours early and pacing impatiently in front of the FCI. The rain that was falling all day ended as I left for the bus to NYC and the FCI.

I entered the FCI and was directed to the theater where all the big time demos are done. If you've seen "Chef Story" on PBS, you've seen this room. There before us, was an array of pastry from Chef Keller's Bouchon Bakery. It was hard to pick one to eat as they all appeared wonderful. I took a seat and waited with bated breath for the class to begin. Chef Keller and some assistants were a blur of activity getting things prepared for the demo. Satisfied that the mise en place was complete, Chef worked his way through the audience greeting all the participants.


The demo was part cooking class part philosophic discussion. Chef Keller explained his view on the importance of ingredients by talking about some of his suppliers. The suppliers he use are just as dedicated to creating the perfect ingredient as Chef Keller is in creating the perfect dish. The lady who in Vermont who makes his butter that had to go out and buy more cows to create the amount of butter that was ordered. The sheep farmer that can document everything about the lives of his livestock. The complete perfectionism of his Italian olive oil producer. These products are outstanding because the people behind them are outstanding.

Most chef's are expert multi-taskers and Chef Keller was no exception. Chef Keller was able to carry on a discussion of the various issues of organic, sustainable, and being green while poaching a lobster tail in butter and making a corn pudding. Some very interesting issues were raised as he made a lobster stock. What should a farm that has farmed naturally for decades but does not want to pay the government to have an organic label slapped on their produce be called? Is it better to support a farmer that does incredible artisinal products but has to ship them to the restaurant?
The actual cooking being done was not overshadowed by the discourse. We were witness to true culinary alchemy. None of the dishes demoed were out of the reach of a home cook. The ingredients were common, but what elevated them to the celestial level? One word, technique. The lobster was not simply boiled. It was boiled for a few minutes then taken apart. The tail meat was removed from the shell and poached in beurre blanc(YUM!). The claws and legs went back into the water for a few more minutes of cooking. The bodies were cleaned and used to make a lobster stock. The meat was removed from the legs using a rolling pin. Who ever thought of that was a freakin' genius, it worked so well. Corn kernels were juiced then heated in a sauce pan. The natural corn starch made the puree thicken into a corn pudding. It makes perfect sense that that would occur, but again, who thinks like that. The answer is obvious, Chef Keller. During a Q & A session after the demo, Chef left us with this pearl of wisdom, cooking is all about product and technique.

With the demo over, it was time for round 2. This necessitated a wardrobe change as I needed to throw on a suit for the dinner at Per Se. Per Se is located in the Time Warner Center. The word urban mall is bandied about when discussing the Time Warner Center and it is pretty apt. A mall with the world's most exclusive and pricey food court that is! I was a few minutes early so I browsed Williams Sonoma trying to cool down from the infinitely hot subway station. I took a series of escalators to the fourth floor and entered Willie Wonka's chocolate factory, oh I mean Per Se.
Before dinner proper started, we were treated to Champagne and various appetizers. Among the offerings were the famous salmon cornets. This is a salmon tartare served in a cone shaped tuile with a red onion creme fraiche. This is Chef Keller's philosophy in a bite or two. Really high quality ingredients, prepared with the utmost attention to technique. They also taste amazing. In one or two bites you get a spectrum of flavors and textures. While we were greedily shoving little bites of heaven into our mouths and washing them down with gulps of Champagne, Chef Keller was leading small groups on tours of the kitchens. We were going to get a glimpse of the guts of the chocolate factory.

Entering into the first kitchen you are blinded by how clean and shiny everything is. I'm sure there are operating rooms that are not this clean. You then notice some things that make these kitchens special. There is a flat panel tv showing a live view of the French Laundry's kitchen in Yountville, CA. A quick scan of the ceiling reveals a camera giving a reciprocal feed of Per Se's kitchen. You notice intriguing signs hanging on the walls. The phrase "Sense of Urgency" is posted under every clock. The word "finesse", along with it's dictionary entry is over the exit to the dining room. You may have noticed that I have been using the plural when referring to Per Se's kitchens. That was not a typo as they have two. One for the main dining room and one for the private dining room. The coolest feature was a room dedicated to the production of chocolate. See, the Willie Wonka references were not totally out of left field.

We sat done for dinner and the parade of amazement began. A server approached the table with a bottle of Champagne. First, I thought is was the same Champagne we were drinking when I noticed the tell tale shield shaped label of Dom Perignon. Holy shit, they were pouring Dom Freakin' Perignon, vintage 1999. It was like tasting stars, as the Monk Dom Perignon is credited with saying. The first course was the perennial favorite "Oyster and Pearls", a sabyon of tapioca with oysters and caviar. This is one of those dishes were you scratch your head when reading the description, but totally get it before the first bite is swallowed. These disparate sounding ingredients form a delicious whole. The next course was a panzanella salad with heirloom tomatoes and lobster claw meet. No mere hunks of bread for this panzanella, a piece of bread was sandwiched between two silpats and toasted in the oven until it was paper thin and crisp. Our old friends the butter poached lobster and the corn pudding made their appearance. The lobster was great but that corn pudding was a standout, sweet, creamy and corny in a good summertime kind of way. These two dishes were paired with a white burgundy that was absolutely dynamite.

We moved on to a Snake River Ranch steak with a sauce bordelaise that was great. There was only a small amount of sauce, so there was no place for the steak to hide any imperfections. Needless to say, no imperfections were apparent. A meritage from California was served with this course. A meritage is California's ode to the red wines of Bourdeaux, made from a blend of grapes. I have run out of superlatives in describing the wines served with this dinner. The wine was no exception, it was spectacular. Dinner began to wind down, the cheese course came followed by a pair of desserts. The desserts were paired with a Loire Valley dessert wine that was great. It wasn't overly sweet and had a nice acidity to it. It paired well with the strawberry sorbet and collection of small pastries that were served.

The night came to a close and we were presented with two gift bags! They contained a copy of Chef Keller's latest cookbook "Under Pressure" along with olive oil, wine, pickled veg tables and other goodies. I struggled under the weight of the gift bags into the Wonkavator. Oops, sorry, real world no Wonkavator. I struggled under the weight of the gift bags onto the escalator and into the night, thinking about one of the best culinary experiences of my life.

5 comments:

Sue said...

Fabulous info-packed post. I felt as if I were there. (Well, almost...I didn't get to taste anything!) Have you read "Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter" by Phoebe Damrosch about being a Per Se server. The book has its annoying parts, but it's a fascinating story of what goes into working there.

5 Star Foodie said...

Sounds like a great experience, quite opposite of ours in Per Se but I wonder if it's because Chef Keller was actually there for your dinner. Please do check out my review of per se - http://5starfoodie.com/profile.asp?ResID=28

John D. said...

Sue,
Yes I did read "Service Included" and met Phoebe Damrosch at a book reading. If I knew she read all the best parts at the event, I wouldn't have bought the book!

5 Star Foodie, I will read your post. I gather that it was not as positive of an experience as mine.

My Man's Belly said...

oh so jealous. i've got keller's French Laundry Cookbook...based on that I can only imagine how delicious the food was.

Keith said...

Wow, sounds like quite an evening. I'm impressed with Keller's dedication to his suppliers. Have you read The Soul of a Chef? It deals in part with the early years of The French Laundry.