The dining room of Per Se restaurant calls to mind both a mathematician's meticulous precision and an artist's passionate brushstrokes. The same combination of intensity and artistry is clear when chef de cuisine Eli Kaimeh speaks about the flavors that excite him, as well as the flawless execution of Per Se and its sister California restaurant, The French Laundry. We chatted with Chef Kaimeh about those flavors, the relationship between the two restaurants, and what makes Per Se so New York.
You were born and bred in New York City. What's your family background and how did that affect your relationship with food? My family is Syrian—they came to America about 35 years ago. Food was a very serious part of our day-to-day lives growing up. I think that my family's passion for not just food but the actual process of eating really motivated me to cook professionally.
You actively pursued getting in on the ground floor of Per Se. Why? I think I and thousands of others fell in love with the French Laundry cookbook when it came out. As I read it—and I think I read it dozens of time—I realized there was some sort of connection between the way Chef Keller taught at his restaurant and the way I thought about food. He shows so much care and the respect for the product and an almost obsessive compulsion about the day to day. He teaches how important it is to pay respect not only to the animal, but also to the farmer. I find myself still thinking about those things, whether I'm talking to a purveyor or I'm handling a piece of asparagus from California.
I hear they have an Eden of a garden at the French Laundry. They have a very beautiful garden. Unfortunately we haven't gotten ours yet, but hopefully it's coming. There's a really big piece of dirt right across the street there. Hopefully we can get some vegetables in.
What was surprising in your first few days at Per Se? The restaurant works as a unit, which is something you don't find in too many restaurants. The chef de parties and the rest of the chefs inspire each other and work hand in hand. It's really quite gratifying. That atmosphere in and among itself was something I wasn't used to.
Speaking of the community: you've got monitors in your kitchen of the French Laundry and vice versa. What purpose does it serve? There's a connection between the two restaurants every single day, whether or not we send an email or a text or a phone call. Guests who come into the back sometimes stand in front of the camera, watch each other, and kind of say "hi." It's something that you'll never see anywhere else: you're getting a chance to see two of the best restaurants in the country at the same time through their kitchens.
What did you want to bring to the kitchen when you became chef de cuisine in 2010? The restaurant is continually evolving: from the first day we started until this afternoon. I just needed to make sure that the restaurant never stopped evolving with Chef Keller's vision, with my inspiration, and with the inspiration and collaboration with the staff.
And what is your inspiration? I like full flavors. I love classical French cuisine. I love butter. If I'm gonna eat something I really want it to be the most it can be.
You recently swapped with chef de cuisine Timothy Hollingsworth at French Laundry for two weeks. What was most notably different? It's a little bit quieter at the French Laundry and the staff is a little bit more... what's the word I'm looking for... calm?! New York's heart seems to beat a few more times a minute. If you were to transport the staff of Per Se to French Laundry in the middle of the service, our intensity would seem out of place—how loud we're speaking and how New York we are. But I think each in their own environment is at the level where they should be.
Do you have any advice for how to make any dining out evening an experience? I think the best meal of your life is made by the company that you share it with. That will always make even a bad dinner pretty good, because when you leave you'll have had more than just food; you've had a life experience. And if you don't know what something is, don't be embarrassed to ask. Then be willing to try new things.
What does your future look like as a chef? I enjoy the art and the actual physical aspect of cooking. Whatever I do, I want to be sure that I never separate myself from the actual physical part of being a chef.
Is there any dish in New York that you find yourself craving and wish you could summon at a whim? When I think about something that I would like right now, it would have to be something out of my mother's kitchen. It could be something as simple as the homemade cheese that she grills and serves with some home-dried mint and pepper. I don't think there's a hamburger or a steak that could fulfill me more than that.