The Chef de Cuisine of Thomas Keller’s New York City Fine Dining Temple on New York vs Napa, the Value of a Centrifuge Machine, and the Moment He Got “The News”
A member of Per Se’s kitchen brigade from the time the restaurant opened in 2004, Eli Kaimeh became Per Se’s chef de cuisine in 2010, when Jonathan Benno moved on to Lincoln Ristorante. Prior to working at Per Se, Kaimeh, a native New Yorker, cooked at Restaurant Daniel and Gramercy Tavern. Kaimeh recently returned from two weeks in Yountville, California, where he served as chef de cuisine of The French Laundry as part of the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group’s first-ever “exchange program” between the two restaurants. (Our recent interview with French Laundry chef de cuisine Timothy Hollingsworth about his time at Per Se here.)
We sat down with Kaimeh last week to discuss his time in Yountville, along with other topics related to Per Se and the Keller empire. Herewith, our dialogue:
TOQUELAND: First of all, can you tell me a little bit about yourself. You’re from Brooklyn. Which part?
KAIMEH: I am born and raised in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. I am a first generation American. My parents came from Syria about 35 years ago. Grew up in a very food-rich and culturally rich family. Had quite a big family in kind of a small space where we all lived together. Food was something that we shared and looked forward to every single day. After high school I experimented with college a little bit. Shortly thereafter, I knew that cooking was something that I wanted to pursue in life. I went to the Culinary Institute of America. I graduated in 2000. I worked mostly around New York. I worked in some small kitchens around the country, nowhere too crazy . .. I am very much in love with classical and French cuisine, and the style of it. I began at Per Se from the first day the restaurant opened, and I have been here ever since.
TOQUELAND: So your first cooking within the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, or what we now call the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, was at Per Se?
KAIMEH: Yes, correct.
TOQUELAND: The occasion for our sitting down today is this exchange program. You are just back. You got back on Monday night [February 20]. When you think about the couple of weeks you just spent out in Yountville, what are the first things that, if I don’t ask you to organize your thoughts in any way, what are the first things that just float up to your mind?
KAIMEH: Well, I think the first thing that really comes to my mind is the creativity behind what we did.
TOQUELAND: You mean the exchange program itself?
KAIMEH: Yeah. How wonderful it is to work for Chef Keller who would sponsor that. And really work with us and just the sheer idea of thinking of it and executing it and then actually doing it. It started off as just an idea. We were all in Champagne, France, at Traditions & Qualite, which is sort of like an annual summit. Me and Tim [Hollingsworth], Nicolas [Fanucci, GM of The French Laundry] and Antonio [Begonja, GM of Per Se]. We were having a glass of Champagne and the idea sparked and we sat Chef Keller down and brought it to him.