Per Se’s Eli Kaimeh: The Toqueland Interview

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”

Eli Kaimeh, center, in the kitchen at The French Laundry (photo courtesy Thomas Keller Restaurant Group)

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.

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Commentary: Don’t Rate Restaurants… Grade Them!

A Proposal for a New Way of Judging Where We Eat That Reflects Today’s Ever-Changing Dining Standards

Should Restaurants Make the Grade in More Ways than One? (photo by Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com, via creativecommons.org)

February 23, 2012 — There was a noteworthy aside in Wednesday’s New York Times review of Shake Shack. Reviewer Pete Wells awarded the establishment one star, which probably struck most readers as fair. But I couldn’t help but wonder how exactly to weigh it because, since Wells took over the most scrutinized restaurant-reviewing position in the country, he’s doled out two stars for Parm and three for Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria, both of which raised some eyebrows.

In the past, Shake Shack couldn’t have hoped for more than one star and, given some quibbles Wells raised about such issues as consistency and the quality of the fries, might have wound up with no stars, signifying “fair,” “satisfactory,” or “poor.”

At any other time in the last twenty years, I’d have assumed that Shake Shack proprietor Danny Meyer and company were thrilled with their evaluation, but given current context, I wondered if they were disappointed. Were they expecting or hoping for two stars? If they were, you couldn’t quite call them crazy. Not anymore. Because we’re at that time in the cycle again: Diners and industry folk feel the critical ground shifting beneath their feet and they don’t like that sense of disorientation and vulnerability. Every Tuesday night brings a defensive crouch as they brace for the next paradigm-shattering review.

Wells himself seems aware of the chatter, and made the following comment in his piece yesterday:

To answer two obvious questions right away:

Yes, I would give stars to a hamburger stand.

No, probably not four stars.

For my money, the key word in there is probably. (He was joking, right?)

The tension between stars and the modern dining world is nothing new. Decades ago, when “serious” restaurants were defined by a formality of food, service, and customer, the star system made perfect sense. Besuited or tuxedoed maitre d’s, white tablecloths, French words etched in a roller coaster of script on the menu, and French cuisine on the plate–these were the stuff of three and four stars. But with the rise of New American Cuisine (we really need a new name for that) and the ever more casual settings and standards it ushered in, the categories became clouded…. 

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The Toqueland Ten: Michelle Bernstein (Michy’s and Sra. Martinez, Miami, Florida)

One of the Southeast’s Most Accomplished Chefs Shares Her 10 Favorite Ingredients and Why She Chose Them

Michelle Bernstein of Michy’s and Sra. Martinez (photo by Michael Pisarri, courtesy Michelle Bernstein)

At her Miami restaurants Michy’s and Sra. Martinez, Michelle Bernstein seamlessly combines a world of influences—French, Italian, Cuban, South American, and modern American—into a cohesive personal style. (Full disclosure: I coauthored Michelle’s book Cuisine a Latina, and she’s a friend.)

Because Bernstein is so skilled at explaining exactly what appeals to her about ingredients, as both a chef and an eater, we couldn’t think of a better toque to ask to submit to our next Toqueland Ten. (Our first three featured Harold Dieterle, Emily Luchetti, and Sean Baker.)

Herewith, Michelle’s revealing picks:

1. FENNEL. “My mother would shave fennel on salads when I was growing up,” says Bernstein, whose mom was a key culinary influence. “Later, I learned to beautifully braise and caramelize it in restaurants.” For this chef, there’s nothing with more applications: “I think it goes in, on, or under anything. It’s super versatile and my safe go to: Sometimes I can’t come up with a dish, but I have a beautiful piece of fish, or whatever, and I’m just kind of stuck. At those times, my safety is fennel.”  Her customers don’t always recognize the vegetable:  “When I hard braise it with a tiny pinch of sugar to help the caramelization process and then add wine and chicken stock, then bring it down and finish it with a little bit of butter so it’s super-glazy, salty, and sweet, and it has that good balance, that’s when people say, ‘What is that delicious vegetable that I’m going crazy over?’”

2. (REALLY GOOD) SPANISH EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL. “I love Arbequina olives and I love using that really good Spanish extra virgin olive oil as a finish to a plate, giving whatever it is you’re finishing that little bit of spiciness, that good mouthfeel, that glaze.” Where most chefs don’t actually cook with the top-shelf oil, Bernstein makes exceptions: “I do spend a lot on my Spanish extra virgin oil, and [generally speaking]  it’s too costly to use it to sauté. But if I’m going to make a great piece of chicken or piece of fish, I’m going to sauté it in that stuff.”

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Toqueland After Dark presents: Shift Drink!

Seersucker’s Rob Newton Breaks in a New Feature in Which We Pony Up to the Bar and Decompress with a Chef Moments after Service

Brooklyn, NY, 1:44am — Toqueland proudly presents a new feature: Shift Drink!  The idea is simple: We join a toque at the bar as he or she savors a beverage of choice and chills out after a night on the line.

Our first drinking buddy: Rob Newton, Executive Chef/Co-Owner of Seersucker restaurant (and its daytime sister establishment Smith Canteen) in Brooklyn, NY.

Presented in video *. .. because it’s too damn late to write:

* Video was a spontaneous decision. Apologies for the sound quality; we’ll do better next time. And thanks to Seersucker’s manager, Jorge Salamea, for his superb camera work on a humble iPhone!

Sweet dreams. ..

- Andrew “Hef” Friedman

 


The French Laundry’s Timothy Hollingsworth: The Toqueland Interview

The Chef de Cuisine of Thomas Keller’s Landmark Restaurant on His Exchange Program with Per Se, the meaning of Green Tape Moments, and the Pitfalls of Molecular Gastronomy

Timothy Hollingsworth, who’s at Per Se this week, back home at The French Laundry (photo by Deborah Jones; courtesy Thomas Keller Restaurant Group)

NEW YORK, NY — Timothy Hollingsworth, chef de cuisine of the French Laundry since summer 2009, has been participating in the first-ever chef de cuisine exchange program between his home restaurant and the other three-Michelin-star jewel in the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group (TKRG) crown, New York City’s Per Se. Hollingsworth possesses some of the deepest institutional knowledge of TKRG, having moved up the ladder from commis (prep cook) to chef de cuisine, all at The French Laundry, and also serving as part of the opening team of Per Se. With a few days left in his stay (he’ll be here through Tuesday, February 28, while Eli Kaimeh is serving as CDC out West), we sat down with Hollingsworth the other morning in Per Se’s Salon, to ask him about his time here, and catch up on issues large and small (Note: Read our companion interview with Per Se’s Eli Kaimeh here):

TOQUELAND: There’s always been some cross-pollination among the restaurants in the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, such as periodic manager retreats, but is this chef-de-cuisine switch new?

HOLLINGSWORTH: This is the first time we’ve done it. It’s something we’ve wanted to do for a long time. But because of staffing and how busy each restaurant was, it just never panned out. But, finally, we were at a point where we felt comfortable enough that maybe we could move on it. It’s a very natural thing because three out of the five sous chefs here, I worked with at The French Laundry. So I know them. I have a personal relationship with them. It’s the same systems. It’s a very easy transition.

TOQUELAND: You were part of the team that came East from The French Laundry to open Per Se about ten years ago.

HOLLINGSWORTH: Yes, as far as kitchen is concerned, I was the only CDP [chef de partie] to transfer here, then go back to The French Laundry.

TOQUELAND: Do you notice changes or evolutions here? Things that are different since Per Se first opened?

HOLLINGSWORTH: It’s evolving. You see it evolving. You see the differences between Jonathan [Benno, now at Lincoln] as the chef de cuisine, and now Eli [Kaimeh] as the chef de cuisine. And the managers. And we’re always pushing ourselves to take things to the next level, so, yeah, it’s evolved immensely since I was first out here.

TOQUELAND: But those changes probably aren’t that apparent to guests of the restaurant. Perfect isn’t a word that gets tossed around the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group (TKRG). [As readers may know, Keller opened his The French Laundry Cookbook with the now-iconic assertion that there's no such thing as perfect food; the paragraph is featured on plaques in both The French Laundry and Per Se kitchens.] But most people who have dined here would say it’s been pretty perfect pretty much from the go, since you were already operating at such a high level. So to them, the changes might not be perceptible. Can you give an example of what a significant change is to the team here?

HOLLINGSWORTH: It’s the little changes. It’s hard to state a specific example because little changes are made every single day. You’re constantly thinking of what we at TKRG have defined as The Green Tape Moment: For years and years and years, we labeled everything in the kitchen with green tape and we tore the tape, and put it on a Lexan [durable plastic container], or used it to tape a tablecloth to the pass. We tore it. And then one day somebody picked up the scissors and cut the tape. And then, another day, somebody sees somebody cut the tape and acknowledges that and says, “This is what we’re going to do from now on; we’re going to cut the green tape.” And now, if anybody were to rip the green tape it would be like. ..

TOQUELAND: Nails on a chalkboard?

HOLLINGSWORTH: Yeah, exactly.

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CMC Journal: Episode 1: Tunnel Vision

Percy Whatley Takes Us Inside His Training for the Certified Master Chef Exam, The Toughest Test in Cooking

by Percy Whatley, Toqueland Contributor

[Editor’s Note: Toqueland is proud to present our first guest contributor, Percy Whatley, Executive Chef of The Ahwahnee in Yosemite National Park, California. Percy is preparing for one of the most grueling challenges a toque can attempt: the Certified Master Chef exam. The exam is notoriously difficult (just watch the embedded video below to get a sense of what he's in for), and there is no certainty of passing (only five of twelve candidates made the grade in 2010), so, I’m especially grateful that Percy has agreed to put it out there and chronicle his CMC training for Toqueland over the next year and a half. Herewith, his first monthly installment.- Andrew]

February 2012

Greetings, residents of Toqueland.

I am writing to you from the Denver airport, on my way back to Yosemite from my first training session for the Certified Master Chef exam. This journal entry was begun in a Cleveland hotel and finished here in Colorado. I’d have done it back at my desk at The Ahwahnee, but this is an extracurricular activity and my “normal” life will swallow me up the moment I return to The Ahwahnee, so it’s now or never.

A few years ago, Kevin Doherty, chef of Boston’s TD Garden, which like the Ahwahnee is a Delaware North Companies  property, and I were nominated by Chef Roland Henin, our corporate chef and mentor, and a Certified Master Chef (CMC) himself, to be the “chosen ones” and  be supported in the venture of training and developing with the goal of passing the Certified Master Chef exam. The CMC exam takes place over eight days and 130 hours, and includes challenges in disciplines ranging from Classical Cuisine to Buffet Catering to Freestyle to Global Cuisine to Bakery and Pastry. (Read more about it here.) Only 66 people have attained the level of CMC: one is Roland himself, who famously mentored Thomas Keller; another is Richard Rosendale, who just became the US candidate to the Bocuse d’Or 2013.

We hadn’t been able to find the time to start down the CMC path in the intervening years, but not too long ago, our corporate bosses sat us down at a long and important-seeming table and explained that the time had come: They wanted us to dig in and start prepping for the CMC, the plan being that we’d tandem train, meeting up periodically to cook together and critique each other while offering moral support and, when necessary, commiseration.

Who were we to argue? Let the adventure begin!

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Slice of Life: Grains of Sand

A Visit to Red Rooster Harlem, and Entirely Too Brief Encounter with Marcus Samuelsson

Marcus Samuelsson at the Bar at Red Rooster Harlem (photo by Paul Brissman)

More than anything, Red Rooster Harlem reminded me of the sand.

About ten years ago, I asked Marcus Samuelsson, then the chef of Restaurant Aquavit, if he’d grant me an interview for use in a proposal for a book I had in mind. He happily obliged, inviting me to the one-bedroom apartment in the West 40s where he lived at the time.

I had first met Marcus during my short, unhappy life as a restaurant publicist in the 1990s. Aquavit‘s owner, Hakan Swan, had recently appointed him, then just 24, the chef, then hired the agency for which I worked to rep the place. Marcus’ celebrity is such that nobody thinks anything of his name anymore; his story–orphaned in Ethiopia at age 3, adopted by a Swedish family thereafter–has become common knowledge. But when he first turned up at Aquavit in Midtown Manhattan, he was incongruity personified: a skinny black kid with a Swedish handle cooking Scandinavian cuisine in a townhouse once occupied by Nelson Rockefeller. Customers who didn’t read the food section flirted with whiplash as they panned along with him whenever he passed through the dining room and it slowly dawned on them: “That’s the chef!”

I’d say that Marcus and I came up together except that it’s a pretty absurd statement given how far he’s ascended. But that’s how it felt at the time, and still does in retrospect, in part because he was so supportive of my own trajectory. It’s not easy making the switch from publicist to professional writer; generally speaking, people want to keep you in whatever box you shipped in. But it can be done; just ask Peter “Lucky Peach” Meehan. When I was first going for it, Marcus was immensely and uncommonly supportive. After my first foray into professional writing, the next few times I saw him, he’d flash a warm grin and say, “You’re a writer now, Andrew.”

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Announcing Toqueland’s First Fan Contest!

Keep Up with Toqueland and Earn Chances to Win a Personalized Set of the Alfred Portale Cookbook Collection

Toqueland wants you!

We want you to subscribe to our email updates, follow us on Twitter, and to like us (to really, really like us) on Facebook.

That’s why we’re excited to announce our first-ever Toqueland Fan Contest offering subscribers/followers a chance to win a set of all three of Alfred Portale’s cookbooks (coauthored by yours truly): Gotham Bar and Grill Cookbook, Alfred Portale’s 12 Seasons Cookbook, and Alfred Portale’s Simple Pleasures.

Win the contest and Alfred will personalize all three books as you like, as will I, and then we’ll ship the books off to you, wherever you may be.

 

 

 

 

 

The More Ways You Follow Us, The More Chances to Win

Here’s how it works: For every way you subscribe to/follow/like us, we’ll enter your name in the contest. Do all three, and get three chances to win…. 

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The Toqueland Ten: Sean Baker (Gather, Berkeley, California)

One of the West Coast’s Rising Stars Tells Us His Ten Favorite Ingredients and Why He Chose Them

Sean Baker, pondering the plate, at Gather. (photo courtesy Carmen Troesser)

Sean Baker, executive chef of Gather restaurant in Berkeley, California, has caught a lot of people’s attention in recent years, most notably when Esquire magazine named him Chef of the Year in 2010. At Gather, omnivore, vegan, and gluten-free items peacefully coexist on the menu, in dishes that Baker dreams up largely based on treasures presented to him by area farms.  Toqueland caught up with Baker in Northern California recently, and asked this thoughtful young talent to become the third chef to share a Toqueland Ten. (Our first two came from Harold Dieterle and Emily Luchetti.)

1. SEAWEED. “I cook vegan food and I can use a lot of different seaweeds. There’s so many different varietals and so many things I can do with them. It’s just a real versatile ingredient.” Some ways Baker deploys seaweed include a vegan tonnato sauce, and a smoked seaweed-fried oyster puree, which brings us to Item No. 2 . ..

2. OYSTERS. “Just because I enjoy eating them so much, with lemon or maybe some shallot. They have a lot of possibilities: They’re a great emulsifier, and I like to use them with meat dishes that need the briny acidity that some oysters possess.” By way of example, Baker offers up the (perhaps Portuguese inspired) pairings of oysters with sausage or pork belly…. 

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Rick Moonen: The Toqueland Interview

The rm seafood Toque Sounds Off About Disloyal Chefs, the Limits of Fine Dining, and Why He’d Like a Trojan Horse

Rick Moonen worked for a number of the best restaurants in New York City, including a star-making stint as executive chef of Oceana, before taking his rm seafood concept to the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, where he’s been thriving for seven years. Toqueland caught up with Moonen in Yosemite National Park, as he cooked a memorable guest dinner, tried to win over every guest in sight to his longtime cause of sustainability, and made a few minutes to share what was on his mind:

Rick Moonen in the dining room of rm seafood in Las Vegas (photo courtesy MGM Resorts International)

TOQUELAND: First of all, just catch me up, what are you excited about these days?

MOONEN: I think I’m at a crossroads in my career. I moved out to Last Vegas seven years ago, became part of the drive to make Las Vegas dining more legitimate, which I’m proud to have been a part of. Doing things in a manner in which I believe, holding true to my core values, my mission statement of being sustainable still stands strong. That continuously evolves as to what it really means, because the conditions of different species of fish always changes. So it’s kind of fun.

That being said: the economy, turning 55, getting a divorce, just kind of thinking: “What do I want to do?” Getting people to understand sustainability. We’re hitting a tipping point where that seems to be happening, which is great. I’m surprised. There was no guarantee I’d ever get to see anything happening and here it is, shifting before my eyes. It’s great. Pretty cool . ..

That being said, how do I get to the masses in [this] economy? I’m going to start pushing toward opening up restaurants that serve more really good, delicious, well-balanced, flavorful food. But not fine dining. Not the fancy-schmancy fanfare to the few who can afford it. I want to start hitting deeper and affecting more people.

TOQUELAND: Would this still be seafood focused?

MOONEN: Yeah. But I’m going to say “upscale casual,” if there’s such a thing. Because fine dining kind of took a dip. It had to be redefined . ..

TOQUELAND: What are you going to do? Where are you on it?

MOONEN: Simple stuff . .. I’m thinking of opening up in Waikiki, Hawaii. There’s a good chance I’m going to open there. [Toqueland Note: Moonen floated a concept for Waikiki last year.] I’ve got an LOI [letter of intent] out. There’s no dealbreakers that I can see in the further discussion to get to a contract. I’ve got the money, the funds, and the location. So, looks pretty good. This has been going on for eight months, this discussion with Hawaii. People who are in the know in my organization are tired of hearing about Hawaii. But it had to be the right deal, you know, and now it is. My risk is to a point where I’m comfortable to move. So, that’s it. Build a brand. Open up in other markets and diversify. I’ve got one space and it’s in Las Vegas in a casino. That’s too risky…. 

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