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.
TOQUELAND: So the original idea came from Chef Keller’s team up to him?
KAIMEH: Yeah. We thought this would be a really cool idea. I think the origin of it came from us discussing the differences between the restaurants and trying to figure out how we could get the insider’s view of those differences.
TOQUELAND: What did you think the benefit of doing that would be?
KAIMEH: The benefit would be to draw both restaurants closer. Not only do the sous chefs and the administration staff at The French Laundry have a closer tie to me now but the chefs de partie do [as well]. The same thing with Tim in New York. We got to experience the guests and the different styles of guests because, although you would think that a guest in a restaurant is just a guest .. . in California a guest is a little bit different than a guest in New York .. . they eat just a little bit differently.
TOQUELAND: Are you able to give me an example of what one observation might be?
KAIMEH: For example, in New York, the guests can’t eat fast enough. People in New York generally have some obligation or they have to go to work early. In Yountville, the guest is either on vacation or spending a private weekend with their spouse, or really has nothing to do after that and they are there for the afternoon. In New York, the heartbeat is pumping a few more paces per minute.
TOQUELAND: You perceive that in the kitchen?
TOQUELAND: By when they are ready for the next course?
TOQUELAND: What else about being out there?
KAIMEH: To draw closer ties to the style of cuisine. How we execute something at Per Se and how something is executed at The French Laundry. An observation made by me or an observation made by Tim can really spark something. At the end of the day, or the end of the week, or the end of the month, when Tim and I are having a full conversation, or David who is our Executive Sous Chef here, and Phil who is the Executive Sous Chef at The French Laundry, are having a conversation. There is now a little bit more lineage between knowing exactly what that other person is talking about. We now have a reference point to many of those things.
TOQUELAND: What would you and Tim need to talk about on a regular basis?
KAIMEH: We talk about where we have gone to eat. Maybe a trend in food that we are either liking or disliking. A product that we just bought or are thinking about buying. Kitchen equipment. I know The French Laundry just bought a centrifuge. [Editor’s Note: More on this below.] Some of the ideas and some of the things that were coming from that. Just sparking each other’s creativity.
TOQUELAND: Is this something that you do as it comes up, or is this something regimented, like a regular obligation?
KAIMEH: We do every month have a phone conversation with myself, Tim, and Chef Keller. We kind of recap the month. Whether we have been introduced to anything or any person or any whatever new. If there is any concept in food or cooking that we have experimented with. Just sort of feeding each other.
TOQUELAND: How does Chef Keller react in that three-way conversation? Does he give out things that you should follow up on, that kind of thing?
KAIMEH: Absolutely. Chef is extremely food–intelligent and knows exactly what is going on. He travels a lot and he knows a lot about the top of his profession in the world. And he can bring back a lot of very intelligent and very responsible ideas. They may just be ideas, and we may take that idea and it may spark something else. He is just very supportive. That is really the first thing that comes to my mind.
TOQUELAND: Even before this exchange program, there is a little back and forth that happens regularly between the restaurants. I am sure that you have been out to Yountville the last several years.
KAIMEH: The last time I was out there was before Chef Benno left. I spent six weeks at The French Laundry. Really, more than anything, getting the sense of history of the restaurant and being able to bring that back and having that with me.
TOQUELAND: Since you mentioned the transition here: It seems to me that there are not that many jobs, certainly in the United States, in your profession, that are comparable to being the chef de cuisine at a place like Per Se. I am wondering if you remember the moment or period of time when you were talking to Chef Keller when it was clear that Chef Benno was leaving and you were going to take over?
KAIMEH: I remember pretty clearly when the conversation first happened with Chef Benno. He sat me down in the West Room, which is our private dining room, and he was kind of pushing me a little bit as to what he was going to say, and I really had no idea what he was about to talk to me about. [After he told me] my first impulse was just extremely humble and just I couldn’t believe that somebody was going to give me that opportunity and that somebody was really fostering me and really watching me and helping me grow and I was just so taken aback that for two guys like Chef Benno and Chef Keller that I had admired so much, for them to be giving me that opportunity, it was really such a proud moment for me. I think that the first thing that I thought of was, “I can’t wait to go home to speak to my family.” I knew how happy they were going to be. I just really have never looked back ever since. I think that I kind of made a commitment to myself that whatever happened or however the future came that I was going to do whatever I could to the best of my ability to make sure that I fulfill the expectation, that I lived up to Chef Keller’s standards. That is just something that I strive for every day when I wake up.
TOQUELAND: How far out from Chef Benno’s leaving did you have that conversation?
KAIMEH: It was about a year, or ten months.
TOQUELAND: So you had that much time to sort of . ..
KAIMEH: He was also in a transition himself. When he was going to Lincoln there was sort of a period of time when he needed a little bit of time to be able to move on. Towards the last month or two he was taking a step or two back and really letting me kind of spread my wings a little bit and showcase my personality.
TOQUELAND: You mean from a leadership perspective?
KAIMEH: Yeah, in the kitchen.
TOQUELAND: I asked Timothy Hollingsworth how he prepped to be at Per Se, and he said he really didn’t need to, because of the level of support here, and it was probably the same for you going out there. Is that an accurate statement?
KAIMEH: If you took your surrounding environment away it’s almost like we were home. When I say home, I mean in our kitchen .. . At the French Laundry, we have Michael Wallace, Phil Tessier, and Matt Peters, three sous chefs that were all sous Chefs at Per Se that I worked with for years and at Per Se we have [three] sous chefs that Tim worked with at The French Laundry. So we had an extreme connection there . .. It was really quite enjoyable also to reconnect with them.
TOQUELAND: Can you tell me a little about the logistics of your stay in Yountville. Where did you stay and how did you get around?
KAIMEH: Chef Keller has a few properties around the French Laundry. I was in one of the houses that was a block or two away from the restaurant.
TOQUELAND: For you, here in New York, it’s Per Se on the fourth floor, and Bouchon restaurant and the Bakery on the third floor of the Time Warner Center. But in Yountville there is The French Laundry, there is are the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group corporate offices, there is Bouchon and Bouchon Bakery, and there is Ad Hoc, all within a mile of each other on Washington Street. How different was the experience of being part of the company out there, from a social standpoint?
KAIMEH: Honestly, when you are standing in Yountville, you almost feel like you’re at Walt Disney World, this secluded environment where everyone works for Walt Disney. There is that very similar sense there where you feel like everybody in this little town either knows each other or works with each other. There is a real sense of connectivity between, I mean, the people walking down the street or getting a cup of coffee at Bouchon [Bakery]. There certainly is a stronger sense of that connectivity. New York is New York, and it’s always bustling and hustling and it is not Yountville by any means. You have to be careful in Yountville. It’s so small. And there was really the sense that things just travel so quickly. [You say something] and the next day 10 or 15 or 30 other people know it. It is sort of that small community sense in Yountville where in New York, it is just almost never ending, or people are just multiplying. It is almost like a completely different world.
TOQUELAND: Did you spend much time at The Garden [The French Laundry’s farm] or Jacobsen Orchard, from which The French Laundry gets some of its fruit?
KAIMEH: Last time that I was at The French Laundry I spent a little bit of time at Jacobsen Orchard. It is cold right now. It is February, so the farms right now are not extremely full of produce and vegetables. Unfortunately it was at a time when The Garden at The French Laundry was pretty bare. [Culinary Gardner] Tucker [Taylor] had harvested many of the vegetables that were going to be used and we were pretty limited to what we had, although what we had was extremely beautiful. I think next time if we were to do something like this, I would ask if we could do it in spring or summer so I got a little bit more of that benefit of being able to be out there . ..
TOQUELAND: When the place is just bursting?
KAIMEH: Yeah. So my time at the garden was fairly limited. I did get some education with Tucker about why certain things are growing well and why they are not and some education about seedlings. He is such a smart and crafty farmer.
TOQUELAND: The French Laundry is out in Yountville, California, and you have Timothy Hollingworth, who is this quintessential California guy in the kitchen, and Per Se is in New York, and there is a native New Yorker, you, in the kitchen. Is that something that has been remarked upon at all internally? Do you feel like that reflects at all in how you guys do what you do in your two respective places?
KAIMEH: I don’t think anybody has ever pointed that out or made it sort of a specific [statement] . .. I think that just naturally we fit our environment so well because of that sheer fact. I am a native New Yorker. One of the first things I talked to Chef Keller about [during my transition to chef de cuisine] was that my whole entire family is here and this is where I want to be and this is what I love and this is what I am. I think that really led to my connection with the pulse at the restaurant and I think that really is something that connects Tim to the pulse at The French Laundry.
TOQUELAND: Where did you eat out there?
KAIMEH: Spruce, Morimoto (Napa), SPQR, Bouchon, Redd, Redd Wood, Bottega.
TOQUELAND: You have not been back here that long, but are there specific things that you could mention that, I don’t want to say it in this clichéd or corny way, but things that you brought back with you in terms of ideas or inspiration, or things that you want to incorporate or weave in here or that made you look at something differently?
KAIMEH: I think the first thing that comes to my mind is some of the new technology that The French Laundry is using: A centrifuge machine and a freeze dryer. Those are two very important purchases made by Chef that will help evolve the cuisine and the small details. Something that we are certainly going to investigate ourselves. It sort of opened my eyes to a totally new way of looking at something, or processing something.
Other than that, it really just had to do with the produce and the product that The French Laundry in California is working with, whether it is from the [French Laundry’s] farm or a local farm, or a local cheese like from Andante Dairy. Just that connection between the farm, the restaurant and just making that stronger . .. we went out to Andante Dairy, and it is so accessible there. It is something that we really can’t do here in New York.
TOQUELAND: Because of the geography of it here? Because of the time it would require from staff, taking them out of the kitchen?
KAIMEH: The farms are so close to the restaurant [out there]. Yeah.
TOQUELAND: The two machines you mentioned: can you give me one or two examples of what they are used for?
KAIMEH: The centrifuge machine is really used for clarifying. It is used in a laboratory for spinning blood and DNA [testing]. For a perfect example: we wanted to do an orange consommé glaze on a hearts of palm bavarois. So, classically or just naturally you would either boil the orange juice, which would give it a different flavor. You kind of split the enzymes in the orange juice. Or you could clarify it by straining it through a towel. You could use an egg white raft or something to that effect. But you would be adding heat to it. At the very least, you would be changing the flavor of it. By literally just taking a few liters of this orange juice and spinning it, I don’t know off the top of my head the RPMs, but 15 minutes later you get two products: One is all of the solids that come from juicing an orange; the other is a completely clear, completely clean liquid that is separate from all the solids. It is very fresh, crystal clear, nothing was added to it, nothing was done to it, other than being spun. It was just so eye opening. .. You could take a braising cuisson from an oxtail and do the same thing. You wouldn’t have to clarify it with an egg white. The flavors are very “unmucked” and very clear.
TOQUELAND: And the freeze dryer? What does that get used for there?
KAIMEH: It’s another amazing tool. Basically, what it does is that, over the course of a certain period of time, you could take something as simple as a sliced red onion ring and it will literally remove absolutely any moisture that would be in it. Or a sea urchin. We put a sea urchin tongue in there. The end effect was something that looked unchanged, but what did change was the texture. And the texture was something that was, if you ever wanted to make a chip or something crispy, you may sometimes find something sticking to your teeth or just a little bit not consistently crispy all the way through or that, from humidity in the air, was a little bit fragile. But these were concentrated, crispy fruits and vegetables and things being as fun as sea urchin tongues that you could put on a plate for sheer texture or appearance . .. you recognize it, but something about it just looks strange. If you ate it, it would have no moisture to it, so it would have a very dry crackling effect, but if you were to pour something like a consommé or a dashi tableside, it would instantly rehydrate the sea urchin. I know the US Army and NASA use it for long travel. It keeps food preserved, due to the way it treats moisture. It opens your eyes and opens your mind.