Per Se Keeps Chefs Coming Back for More

Per Se is a really, really special place,” says Sandra Schaeuffele, general manager of Thomas Keller’s three-MICHELIN-starred restaurant that holds court in New York City’s notable Time Warner Center. Originally from Schlierbach, Germany, working at Per Se was a dream—in fact, it was at the top of her bucket list. “I thought to my self, ‘Where do I want to be? What do I want to do?'” she says. “Per Se was the last one on my list.” She ticked it off her list six years ago when she joined as a captain and served as maitre d’ before finally landing in her current position. “Everyone cares about the guest and who’s around them, whether it’s the captain or a cook—it’s a great team.”

Chef de cuisine Corey Chow has had a similar experience at the lauded restaurant, joining the team in 2007 as a commis, then rising to chef de partie and sous chef in the summer of 2010. Looking for more inspiration, Chow decamped from his role and held jobs at other Big Apple restaurants including NoMad and Torrisi Italian Specialties before itching to return. “Per Se is a very special place,” he says. “It’s a place where you really don’t know how much you’ve done until you’ve left.” Chow says this is a common denominator among anyone who has passed through the Per Se kitchen. “It’s the whole culture that you can’t find anywhere else.”

At both Per Se and The French Laundry in Yountville, California, Keller has created an environment of mentorship. “When I first started as a young cook, the only thing I wanted to do was be the best cook I could be,” Chow says. “Now that I’m the chef de cuisine, it’s about collaborating and teaching the next generation of young chefs how to be leaders. I think that’s the best thing about what Per Se brings about [in] everyone.”

Indeed, Keller has taught and mentored a lineage of chefs whom have gone on to open their own celebrated restaurants. In fact, Lucia Cho, a former Per Se extern, is returning to the halls she once walked this week for a special collaboration dinner. “[She's] coming back to Per Se and giving back to the restaurant by bringing her team here and collaborating together where she got her foundation at the restaurant,” Chow says. 

Cho, who is now the president and creative producer of three-MICHELIN-starred Gaon in Seoul, has another intimate connection with Per Se as much of the plateware comes from her family’s ceramics company, Kwangjuyo. Since 1963, “Kwangjuyo Group has changed Korean dining by declaring the popularization of everyday porcelain tableware through the technology of reproducing the lost legacy of Buncheong porcelain (grayish-blue-powdered celadon), Koryo celadon and chosun white porcelain,” says Cho. Currently, Kwangjuyo distributes to MICHELIN-starred restaurants including Per Se and Jungsik in New York, Benu in San Francisco and Bo Innovation in Hong Kong, among others.

Gaon’s chief executive chef, Byoung Jin Kim, recently teamed up with Chow and the Per Se team for a six-course tasting menu, with the beef course showcasing what each restaurant is known for. “We’re going to be using a côte de boeuf, the piece of beef that chef [Keller] is known for, and the Gaon team is going to do the vegetable garnishes,” Chow says. “When they get here, we’ll decide on a sauce and even more so what the dish will be.”

Both Chow and Schaeuffele welcomed the Gaon team into their home away from home, helping in terms of both dinner prep and service. “Back in the day, restaurants never really shared with each other—they wanted to compete, they wanted to keep their techniques,” says Chow. “For us, it’s more about the camaraderie about another three-starred restaurant from the other side of the world coming together and giving the guests an experience.”

“I love it when other teams walk around and taste what we do,” he adds. “It’s just another platform for learning from each other, and what we can offer each other. We can always take something from each other whether its management, whether it’s an ingredient, cooking, a piece of China, all of the little things we notice in a restaurant.”

“That’s what brought me to Per Se,” Chow continues, reminiscing of when Keller and team came to Alan Wong's in Honolulu for a collaboration dinner. Chow was working the line.  “I watched how they work. I watched the cuisine and thought, ‘that’s what it takes to be at the top? I want to work there.’”

Hero image by Deborah Jones.

Want to learn more about wine? Follow Robert Parker Wine Advocate on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

More articles from this author