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In Search of the Perfect Dish: Our Visit To One of America’s Most Expensive Restaurants

My imposter syndrome kept flaring up. Our escalator was carrying us closer and closer to the blue door that separates Per Se from the rest of Manhattan and I still felt uncertain about my motivations for the visit. Was I really eager to broaden my culinary education or just hoping for a glimpse of the 1%?

Per Se’s iconic blue doors in the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle.

I knew that writing about the experience would mean admitting to my ardently frugal family that I had spent a small fortune on a single dinner. Three-Michelin-stars, nine-courses, and a month’s rent.

Deadhorse hill chef-owner Jared Forman reminded me later that it hadn’t been such an expensive meal when you considered how many people had touched the food before it arrived at our table.

I’d like to say I knew this first hand; after all, I had ventured back to the kitchen at the end of my visit. But, Forman told me I was mistaken.

According to him, I met only a fraction of the cooks tasked with crafting my meal. What I had witnessed was the main kitchen, complete with a live feed tuned to Thomas Keller’s first love — The French Laundry in California. The commis kitchen had been kept out of site.

Forman has spent enough time picking herbs, topping eggshells, and opening oysters at Per Se to know the difference.

Per Se’s main kitchen offers a live feed to The French Laundry in California.

Johnson & Wales students compete every trimester for a prestigious Per Se internship. More than a decade ago, Forman earned the coveted spot, landing him a four month stint in Keller’s kitchen. The commis kitchen, that is, where the prep cooks toil away until (if they’re lucky) they are called up to run the cheese station before progressing to the role of fish roaster, and so on and so forth. No matter how much time they spend at Per Se, there will only ever be one man at the top.

Keller is one of the most celebrated chefs in history. He currently holds seven Michelin stars, three at Per Se, three at The French Laundry, and one at Bouchon. The Michelin guide is something of a restaurant bible. One star represents “a very good restaurant,” two stars signify “excellent cooking that is worth a detour,” and three stars mean “exceptional cuisine that is worth a special journey.”

Forman started at Per Se just after Keller had finished consulting on Ratatouille, an Academy Award winning animated film about a rat who becomes a chef. Forman’s arrival at Per Se came only a week after the photos for Keller’s second book, Under Pressure, had been shot at the restaurant.

Keller’s books are not meant to cook out of.

“Half the recipes don’t work. It’s not about recipes. They’re about inspiration,” Forman says, “When his first book came out, there was nothing else like it.”

When his internship ended, Forman parlayed his newfound experience into a job at David Chang’s momofuku noodle bar. “Per Se is like a coloring book. You color in these lines and then go home. You have a very real barometer of what success and failure is because Thomas Keller’s there to tell you what it is,” Forman says.

He recalls one cook on the line who wore a bracelet embossed with WWKD, as in, “What would Thomas Keller do?”

He says he knows better than to compare Per Se to anywhere else he has ever or will ever work, but in four short months, he admits that the restaurant showed him something remarkable.

“Per Se is not a cutthroat kitchen. At some high end restaurants, people steal mise en place. People sabotage each other,” Forman remembers, “At Per Se, there’s a greater vision embraced by everybody. People are firm and strict, but it’s always with purpose.”

Initially, Forman scoffed at the notion of my visit to Per Se.

“I don’t think it’s the best food in the world. It’s not the most groundbreaking food, anyways,” he said, “It’s a place you go for precision and perfection and we should all be glad it’s there for that. You go there for technique.”

I explained to him that I was deep in pursuit of the standards that shaped deadhorse hill in Worcester in addition to America’s vision for fine dining.

He rolled his eyes and said, “I just hope someone else is paying.”

Per Se’s oysters and pearls.

Behind the Blue Door

The restaurant consists of 66 seats perched high above Columbus Circle, along with a private dining room that accommodates no more than 30 guests behind boardroom glass and brown curtains.

Per Se fosters steadfast dedication in its staff.

Servers fetch clean bills from the bank every evening to ensure that you don’t end up with the wrinkled change from someone else’s pocket. Reservations are on point. The floral arrangements are fit for the Royal Wedding. The napkins might as well be cashmere blankets. And the charger plates offer some sort of Magic Eye pattern from which I kept hoping a sailboat or a spaceship would reveal itself.

The moment I attempted to set down my purse on the back of my chair, a tiny stool appeared at my side, as if by magic.

“Why not begin with champagne?” we asked. The salmon cornet with tartare and crème fraîche, balanced on an ice cream cone, practically demanded it, as did the oysters and pearls — a custard of tapioca and Regiis Ova caviar.

Like everything else, these petite bites were quite intentional. “His philosophy is the idea of diminishing returns; as you’re eating something, you get used to it. Keller never lets this happen,” Forman explained, “Your palate never gets accustomed.”

The courses unfolded in such a way that each one proved more personal than the last.

Per Se’s slow-poached Hudson Valley foulard-duck foie gras.

Take for example, the slow-poached Hudson Valley moulard duck foie gras for which the ducks are hatched and harvested humanely by a former member of the Israeli Armed Forces and his partner who notably worked on Wall Street before he got into the liver business.

Even the bread course arrived with an announcement that the butter hailed from a cow named Keller, milked twice a day by a dedicated dairy farmer in Orwell, Vermont.

I do not work for a fancy firm with a standing table, I have never been to a restaurant quite this formal, and I suspect I butchered the pronunciation of the 2015 Patrick Piuze I was drinking.

I visited Per Se for the anecdotes. The tales our servers told us made the smell of charcoal-grilled blackfish more intoxicating and conjured visions of the Pacific coast before the parmesan-crusted sea snails had so much as touched my lips.

It’s probably for the best that I didn’t receive my booklet of purveyors until after the meal. Not because I would have felt dismayed to devour the Liberty Farm duck breast while observing the fourth generation farmer cuddling with one of his flock. On the contrary, I fear I’d have been so engaged in his one page bio that I’d let the poor pekin grow cold on my plate.

The same is true of the 100 day dry-aged Snake River Farms beef rib eye. Aside from its concentrated flavor and the well marbled meat, I’d have hastened to detect its diet of barley, golden wheat straw, alfalfa hay, and Idaho potatoes had I known it existed.

The dessert courses arrived all at once in a flood of raspberry-stained Bartlett pears, pickled honeynut squash, and blackcurrant flapjack ice cream. The “mignardises,” French for bite-sized dessert, may as well have been blown from delicate bits of colored glass.

The presentation of Per Se’s mignardises.

Along with my booklet of purveyors, I was sent home clutching a branded bag filled with carefully wrapped mignardises and tins of shortbread — parting gifts. I also received an invitation back to the pristine kitchen.

When I told Forman about the back of house tour, he recalled this was not out of the ordinary.

“Some people don’t want to see behind the scenes. Other people get a crazy kick out of it,” he said, “They probably googled you when you made the reservation and knew you’d be into it.”

The Myth of Perfection

The literature inside my Per Se gift bag includes a note from Keller himself. “When ingredients arrive at the restaurant they are, in one sense already finished,” he wrote, “At the stove, we have no control over how an animal was raised or the way a peach was harvested. As chefs, all we can do is to carefully select our suppliers and then work with them to ensure we get the best possible ingredients.”

I have heard Forman express similar sentiments. He feels lucky to live in a place with so many amazing farms and wild habitats capable of turning out the sweetest corn and the most pungent ramps.

“The distribution system to Worcester has exploded over the past few years, which allows us to combine all of these local products with other amazing things from across the country and around the globe,“ Forman told me, “A huge chunk of my time in any given week is spent sourcing products for the restaurant, visiting farmers markets and ethnic markets, weeding out specialty items, and talking directly with farmers. The details are absolutely endless.”

Per Se offers a vast wine selection highlighting a collection of older wines as well as wines from small producers that are released in limited quantities.

Two weeks after my visit to Keller’s kitchen, Forman loaned me his copy of The French Laundry Cookbook.

Sitting at home in my Worcester apartment, I cracked the heavy volume open in my lap and a line leapt right off the page. “When you acknowledge, as you must, that there is no such thing as perfect food, only the idea of it, then the real purpose of striving toward perfection becomes clear: to make people happy, that is what cooking is all about,” Keller had written.

Per Se showed me precision, technique, and urgency, but the experience didn’t earn me any degrees or badges. I had not been an imposter at Per Se anymore than I am an imposter in my own kitchen. Keller had relished the chance to make me happy, and he had immeasurably succeeded.

In the weeks that followed, I would struggle to rattle off finite details of the nine course menu I so enjoyed at Per Se, but the memory of a blissful evening never left me.

Maybe you have the cash to let chefs like Forman or Keller help you find happiness in your food on a regular basis, but most people don’t. The perfect dish is the one that brings contentment and it could cost you next to nothing if you’re willing to treasure it properly.

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Lock 50’s Tim Russo Creates From Scratch To Control The Dining Experience

Chef Tim Russo from Lock 50 on Water Street in Worcester, MA

Tim Russo wants you to feel awful. The more awful the better as far as he is concerned when you come to Lock 50, his restaurant and café that opened in April in Worcester’s bustling Canal District.

Well, at least to a lot of people that’s what it sounds like Tim’s saying. But that’s not what he means. What he really wants you to feel is offal – the entrails, organs, and trimmed bits of animals used as food. Liver, tongue, thymus, heart … especially the heart. Chicken hearts, specifically. If our eyes are the windows to our souls, chicken hearts are the windows to Tim’s soul as a chef.

Chef Tim Russo from Lock 50 on Water Street in Worcester, MA
Chef Tim Russo from Lock 50 on Water Street in Worcester, MAChef Tim Russo from Lock 50 on Water Street in Worcester, MA (Alex Belisle for Mass Foodies)

Sure the other parts of animals – as well as vegetables and grains – engage Tim and are on fine display on his menu. A pork shank is as refined as it is comforting; it’s seasonal accompaniments drawing on anything from tomato brodo in the summer to apples and Brussels sprout leaves in the fall. Steak? Yeah, Tim does his most recent with mushrooms, sweet and sour cherries, crispy bleu cheese, and rapini pesto but get ready for something new for Lock’s first spring (stay tuned). Tim also happens to be a master at gnocchi, which is the one thing his uncle and the owner of the restaurant, Ed Russo, will never let him take off the menu. The dish is even meat free: mixed with blue cheese, crispy sweet potato, and fresh scallion.

Gnocchi was actually the first “pasta” (technically a dumpling but many people think of it as pasta) Tim learned to make at home as a kid and they are easily among the best I’ve ever had. Or anyone else it seems, which is one reason they are his most popular dish (he sends out about 100 orders a week). The other reasons are they are the most familiar and accessible point of entry to Tim’s cooking – if you will, the gateway “drug” for his food for many customers. They may be, as he says, a “pain in the ass” to make but he’s giving the people what they want.

And Tim is all about his customers. They’re just a little different than he thought they would be at the outset – a little older demographic, more upscale, intrigued by the menu and location and happy with the charming intimacy of a space free of loud music. But they were also a little less adventurous than the post-college kids Tim expected. Which brings us back to those chicken hearts.

The second course, with wine, from chef Tim Russo's Chef's Tasting Menu at Lock 50 in Worcester, MA
The second course, with wine, from chef Tim Russo’s Chef’s Tasting Menu at Lock 50 in Worcester, MA (Photos by Alex Belisle for Mass Foodies)

“This was the first place where I had complete control of the menu,” says Tim. “I said, ‘This is the concept, and this is what we are doing.’ I designed the kitchen too, which was a game of Tetris on drafting paper. Measure, move. Measure, move. Maximize the space and get the most and biggest pieces of equipment I could to make this what I wanted: a modern American space and menu like you see in New York, Boston, even Portland and Providence. A menu filled with stuff chefs like to eat – where people like me go, try some stuff maybe they have never tried, have some cool cocktails, and then go on to the next place. My menu was designed around weird, fun stuff.”

Like those chicken hearts, which he served on skewers as a bar snack. Hardly your typical Worcester bar fare – or your typical bar fare period. They didn’t last. But Tim has hope. At Armsby Abbey, where he served as executive sous chef, Tim worked with beef heart and tongue and he gave a little tongue at Volturno too with a beef tongue bruschetta that remains a hit. For now, Tim is adapting: “My very first concept menu was way out there, and I had to shut it down and create one that was more familiar and basic. We’re not quite that adventurous here yet. We’re getting there. I’m trying to get people to try stuff and realize it’s not weird or crazy or maybe you just had it prepared badly. Octopus is becoming pretty popular now, but so many people say it’s rubbery and gross. But my chilled sous vide compressed octopus is so tender it melts-in-your mouth. People just need to get past what they think they know.”

All this takes Tim back to growing up with his three sisters who were incredibly picky about anything put in front of them: “It’s terrible. When I started cooking as a kid I would try anything. They called me the garbage disposal because I would eat anything. I would always try and push my sisters and my friends. But they would say it was disgusting without even trying it. Just because of the name. Just try it! Now I’m trying to do that in Worcester on my own now.”

The fourth course from chef Tim Russo's Chef's Tasting Menu at Lock 50 in Worcester, MA - Seared tri-tip steak with soubise sauce
The fourth course from chef Tim Russo’s Chef’s Tasting Menu at Lock 50 in Worcester, MA – Seared tri-tip steak with soubise sauce (Photos by Alex Belisle for Mass Foodies)

That is a point of pride for Tim, too: Because unlike many of the amazing chefs that are elevating the Worcester dining scene who come from surrounding towns or further afoot, Tim was born in Worcester and grew up here. He attended “The Voke” for culinary arts and first cooked at Maxwell Silverman’s. Following high school, he worked in Providence and got a degree from Johnson & Wales before decamping for Nantucket and eventually ending up back in here at Armsby Abbey and Volturno.

Tim is confident people will eventually respond just as they did when the hometown boy took first place Judge’s Choice and second place People’s Choice at the 2015 Worcester’s Best Chef Competition and was named Worcester’s Best Chef the same year. He’s encouraged by the little victories like the house-made Moroccan lamb sausage, which is taking off (he thought people would be skittish). Pricing is still a challenge though. The hurdle isn’t just the ingredients but that lingering perception that “quantity equals quality” and that Outback has a great steak that compares to what you would get at Lock 50.

“People don’t understand that we make everything from scratch,” Tim adds. “I put the best lamb in that lamb sausage and then all the time that goes into us making it here – four hours to break down and grind and sous vide and cook to order. That’s why you pay $14 for lamb sausage. It’s quality ingredients that took four hours of our time.

This is a huge learning curve that we need to understand.”

As customers do respond to more adventurous dishes, Tim slips some unfamiliar things alongside or inside the more familiar fare, or as Tim says: “Give people what they want while still giving them what you want too.”

“You want this but I am going to do it this way or add a little something,” he adds. “Inch those things back onto the menu more and more as we progress and gain a reputation. I’m thinking of doing a foie gras hot dog with the foie emulsified into the meat. If I were to do a burger it definitely would have something like bone marrow in it. So hot dogs and hamburgers but still something I made you try. Make it special.”

Chef Tim Russo from Lock 50 on Water Street in Worcester, MA
Chef Tim Russo from Lock 50 on Water Street in Worcester, MA (Alex Belisle for Mass Foodies)

Tim’s already there with his Meat Board: He started putting chicken liver pâté next to the house-made charcuterie and other high-quality cured meats. “A lot of people say, ‘That’s gross I hate liver,” he says, glancing over at Ed at the bar. “He said he hates liver. ‘I’m not eating liver.’ I gave him some pâté on the board and he admitted it was delicious. Putting it on the board you sort of get people with things they already eat. ‘Hey it’s there I might as well taste it.’ And they generally enjoy it. It was just the perception that it’s gross and they won’t like it.”

He also gets to do that with the Lock 50 tasting menu, which is a blind tasting of five or seven courses with or without wine. He hasn’t gone too crazy yet, because he wants his customers to come back so maybe he waits for their second visit to slip in some chicken heart confit. The idea is to make sure there is something for everyone but maybe with a new technique or ingredient. For Tim, that’s super rewarding when they respond.

“I’m not just trying to grow myself,” Tim says. “I want us to grow as a food city. That’s huge for me growing up here, going to The Voke, and being from a place I used to have to drive away from to find good food. Now look around. I have a great staff I could not do without. I have great customers who are getting more adventurous. We’re in the Canal District and there is great food all around us. It’s a great time to be here.” Not so awful, after all.