“As you walk around the room, I want you to have the feeling that you are connecting the earth with the heavens,” exhorted Catherine Turocy, a dance instructor and choreographer who specializes in 18th-century minuets.
Two dozen students, equally men and women, most in their late 20′s, formed a single-file line and strode around a large conference room-chins up, arms loose at their sides, and giggling sporadically as they marched out of step like a slipshod army platoon.
“A low face conveys a sense of loss!” Ms Turocy continued. “If you walk around with a low face, that shows everyone that you are submitting to a greater power.”
The group was summoned to a halt and separated into two long rows, square-dance style, as the teacher picked up a batch of long red feathers and passed them out to the line on her left.
“In a classic minuet,” explained Ms. Turocy, a small, spiritual woman with tied-back chestnut hair, wearing a long blouse and loose black pants, “the gentleman offers the feather to the lady, the lady accepts with a forward bow, and the dance begins. I want you to feel your head floating on top of your spine.” She clicked on a small boombox that played Handel’s Water Music . The pas de deux began.
This was not a night class at the Y for ex-collegiate hoofers, nor an East Side theater club’s musical rendition of Barry Lyndon . Flitting around this room were an assortment of busboys and “runners,” the latter a term referring to restaurant employees who shuttle food back and forth from kitchen to table.
But not just any kitchen. This is Per Se, the extravagant sibling of the much much-revered French Laundry in California’s Napa Valley, which is slated to open Feb. 16 in the new Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle.
Chef/owner Thomas Keller, 45, has temporarily shuttered his rustic original establishment and drafted some of his key lieutenants in the hopes of transplanting a bit of fuzzy wine-country hospitality to the glass-wrapped, echoey shopping center, which includes a four-story galleria of retail shops, restaurants and bars.
Per Se, which was designed by globe-trotting Adam Tihany-as, it seems, is every third new restaurant in the city-is said to have cost more than $12 million, which certainly merits a line or two in the Guinness Book of Gustatory Records. Prix-fixe dinners will go for $125, $135 and $150.
The French Laundry is renowned as much for its food as its assiduous service, which is widely hailed as the best in the country. I was a beneficiary of it three times over the years: precise not fussy, smart not smarmy, and everywhere and nowhere according to your needs. And they didn’t know how to minuet.
Service at the New York venture, presumably, will be up to the same standard, and I was curious to learn how they do it.
I asked the folks at Per Se if I could be a fly on the wall for a week to see how they train the staff. They foolishly agreed.
“I think the dance is very good for them; they need to know how to
move with grace,” observed Laura Cunningham, the general manager of the French Laundry, who is serving here as a consultant to Per Se, as she peeked in on the hour-long session.
Ms. Turocy, who is the artistic director of the New York Baroque Dance Company, has held these movement workshops for musicians and dancers over the years; this is her first restaurant gig.
As silly as this bowing and scraping appeared at first, the half-dozen or so students I spoke with afterward said they got a kick out of it and maybe learned something about movement as well.
“I liked it,” Rudy Mikula, a bartender, told me. “But as far as I’m concerned, it was as much about bonding among the staff as it was the movement thing.”
Higher-ups in the dining room-managers, captains and waiters-would flap their feathers later that morning.
The following day, I sat in on oral exams for the bussing and running staff. Leading the exercise was Michel Darmon, Per Se’s new manager. A large, formal man in his late 30′s, with black-rimmed glasses and well-lacquered hair, he was born in Paris to English parents and had worked around Europe and the U.S., including a stint at the River Café, in Brooklyn. Mr. Darmon wears a dark suit and an understated tie every day and never seems to take off his jacket, even when hauling around tables and chairs in the terraced dining room. Watching him grill these students, I couldn’t help saying to myself, “This is not a chap I would want nearby if I dropped a wine glass in the dining room.”
“What is a gastrique ?” he called out, holding his hand high. “Anybody?”
“A gastrique !” he repeated.
“It’s, uh, vinegar and … ,” volunteered a boyish-looking runner. “It’s acid and sugar, or a simple syrup.”
“Good!” Mr. Darmon affirmed, followed by Larry Nadeau, a veteran French Laundry maître d’hôtel .
“And what kind of acid? What kind of acid?” he barked. “Any kind? Yes, but it does not have to be vinegar. Could be lemon. Think … acid, acid, acid !”
Mr. Darmon: “O.K., now name three salts and their places of origins.”
” Fleur de sel ? Sel de mer ? ‘From the sea’?”
“Right. Anybody else?”
” Sel de Guerande ?”
“Good. There are also two Japanese salts, which are a little more iodized, and two kinds of Hawaiian salts.” In addition, he went on, mercilessly, there is Jurassic salt, said to be 30 million years old-quite shelf stable.
Mr. Nadeau: “What kind of canapés do we serve?”
“Cheeks!” chirped a young woman.
“Exactly! What kind of cheeks?”
“Yes …. Chef Keller loves all kinds of cheeks. You’ll see a lot of cheeks around here.”
After about 45 minutes of this I ducked out of the room for a breath of air, abashed that I, a so-called food professional, could not answer several of the questions.
At class’ end, I mentioned to Mr. Darmon that I couldn’t imagine a busboy or busgirl ever being asked, “What is a glacage ?”
Without missing a step, he grinned slyly. “I’m not one who believes in too much information.” (For the record, it’s a glaze or a dessert plate, usually made of sugar or chocolate.)
I was feeling great empathy for these kids, because in the early 80′s I served, briefly, as the world’s worst waiter, at a country bistro in Connecticut. My most inventive performance involved serving a genial older couple their salads after dessert. Evidently they liked me, for they silently acquiesced to this gastronomic innovation rather than turn me in to the authorities.
As far as staff “exams,” the only interrogations I recall were:
1. “Did you park your car against the back wall and block the delivery truck?”
2. “This fork isn’t ours. Did you bring it from home?”
I returned to the exam room to see how the kids were doing.
“What is the difference between black and white truffles?”
“What is the most planted grape in Chateauneaf du Pape?” (The professors missed an accent and dashes on that one.)
“What causes the blue in blue cheese?”
“Do we brown our bones for the veal stock?”
And then there was one I intend to run by the bread runner on my first visit to Per Se:
“Young lady, could you tell me which of these is correct? Cippolini, Cipolini, Cipollini, or Cipolinni? My wife wants to know.”
The morning of Day 3 was given over to an hour-and-a-half-long napkin-folding seminar. In case you’re concerned, be assured that when you dine at Per Se, your napkin will be fluffy-”First, lift it up high to get a little air under it,” Mr. Nadeau demonstrates-and with a perfect triple pleat pointing to 12 o’clock, or the center of the table.
“Twelve o’clock and 6 o’clock, not 11 o’clock and 5 o’clock.” he admonished.
In the course of these arm-wearying exercises, we were informed that the white napkins are 50 percent linen and 50 percent cotton.
“An M.I.T. professor got involved in making these,” Ms. Cunningham interjected. “They are supposed to last us for 18 months.”
The odds of securing a minimum-wage dining-room position at Per Se are roughly equal to that of gaining admittance to Columbia. In the past several months, the restaurant has received roughly 400 applications for 65 non-kitchen minimum-wage slots, and only about 25 of those will be in the dining room at any given time. Like most good waiters in top-notch New York establishments, they can expect to earn upwards of $200 a night. In addition to the wait staff, there will be three sommeliers, which is extraordinary for a restaurant designed for fewer than 75 seats (they will presumably help out for private parties).
“Some who applied have perfect résumés, but they also have to have the attention and energy to adapt
to our philosophy,” explained Ms. Cunningham, a trim, exacting and periscopic woman, the type who would walk across a dining room to pluck a dangling flower petal-and expects her staff to do the same.
Per Se’s dropout rate, she told me, is between 10 and 15 percent. (I’ll bet that glacage question alone sent 5 percent running for their coats).
While chef Keller was occupied in the kitchen most of the time I was in residence, his name came up frequently, and reverentially-especially whenever his philosophy of food and service arose. His spirit was evoked at the oddest time, whether it was cleaning the clear Plexiglas bar cover (“Chef likes the lighting from this angle”) or moving the furniture (“He wants chairs that are comfortable but not overdone”). I half expected him to show up donning robes.
Anything but. Lanky, likable and with an honest Midwestern smile (he’s from California), he appears to be the least uptight member of the organization (although I have not peeked in on the kitchen yet). He even took a turn at the minuet.
My history with Mr. Keller goes back two decades, when he cooked in three first-rate Manhattan restaurants-La Réserve, Restaurant Raphael and Rakel-before finding fame in chardonnay-land. Despite very favorable reviews, Rakel had a rough time of it, largely because its location-on Varick Street in the West Village, just steps from Soho-was considered at the time out of the dining loop.
Last Thursday, just hours before the big bash marking the opening of the Time Warner Center’s retail complex, at which Per Se would be serving finger foods to several thousand partygoers (if you call perigord truffle popcorn finger-worthy), Mr. Keller joined the staff for a little pep talk wearing old blue jeans and a chef’s jacket.
Looking around at the exquisitely aligned napkins, snowy cotton tablecloths (“Ideally, they should not have a crease down the center!” cautioned Mr. Nadeau), glass-wrapped fireplace and dreamy view of Central Park, he addressed the graduation class.
“We’ve all worked very hard, and it’s going to be a pretty wild night tonight,” he allowed. “Of course, we want guests to come to our restaurant and feel that it is like going to someone’s home. That is where the restaurant is heading to. For now, get ready and let’s have a little fun.”