Tag Archives: thomas keller

Per Se – Part II

7 Oct

My companion and I, both vegetarians, decided to have the Tasting of Vegetables. I really wanted to see how the Chef thought about vegetables, how he would present them, and how a nine course meal of pure vegetable, served haute cuisine, would feel. It was truly the experience of a lifetime. Though they say the menu is nine courses, it is actually more like twelve, what with the amuse bouche to start and the flurry of mignardises at the end.

Every day, the menu at Per Se changes. With the changing of the seasons, with the new bouquets of fall, winter, spring and summer, different dishes are presented. The knowledge of food, the breadth and depth of passion for each vegetable and fruit is stunning. I am so glad we got to experience Per Se at the end of summer, and the beginning of autumn … the flavours were deep and rich, as resonant as a bass drum.

My companion had wine, and asked our waiter to chose. It was the first time in a long time that I wished I still drank. Champagne to start, a Pinot Gris that was so delicious I find words hard to express its complexity, crispness, delight… and finally a red which was soft and rich and full. Perfect pairings for our most phenomenal meal.


Amuse Bouches

The amuse started the meal out with a bang. Tiny, miniscule gougeres – so little, they seemed inconsequential. Two, one each, served on a crisp white plate. Eaten by hand, they were like a peanut… until their huge flavour exploded in the mouth. Crisp outer shell, mindshatteringly savoury warm cheese, melting like velvet on the tongue. That little gougere was like a wake up call. Sit up! Pay attention! Your mind, your taste buds, everything is about to be blown away. It was so good, I immediately wanted 20 more. I could have sat and eaten those gougeres forever – but of course, that would have lessened the power of that singular mouthful. I thought it was one of the most intense and delicious things I have ever eaten. And it set up the meal perfectly because we couldnt wait to see what was going to come next.

One of Chef Keller’s most famous amuse bouches is his smoked salmon, served like an ice cream, in a tiny savoury cone. We had the vegetarian version, with artichoke, a sublime couple of bites – creamy, astringent, crisp. Eaten with the hands as well. Astonishingly clever. And a perfect match for that intense gougere because it spoke of balance, sweetness and savoury, a sense of humour and adventure.

Caramelized Salsify “Veloute” Pomegranate Reduction, Medjool Date “Marbles” and Truffle Puree

Our first course was … how to call this a soup? A veloute is one of the four mother sauces that the great French Chef Careme classified as being the basis from which all other sauces come from – bechamel, espagnole, veloute and allemande. Veloute is made from roux, with huge amounts of butter, and uncaramelised stock. This vegetarian veloute was smooth like the finest silk, soft as a baby’s cheek. Salsify is a root vegetable – it looks like a thin parsnip but it has its own flavour, hauntingly expressive, with notes of oyster, earth, dampness.

Together, the salsify and the veloute created a dream. Sweet and voluptuously satisfying. And then… pomegranate reduction and truffle puree! Taking that smooth white emulsion, and bringing in dark notes. Truffle is one of those tastes that in and of itself is mesmerising. Married with the pomegranate and the salsify … it was like nothing I had ever tasted before. And the dates – literally marbles of sweet honeyed flavour. This entire course was about grounding, earthiness, the life force of the vegetables tangible and yet elevated together to a stunning resonance.

Both of us considered putting our faces in our bowls and licking them clean, but we did not want to embarrass ourselves quite yet!

Compressed Persian Cucumbers Slow Roasted Beets, Horseradish Panna Cotta, Mizuna and Gold Beet Glaze

Well, one thing is for sure. I will never ever look at a cucumber the same way again! After the earthy complexity of the first course, we had a “salad” – but honestly, it was something else entirely. The cucumber and the beets had been pressed and roasted – until some shattered on the tongue like delicate shards of flavour, and some had the caramelised roasted perfume of the Goddesses. Each delicate slice was presented with reverent perfection and each tasted completely different. The mizuna – Japanese watercress – added a burst of colour, and reflected the sharp contrast of the sublime horseradish panna cotta hiding under a golden sunshine sweet beet glaze.

This dish was composed like a painting. It was gorgeously lush, and so beautiful to look at. The gold beet glaze was almost unreal – an orange yellow slick of brightness. It was sweet, as were the cucumbers and beets. But the creamy panna cotta had the acerbic sting of horseradish. What a combination! Each mouthful was different and yet perfectly similar. I wanted to take a breath, to savour, but it was so sublime, I could not stop eating it. I just wanted to find another taste, another angle, another combination.

And this was the pure joy of the meal – to experience a Chef thinking about putting different tastes, textures and emotions together. The colours, the presentation, the rhythm of the meal was so seductive because it was at once intellectual, humourous and wantonly sensual.

Rosa Bianca Eggplant “A La Grenobloise” “Haricots Verts et Jaunes,” Parsley Shoots and Crystallized Eggplant Chip

After the black and white pleasures of the veloute, and the sparkling composition of the cucumbers, we were presented with eggplants. But not just any eggplant … Rosa Bianca, a beautiful heirloom variety, small and seedless, roasted to perfection. Sexy and rich, deeply moving. A la Grenobloise refers to a method of preparation which uses brown butter, parsley, lemon juice, capers and tiny croutons. This sexy salad had echoes of these flavours, along with beautifully prepared green and yellow beans, tender and subtle, and parsley shoots – tiny young shoots, sweet and gorgeous garnish – totally different in taste and texture from the older, full grown variety. So much contrast here, and so much to think about. The crunch of the crouton, the slickness of the green and yellow beans. The creaminess of the eggplant, highlighted by its preparation…

And to top it all off, a slice of eggplant. Sliced through from top to bottom, a slice gossamer thin, and crystallized. It was like a piece of stained glass art. So stunning I didnt want to eat it but then I allowed my appetite, and my interest its full rein. Sweet, perfect, crackly. Eggplant? Yes! Oh yes yes yes. Such a superb combination of presentation and flavour, and such deep connection to the first two dishes. A Chef at once thoughtful and playful. And so moving.

With this course, we were served our first bread of the meal – a small roll, a cross between a brioche, a croissant and Southern spoon biscuits. Utterly devastatingly satiny soft, like a pillow of richness. So good that on its own, it would deserve accolades and applause. Served almost nonchalantly with two butters – Vermont salted and California unsalted. Of course.

Butter Roasted Sweet Potato Brussels Sprouts, Pearson Farms’ Pecans, Frisee Lettuce and Blis Maple Syrup Emulsion

How to move on from eggplants? From that ripe earthiness? From the artistic exactness of that crystalized piece? A perfect square of sweet potato, roasted in butter until so unctuously soft, it was experienced like a toffee butternut! With a crisp coating that had saltiness and creaminess, and which stopped the sweet potato from going into the overwhelmingly ripe. Alongside, bright braised brussel sprouts, their acidity a counterpoint to the sweetness. Toasted pecans, artful tiny lettuce and a creamy maple syrup. Each element of this dish not only complemented each other but raised the tastes into an aria… sung a capella!

I know, I am verging on the obscene with the superlatives… but honestly. Harmony. Balance. Lushness. It was all there.

It just blows me away when I can enjoy a meal in such a way, and yet I can feel the thought and care, tenderness and intensity that has gone into preparing every mouthful. I love home cooked food because its really about love. When I eat a meal prepared for me by someone who cares about me, I sense it in every bite. Restaurant meals are more difficult, because there is rarely a personal connection between Chef and diner. More so with the superstar restaurants … and yet here, in every part of the experience, I was immersed in a depth of care. Every dish that was presented was done so lovingly, was prepared with honour and respect. You cannot fake that.

Mushroom Pot Pie “Matignon” of Root Vegetables, Ekerton Hill Farm’s Chestnuts, Watercress Salad, Fines Herbes Creme Fraiche and Madeira Cream

After five courses (including the amuse bouches), this was the pinnacle. A pot pie. Homely. Something that one would make to comfort and show love. A hug. Reassuringly familiar. Yes, and yet… Oh my good Goddess. This one, I did end up dipping my fingers in at the end and licking up the remaining juices.

Essence of mushroom, in all its complexity. Shadows and mustiness, dark thumps of flavour.

And with it, the matignon, which is a method of cooking vegetables slowly, softly, with butter and Madiera, until they are melted and melded with each other. Another essence, this time of root vegetables (and echoes of the salsify we began with). And chestnuts, sliced in perfect matchsticks with the mushrooms. Lush beyond belief. Creamy and earthy, so rich and intense. Crowned with a perfect crisp puff pastry, that was delicately sliced. A quenelle of fines herbes and sharp watercress horseradish cream deposited into the exceptional mushroom. A transcendent experience. It was perfect. Really truly, perfect. Every part of me resonated with that pot pie.

I could have laughed out loud with joy.

Mascarpone Enriched Parsnip “Agnolotti” Honeycrisp Apple “Parisienne,” Young Onions, Pea Shoots and Black Winter Truffle Beurre Blanc

Agnolotti are a form of ravioli,  plump squares of pasta from the Piedmont region of Italy. These tiny, thumbnail sized squares were stuffed with a silken parsnip puree. Amazing explosion of flavour from a small bite… echoes of our gougeres and that sublime first course. Remembrance and memory woven into a singular meal. Sweet honeyed apples, tiny rounds of contrast, mirroring the dates. And a beurre blanc of truffles (black and white again! And oh, what a taste to leave you gasping!) … another memory intertwined with this one.

So flawless…except for the young onions. For me, they were a dissonance. I understood why they were there – the counterpoint. The astringent to the creamy. But I did not find that they melded well into this course, and I did not eat them. This was noticed, of course, and I was asked why I had left them. I answered honestly… and it was accepted.

“Ticklemore” Thyme Sable, Compressed Figs, Belgian Endive and Watercress with Walnut Marmalade


“Smokey Oregon Blue” Per Se Graham Cracker, Poached Quince, Celery “Ribbons” and Tellicherry Pepper “Aigre-Doux”

Our cheese course arrived. Since we were two, we ordered one of each, and shared. Two completely different cheeses. Mine, the Ticklemore, was a goat’s cheese from Devon – subtle and creamy. Very delicate for a goat’s cheese, and served with a sweet thyme sable biscuit, ripe figs, a sharp melding of green and a luscious walnut marmalade.

My companion had the Smokey Oregon Blue – totally intense, smoked over hazelnuts for hours, and strong. What a forceful flavour! Paired with the Per Se version of a graham cracker – honeyed and gingery, jewel-like quinces and the sour sweet pepper.

Our two versions of the cheese course highlighted how completely different cheese can be. It was wonderful to be able to share.

Huckleberry and Buttermilk Sherbet Oat Crumble, Oregon Huckleberries “Demi-Sec” and Buttermilk Chantilly

Ahhhh the sorbet. A chance to take a breath. Cleanse the palate. Huckleberries and buttermilk. Again, that magical contrasting combination of flavour and sharpness, softness and creaminess. The oat crumble, a laughing nod to crunchy granola folks, but perfectly done. And those partially dried huckleberries – an intense fruity version of sun dried tomatoes or raisins.

Purple and white on the plate, with golden dusting of oats. How not to smile when you are presented with such a plate after such overwhelming courses as had come before. So clean. And yet so impeccable. Just when the appetite flags, when we thought we could not have any more… this perked up the taste buds, cooled down the heat and cleansed our souls.

“PB & J” Peanut Butter Parfait, Crystallized Lemon Verbena, Toasted Virginia Peanuts and Concord Grape Sherbet


“Glace a la Vanille” Cardamom Grissini, Bartlett Pears and Root Beer Syrup

Again, we shared one of each dessert.

I had the PB & J (Peanut Butter and Jelly). Playful, fantastical romp over every memory of pb & j sandwiches as a child. The peanut butter parfait – splendid little cakes, lathered with peanut butter cream. The crisp sweetness of the peanuts, and the sweet dark purple cleanness of the grape sherbert. And atop one of the parfaits, what looked like a single grape. Turned out to be peanut butter fudge encapsulated in grape jelly. How funny and light and sense arousing!

My companion had the vanilla ice cream – bold in its simplicity, and adorned with root beer syrup which highlighted the dusky note in the vanilla, and pears, which resonated with the creaminess of the glace. The only wrong note, for me, was the cardamom grissini (sweet breadsticks) – served with much reverence, but slightly stale and sticky.


We thought we had come to near the end of our meal. A little coffee and may be a piece of chocolate to finish.

Mignardises are small bites – much like the amuse bouches but sweet. Little desserts, tiny tastes.

I am not sure what happened but it felt like all the Chefs in the kitchen of Per Se were replaced by a very worried Jewish mother – worried that we had not eaten enough, worried that we had not gotten our fill. A veritable blizzard of little treats were showered down on our table. I actually did laugh out loud – I could not believe the extraordinary symphony of delectables that were presented to us.

Along with the best cup of coffee I have had in a long time, we were offered a silver platter of home made chocolates – about 18 different flavours. We each chose two, and reveled in the unique flavours. Curry buttercream anyone?

And then… Keller’s justly famous “Coffee and Doughnuts.” Brioche doughnut holes, light and yeasty, dusted with dusky cinnamon sugar, and a cappuccino  semi-freddo. Totally unannounced, this could have been a dessert in its own right. And it was scrumptious! So good in that down home haute cuisine sensibility that Keller has perfected. That semi-freddo was the perfect coffee ice cream – so smooth and light. And those doughnuts. Seemingly simple, I have read the recipe. This is a complex dish, and I was totally thrilled to be able to taste it!

And then… a silver triple layer container, hiding white, dark and milk chocolate truffles, pulled caramels, tiny hard candies. Chocolate covered hazelnuts. It felt like we were being buried in deliciousness. I could literally feel my stomache stretching to accommodate everything. And I wanted to taste it all, to feel it all, to be totally immersed in these sweet complex flavours.

And then finally. The last bite. A bookend to that phenomenal gougere. What looked like a white chocolate truffle – an impeccable bon bon which hid salted caramel pop corn ice cream (I kid you not) – a sweet salty explosion. A bang of a finish. A supreme hit of fireworks.


What a meal. What an experience. What theatre.

When we were done (almost four hours from when we started), I think we were both grinning like children who had had their first taste of joy. We had expressed our contentment and pleasure so clearly, that we were honoured to be invited for a kitchen tour. But thats another story for another time.

Throughout the meal, we were treated with such kindness and grace, with such happiness and pleasure that the total experience was sublime. This was special. It was unique. And I am thankful that neither of us is so world weary or pseudo sophisticated not to be grateful for the opportunity to experience Per Se in that light.

For right now… all I can say is, if you want a culinary education in a few hours, go to Per Se. If you want food that is cooked with love and laughter, joy and reverence, go to Per Se. If you want the experience of a lifetime, pure artistry in food, ephemeral and fleeting, and yet so clearly held in the memory that it is tangible… go to Per Se.

Thank you to Chef Keller for creating such an establishment, and such a wonderful version of American food. And thank you to our Chef, the Chef de Cuisine Eli Kamineh, for a meal that will live in in my memory for as long as I am on this earth.


Five Favourite Food Writers

29 Jul

I love books, and I love cooking. Ergo, I have collected hundreds, if not thousands, of cookbooks over the years. I have some books in multiple copies, just in case I have the urge to share (one of the things about book lovers is that we give our books away to like minded souls) or the pages get so cooked upon they are no longer legible! I love them all, and I gain inspiration from every different kind of cookbook. I am catholic in my tastes when it comes to food writing. I dont limit myself to vegetarian writers, though I obviously gravitate to writers who think about vegetarian cooking in a new and different way. I am inspired by all sorts of cooking, and I read not just for recipes and ingredients, but also to look at technique and the way people think about and write about food.

I was asked in a previous post to list some of my favourite cookbooks. I decided to list some of my favourite food writers, because if they are amongst my favourites, all their books are on my Must Have list! These writers also produce wonderful recipes, but they also inspire just by how they express their own fascination with food. I love people who write passionately about food, who bring the personal into their stories and recipes. I enjoy being brought into their world, their minds, their lives. Do try and read some of these writers – just for their passion and joy.

And please note, I have many more favourites than just these five (Julia Child, Elizabeth Luard, Calvin Trillian, Alice Waters …. oh and more and more and more, come to mind!) … but these are some of my current inspirations, as well as constant companions from when I first started to read cookbooks, and food writing, for sheer pleasure. Enjoy!

Home CookingLaurie Colwin

Colwin is probably one of my favourite authors, period. She wrote for Gourmet magazine many years ago, and I never missed a column. In a magazine that could sometimes be daunting for its slightly high-brow approach to food, Colwin’s writing was approachable, intimate, friendly, funny and yet totally passionate about food. You could imagine having coffee with her, and chatting about the perfect recipe for a birthday cake that would appeal to a 10 year old… a meandering comfortable conversation that could only happen between old friends. Colwin passed away in 1992, at the age of 48, from an unexpected heart attack. When I read about her death in Gourmet, I grieved as if I had lost a close personal friend. I was heartbroken, and I still feel a bittersweet sadness when I read her now, knowing that she is no longer amongst us, cooking, chatting, dreaming, writing. Thats how true and real, pure and strong her voice was.

She is also laugh out loud funny, and clear in her opinions and likes and dislikes about food. As a young woman, reading her books, I was inspired. She presented herself, complications, contradictions, passions and all – and you just wanted more. How can you not adore someone who calls a steamed chocolate pudding sincere?

Her two food books, Home Cooking and More Home Cooking (which was published posthumously) are the food books which I give to friends who arent interested in food. The humour and love with which she writes about food, home life, family, are inspiring and beautiful. Her descriptions of cooking and eating and her recipes are immediate and accessible. I love these two books, and wouldnt be without them. If you have not read Laurie Colwin’s writing yet, I envy you for the immense joy of discovery when you do. You will feel like you have gained a lifelong friend. If you only choose one author from this list, choose her.

“The smell of chocolate bubbling over and slightly burning is one of the most beautiful smells in the world. It is subtle and comforting and it is rich. One tiny drop perfumes a room like nothing else.” (from Home Cooking)

AppetiteNigel Slater

Way beyond and before Nigella, there was and is Nigel Slater. He writes about food as one would write about a lover. He immerses himself in flavour, texture, taste, smell. You can feel him want to rub his cheek against the perfect roundness of an egg, squish his fingers in a wobbling custard. He is a sensualist, and I adore reading his books. They are the perfect foodie present – inspirational, contextual, honest and real. No sous vide or fancy foams for Nigel. He waxes poetic on the perfect roast potato, and makes you want to go out and cook one now. He writes about everything with such relish, such passion, such earthy sexiness.

His website gives you an indication of how he presents food and himself, but really, reading his books, in particular Tender (about his vegetable and fruit garden – 5 years in the writing, 500 recipes), Real Cooking, Real Food, Appetite, and The Kitchen Diaries, will be an eye-opening and bountiful journey into the mind of a true cook. I also love his raw, vulnerable, beautiful memoir, Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger.

For food writing that is different from just about anything out there – full of joy and hunger, ravishing and delightful, Slater’s your man.

“Joan’s lemon meringue pie was one of the most glorious things I had ever put in my mouth: warm, painfully sharp lemon filling, the most airy pastry imaginable (she used cold lard in place of some of the butter) and a billowing hat of thick, teeth judderingly sweet meringue. She squeezed the juice of five lemons into the filling, enough to make you close one eye and shudder.” (from Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger)

The Art of EatingM. F. K. Fisher

I consider Fisher to be the Goddess Mother of food writing. She published over 30 books in her lifetime, and wrote about food in the broadest sense: recipes, history, gastronomy, philosophy, culture, and natural history. She loved food, and she had an amazing ability to bring the reader into her fascinations – from oysters to old recipes, from Dijon to California. She wrote about the pleasures of the table with simplicity, humour and a keen intelligence. You cannot help but learn when you read her books – about the science of food preparation, the history of a place or an ingredient, or the economies of scale of consumption. MFK Fisher is also a pleasure to read because she wrote from the mid 1930s to her death in the mid 1990s, so her focus was food in its natural state. Her writings on how to economise, at the start of World War 2, are a fascinating glimpse of a particular time and space.

My favourite MFK Fisher book is The Art of Eating, which brings together Serve It Forth, Consider The Oyster, How To Cook a Wolf, The Gastronomical Me, and An Alphabet for Gourmets, considered her most popular and important books. I also love Recipes: The Cooking of Provincial France, With Bold Knife and Fork, Among Friends, and A Cordial Water: A Garland of Odd & Old Receipts to Assuage the Ills of Man or Beast. Considering that many of her writings were first published over 50 years ago, they are totally contemporary, deeply engaging and wonderfully intimate.

If you havent read MFK Fisher, you havent read food writing. She set the bar for true immersion in food, and her voice was bold, strong and resoundingly passionate.

“E is for Exquisite… and its gastronomical connotations, at least for me. When I hear of a gourmet with exquisite taste I assume, perhaps too hastily and perhaps very wrongly, that there is something exaggeratedly elaborate, and even languidly perverted, about his gourmandism. I do not think simply of an exquisitely laid table and an exquisite meal. Instead I see his silver carved in subtly erotic patterns, and his courses following one upon another in a cabalistic design, half pain, half pleasure…” (from An Alphabet for Gourmets)

French Laundry CookbookThomas Keller

Keller is, I think, one of the high priests of incredibly beautiful, elaborate haute cuisine. His food is astonishing, complex, witty and cerebral. His French Laundry restaurant, in Yountville, California, is legendary, and it is one of my life goals (honestly) to eat there, or at Per Se, his New York restaurant. He is an icon of modern food – the successor to Alice Waters, the founder of the California cuisine movement with its focus on organic, locally produced food. Keller took that one step further and added a particular magic – from sous vide to foams to complex, time consuming chemical processes – his food is constantly challenging how you think about eating.

I love his books, particularly The French Laundry Cookbook and Ad Hoc at Home. The first book is a must to understand the mind of the Chef – his philosophy, his painstaking approach, his creativity and his passion. There is no way in heaven or hell though that I would want to try and recreate what he cooks – its too complex for me, and too overwhelming. I love to look into the mind of someone as passionate and brilliant as he, but I wouldnt want to be him! However, Ad Hoc at Home is much more accessible because it was written specifically for the home cook, and while it shows all the Keller brilliance, and generously allows us to learn his tips and tricks and magic, its actually cookable with basic ingredients and equipment.

Keller seems to me an obsessive chronicler of his approach and his genius. Thats generosity – but its also confidence. For a look into the meticulous mind of an icon of food, these books are an important and inspiring education.

Whipped Brie de Meaux en Feuillete with Tellicherry Pepper and Baby Mache. This is a very simple, elegant way to serve a familiar cheese and was, in fact, how I began to compose cheese courses. Not only did I want to compose a cheese course, but I also wanted to manipulate the cheese into an elegant form. Brie is creamy and cream whips – therefore, I figured, I could whip Brie, and it worked. Be sure to use a very good, ripe, creamy Brie in this dish. Whipping makes it light and luxurious, even surprising. You recognise the flavour of Brie, but here, because the cheese is light and airy, that flavour is pleasantly out of context and feels new, especially paired with the spicy pepper and delicate greens.” (from an introduction to a recipe, The French Laundry Cookbook)

Comfort Me With ApplesRuth Reichl

Ruth Reichl is the last editor in chief of the late, lamented, beloved Gourmet magazine. She is a critic, cook, author and gourmet of encyclopedic proportions. She is modern, feisty, adventurous, worldly and completely accommodating in her recipes and writing. She brought Gourmet into the larger sphere of multi-cultural influences, and made it much more open and accessible. Her attention to detail, and her ability to describe lovingly every element of a meal scrupulously, makes her a cook’s writer.

Reichl has written cookbooks, including The Gourmet Cookbook: More Than 1000 Recipes and Gourmet Today: More than 1000 All-New Recipes for the Contemporary Kitchen. The latter is an amazing book for vegetarians, as she has made a conscious effort to acknowledge vegetarianism as an important way of life. All the food in these books is easy to make, easy to understand, and delicious to eat. She has also published four very open and revealing memoirs: Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table, Comfort Me with Apples: More Adventures at the Table,  Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise, and Not Becoming My Mother: and Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way. Each book is a revalation of a this woman’s complete commitment to her immersion in food, and a remarkable testament to a life well lived.

For a cook starting out, who is unsure of technique and approach, who wants modernism and creativity, but also recipes that are easy to understand and accessible, Reichl’s cookbooks are a must.

“Amora brought long baguettes to dip into the garlic mayonnaise, which was soft, airy, rich, delicious. Eating that aioli was like biting into savoury clouds. As we ate, Robert told stories of his native Provence, where women sit in the sun with mortars squeezed between their fat thighs, furiously pounding garlic into aioli. As I listened my eyes grew heavy and I began to sink into an odd, sleepy euphoria.” (from Comfort Me with Apples)