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Interview with Eli Kaimeh of Per Se, Nominated for Outstanding Restaurant

Elena North-Kelly

April 29, 2015

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Although Per Se debuted a decade after a certain acclaimed sibling restaurant in California, this fine-dining temple, perched high in New York City's Time Warner building, has enjoyed its own abundant successes. The three-Michelin-starred property is an oasis on every level, beckoning epicureans from all corners of the globe with its unparalleled luxuries and cuisine. Below, we caught up with chef de cuisine Eli Kaimeh to get the inside scoop on the Outstanding Restaurant nominee’s tasting menus, the team's pioneering work with vegetables, and their take on gluten-free substitutions. 

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JBF: While some of Per Se’s signature dishes (such as oysters and pearls) remain, we know that the world-renowned menu is constantly evolving. Can you tell us about a dish or two that’s currently on the menu that really captures the restaurant’s point of view or philosophy?

Eli Kaimeh: We feel that our foie gras preparation at Per Se is truly special: on any given day, we may have six to eight different styles of foie gras terrines prepared. With time, we have been able to expand our repertoire of foie gras dishes using a variety of methods and evolving different flavor compositions that enhance the classic style of terrines and torchons.

JBF: Per Se prides itself on supporting local farmers and foragers, and we’ve read that no single ingredient is ever repeated throughout the tasting menu experience. What was the inspiration behind this decision? And what are some specific ingredients you’re most excited about right now?

EK: We definitely support our local purveyors, but we also source ingredients from the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market and the French Laundry Culinary Garden in California, as well as the Chef’s Garden in the Midwest and several other purveyors throughout the country. We make those decisions about what to source from what purveyor based on what’s seasonally available and at the peak of its season from coast to coast. 

Right now, in New York City, spring has just begun. It’s the most exciting time of the year as the weather changes and we see the birth of new vegetables like peas, asparagus, morels, and ramps—these ingredients define the spring season to me. I love when they are sitting on our cutting boards. It’s a very recognizable aroma and reminder that spring is here and that summer is just around the corner.

JBF: Chef Keller launched Cup4Cup, a gluten-free flour blend that’s also available for home cooks. What inspired this development—and has your kitchen responded to the rise of the gluten-free diet?

EK: Gluten-free requests, in addition to other dietary restrictions, are something that we deal with on a daily basis at the restaurant. It’s become a little more challenging due to the volume of guests that don’t eat gluten today, but it’s something that we are prepared for, and so we’re able to accommodate any dietary restriction or allergy. The introduction of Cup4Cup has certainly given us more of an advantage, allowing us to offer the classics—salmon cornets, gougères, and tagliatelle with Parmesan and black truffles—without gluten. Our guests are able to experience those same menu items without compromising the dish.  

JBF: We know you probably don’t have much down time, but on the rare occasions that you get to eat out, what are some of your favorite local haunts, and why?

EK: I’m a big steakhouse guy. I really enjoy eating a nice cut of steak, so I tend to try new steakhouses on my day off. I’m a big fan of Porter House New York and BLT Steak. I love the simplicity of a good grilled steak and a single side. That simplicity allows me to appreciate the quality of the ingredients more.

JBF: Will you be attending the Beard Awards in Chicago this year? If so, where do you plan to eat during your visit?

EK: Yes! We’re definitely heading to Alinea to celebrate their 10th anniversary and to support Grant [Achatz] and his team. We’re very excited to share and celebrate their success.

JBF: Chef Keller was at the forefront of American fine dining by offering a nine-course vegetable tasting menu at Per Se at a time when vegetables were seen as side dishes or only for vegetarians—but it’s much more common now for vegetables to replace meat as the centerpiece of the meal. What do you think is responsible for the changing landscape? 

EK: I think that today’s diner is exposed to more educational opportunities about the benefits of healthier eating habits. More people are trending towards a healthier lifestyle because science and medicine have provided so much data about the advantages of vegetables and clean eating habits.  

JBF: Chef Keller has been quoted as saying, “If you can take your ego out of it, you can do anything the guest wants.” Can you tell us more about the philosophy behind this statement?

EK: The definition of hospitality is to deliver or create an exceptional experience for someone else. No matter what our role is in the restaurant, whether it’s chef, server, or sommelier, the goal of our work and the core of our job description is to be hospitable. It’s very natural to put the guest first. It’s second nature. 

Elena North-Kelly is senior editor at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.