Interview with Chef Jonathan Benno of Per Se - New York, NY

April, 2005

Amy Tarr: Why did you start cooking?
Jonathan Benno: Cooking in a restaurant was a way to get out of the house at 16. I started as a dishwasher. Then it became a way to travel.

AT: You attended the CIA: would you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs?
JB: I wouldn’t say it’s a must. We have people in our kitchen that work very hard regardless. It depends on the individual. A culinary school education can help build a great foundation. It also depends on where you work and for whom. Johnson and Wales and the CIA now offer four-year degree programs at an enormous expense. If you took four years and worked in good kitchens, I can tell you who would be a better cook. I really like the FCI and ICE’s relatively condensed programs.

AT: Right out of school you worked with Michael Mina at Aqua and then with Thomas Keller at French Laundry. Who do you consider to be your primary mentor in the kitchen? What are the most important things you’ve learned from them?
JB: Thomas Keller is the reason for me sitting in Per Se today. We have a ten-year relationship. Daniel Boulud, Tom Collichio and Christian Delouvrier here in New York, all have had an influence. John Farnsworth probably had the most impact initially; he encouraged me to work for great chefs and gave me the push to get out the door.

AT: What’s you philosophy on food and dining?
JB: What I’ve learned at the French Laundry and here: to use the best ingredients and to treat them with integrity and respect. From the service aspect; to serve our guests with integrity and respect as well. There’s a friendly comfort; a welcoming feeling.

AT: What chefs do you consider to be your peers?
JB: Marco Conora, Shea Gallante, Wylie Dufresne, Neal Gallagher: we’re all in the same generation. They’ve all proven themselves for a couple years.

AT: Are there any secret ingredients that you especially like?
JB: We look to Japan for seafood. We’re constantly looking for new things, new ingredients. It’s our sophomore year, so we need to ask, how do you keep the buzz going, keep restaurant full. Rising stars is a part of it; I’m grateful for the opportunity.

AT: What is your most indispensable kitchen tool?
JB: Cryovac machine. We could continue to be in business without it, but it’d be tough. Twenty-five percent of our business is sous vide.

AT: Is there a culinary technique that you have either created or use in an unusual way?
JB: I can’t take credit for any revolutionary techniques. I think we’re always trying to take classic dishes and twist them a little. Sous vide cooking has been around now for thirty years.

AT: What is your favorite question to ask during an interview for a potential new line cook?
JB: Why do you want to work here? We look for someone that wants to learn.
Those who are building their resume with six months here, six months there are least desirable. Culinary school grads should look for a two-year commitment with a restaurant.

AT: What tips would you offer young chefs just getting started?
JB: Same advice given to me: work from the ground up in good restaurants. That means a lot of sacrifice. Restaurants like this are not able to pay staff as much. A lot of my peers hit a wall because they excelled too quickly.

AT: What are your favorite cookbooks?
JB: The Professional Chef. It’s a great resource.

AT: What are your favorite cities for culinary travel?
JB: San Francisco, I lived there. When I think of dining I don’t necessarily think of fine dinning. Paris, Barcelona, San Sebastian.

AT: What are your favorite restaurants in NYC?
JB: Al di La, in Park Slope. My girlfriend is Korean, so we eat in Koreatown. Woo Lae Oak. Cafe Boulud is also a favorite.

AT: What emerging trends do you see in the industry?
JB: Spanish cuisine continues to be in the forefront. We’re a pretty traditional French restaurant. Other trends are simpler presentation; just a couple ingredients on a plate. The upper tier of restaurants is moving away from the big plate.

AT: Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years?
JB: I hope I’m cooking. It’s hard for me to see beyond Per Se. We’re just at our first year.

AT: What are the family meals like at Per Se?
JB: You should come for a family meal. It’s great. We’re very proud of it. Our staff works very hard. I give them a hard time if they put up something that’s not worthy. They’re wholesome. We have a buddy system. The cooks put up a meal at 4:20, and front of house plates a dish for themselves and someone else. It strengthens the sense of teamwork and family. We want to tear down the wall between front and back of house. We have different themes: Chinese, pizza day, deli. It’s a big part of the day.

AT: What kind of pressure do you feel at the helm of a newly-crowned 4-star restaurant? How do you feel about restaurant reviews in general? Do you think the process is fair?
JB: We worked hard. We’re very proud of the reviews we’ve gotten. Frank is a great writer. He’s done a great job. No disrespect for previous writers of The New York Times. He brought a sense of integrity to the column. The negative side is the politics. Frank doesn’t seem to get involved in all that.

AT: You’ve spent some time abroad working in France as part of your training. How important is it to stage or get experience abroad?
JB: It was set up formerly by Christain Delouvrier. They chopped chives the same way; Couldn’t say the skies opened up. I learned about the culture and passion of their restaurants.

AT: How do you prepare a menu a menu at Per Se? Is it a collaboration between you and Keller or more one-sided?
JB: There is a little bit of both. We always have the classics. People would stop coming and I’d get fired if we didn’t. The reason Thomas and I work is because I understand his philosophy and I don’t want to stray too far from the course. The menu is a collaboration of sorts. The staff has a great deal of input on the menu. We sit down at the end of night with our sous chef and knock the menu out. I know I’m seeing rabbit but I’m not sure with what garnish. In the spring and fall there’s so much variety freedom with menu planning. The winter’s a bit tougher.