As we approach the end of the first week of July, I had to use this week’s #throwbackthursday post to reminisce about my first foray into fine-dining four years ago, though it feels like that was another lifetime.
Throughout my time falling in love with food and discovering the chefs that were making a difference, I read about and became a fan of Thomas Keller. I seriously respect his philosophy and his standards, and despite some recent criticisms, anyone who thinks the man didn’t change the fine-dining scene in America is simply in denial.
After partnering with another chef and opening an unsuccessful restaurant in New York, he opened his first restaurant in an old laundry building in Yountville, California – a quaint town in Napa Valley. In accordance with the history of the building, the restaurant was named The French Laundry. After being open for several years with a daily changing tasting menu that focused on high-quality seasonal ingredients, Chef Keller decided to return to Manhattan to open another restaurant. Rumored to be a repeat of his successful eatery in California, industry folk and journalists alike wondered and eventually asked, “Is it going to be another French Laundry?”.
With a sense of sarcasm that I have only read about, he would merely reply, “It’ll be the French Laundry, per se,” and the restaurant’s name was born. (I won’t delve into the details of how Per Se opened, but there is an excellent book from the perspective of the first female captain to work there – Service Included – that describes everything from an insider’s view. )
Anyway, my adoration for this chef is well-known among my family and upon my impending graduation from culinary school, after setbacks and some trials and tribulations, my father took it upon himself to reach out to Thomas Keller. He wrote about who I was, what I had been through in my efforts to graduate from one of the best culinary schools in the world, my admiration for him, my eminent completion of college and his plans to take me to Per Se for dinner. By some small miracle, Chef Keller responded to my father and assured him that despite my necessity to be gluten-free, I would be able to enjoy the full Per Se experience.
On July 9, 2012, I took the ferry to Manhattan with my parents. As we walked into the Time Warner Center, seeing the name of the restaurant on a sign in the lobby made me physically start to shake. I cannot put into words how I was feeling, because I was on the verge of walking into a place that literally emanated everything I respected in this industry. As we approached the classic blue doors that have become a notable symbol for that restaurant, I was giddy with excitement – a feeling that did not wane for the rest of the evening. The hostess greeted us and started towards her reservation book as she asked for my name and when I responded, she stopped, turned around with a smile and said, “Congratulations on your culinary school graduation, Angela!” and I was both speechless and stunned (two things that do not happen to me remotely often). The world-class attentive service, knowledge of my reason for being there and genuine hospitality was unending for the more than four hours that we were guests in the dining room overlooking Columbus Circle.
I could go into the detail of every course we had that night, the nine included on the tasting menu along with the additional six courses they brought us at no charge, but I won’t.
Mostly because I’m already emotional reliving the beginning of that night in my head, and to articulate the intricacies of that dinner would both excite and potentially destroy me. (As I was still aspiring to work in one of his kitchens one day, it is a wound that hasn’t quite closed for me yet – and I don’t know that it ever will.) It was undoubtedly one of the best meals I will ever have the pleasure of experiencing, and I’m okay with that fact.
After dinner, our captain took me on a tour of the kitchen and I was awestruck. I had never seen anything like it and everything I knew (out of adoration and fascination) was exactly as I pictured. I was led to the pastry production kitchen and spoke with the pastry chef for a while. When he introduced himself I almost fainted because he knew my name and my back story.
Before we left, I was gifted with a bag of goodies that I still have as keepsakes, including the menus from dinner that night, as they said, “Congratulations Angela on Your Graduation” at the top of them. That night was nothing short of magical for me. After we got off the ferry and were back in Jersey, I sat in the car dreaming about what was next. I had always known I would have to take a trip to Yountville to dine at The French Laundry, but dinner at Per Se made me want to take that trip sooner rather than later. It was July of 2012, so I had just over a year and half to save and make all the necessary arrangements to be at The French Laundry on my 25th birthday. I set the date on the way home from Per Se and so the planning began…