At Per Se, International Chefs Take a Seat at the Table

Excepting certain Thomas Keller main-stays, you’ll see a different menu every time you walk you through Per Se’s blue doors. This creativity is in part due to the diverse staff that collaborates in the Per Se Kitchen, including international trainees.

With Chef de Cuisine Eli Kaimeh at its helm, the three Michelin-starred New York restaurant invents new concepts for their nine-course tasting menu daily. While the overall vision of the restaurant is Thomas Keller’s, the whole kitchen staff of 40 is involved in planning the next day’s dishes. “[It’s] usually a discussion by everybody sitting around a table. And that [really] includes everybody,” said Kaimeh

Per Se’s main dining room. The Michelin three-starred restaurant is located across from Central Park in the Time Warner Center. Photo by: Peter Plotica

To keep with the Per Se standard, Kaimeh looks for menu additions that are simple, but technically-exquisite, with a focus on using seasonal ingredients. An idea is often suggested by one chef and then changes after input from rest of the kitchen to what you see on the final menu.

“There have been hundreds of ideas and beginnings of ideas by all the [chefs] and from all of their backgrounds,” said Kaimeh of their daily planning meetings. “And that diversity really plays into the strength of that creative process.”

French trainee Pierre Pouplard has been an important part of the Per Se kitchen for almost a year. Photo by: Peter Plotica

Pierre Pouplard is an international trainee currently on the kitchen brigade.  Per Se hosts international trainees throughout the year through Cultural Vistas’ J-1 visa sponsorship. After working in top restaurants in Paris, Pouplard joined the team last August and has since become a vital part of the kitchen.

It’s this collaborative planning process that shows why international trainees like Pouplard have been such an asset to Per Se. They bring experience from global kitchens into the Manhattan-based restaurant and, even more importantly for Kaimeh, an attitude that mirrors his seriousness about food.

Chef de Cuisine Eli Kaimeh has worked with many international trainees throughout his years at Per Se. Photo by: Peter Plotica

According to Kaimeh, Pouplard exemplifies what Per Se looks for in its international trainees. Along with cooking expertise, the soft-spoken young French chef brings an eagerness to learn. As a native of Northern France, he fit seamlessly into the kitchen, which uses classic French cooking techniques with a New American twist. As part of the acclimation, Pouplard is learning about American techniques, ingredients and food concepts “It’s been a big benefit for him to understand what we do,” said Corey Chow, the Executive Sous Chef.

Front of the house staf prepares for service at Per Se. 
Photo by: Peter Plotica

Pouplard agrees that Per Se is the ideal place for him to pick up new skills, along with practicing English. That’s because the staff has gone the extra mile to work with him. “When I started here, my English wasn’t very good but they showed me what to do [with hand gestures], so it made sense for me,” said Pouplard.

“I think the ease and his approachability and how he works with others is what makes people gravitate to want to show him things,” says Kaimeh. “It seems as though cooking is very natural to him and working around others is very natural to him.”

Pierre Pouplard mans the Saucier station at Per Se. He’s using cherry tomatoes that he picked out himself at a local farmer’s market. Photo by: Peter Plotica

This work ethic and attitude have helped Pouplard quickly move up the kitchen hierarchy. He’s recently been promoted to the saucier station, where he prepares meats and sauces. The saucier is considered one of the most skilled chefs in the restaurant. In addition to learning technical skills, Pouplard said he’s benefiting from Per Se’s creative reimagining of dishes.

“Sometimes it’s like Indian style or Chinese style and it’s really interesting to see that in a three Michelin-starred restaurant,” he said of Per Se’s innovative tasting menus. Additionally, he’s learned about American food through the world-renowned New York City restaurant scene, which is as multifaceted as the city’s diverse population. He’s particularly enjoyed trying Latin American cuisine.

Pierre Pouplard says his favorite part of his time at Per Se has been as the saucier. Photo by: Peter Plotica

Pouplard is set to stay at Per Se into the fall, but, like other trainees in the past, Kaimeh thinks his value to the restaurant will go beyond that. Because of all the international chefs they’ve hosted, Per Se’s network expands into dozens of other countries. Kaimeh said this cross-training is something that makes the culinary world unique. It’s very common in the industry to spend time learning in other restaurant’s kitchens.

“Relationship building is really important to us,” said Kaimeh. “We have a spiderweb of past [trainees] who have gone back and have gone on to do their own things and are still a part of this restaurant.”