Chef shaming

What does the Times’ two-star review mean for Per Se and formal luxury dining?

Per se and Chef Thomas Keller
Per se and Chef Thomas Keller

Plaza Hotel mixologist Brian Van Flandern winces at the mention of the New York Times’ recent review of Per Se, Thomas Keller’s illustrious three-Michelin star restaurant at Time Warner Center. We were meeting at the Palm Court to discuss the vintage spirit cocktails Flandern introduced at the Plaza.

Flandern was headed on a world tour the next day and one of his stops was to meet Chef Keller in Hong Kong to discuss the drinks program for the luxury cruise line Seabourn. But Times’ critic Pete Wells’ two-star review dampened the mood.

“Per Se is among the worst food deals in New York,” Wells wrote in the review, which downgraded the restaurant and its $325-a-person prix fixe from four stars. “Is Per Se worth the time and money? In and of itself, no,” he concluded.

In what many considered a testament to Keller’s character, the chef quickly published a public apology on his website: “We are sorry we let you down.”

Per Se has had a few hiccups over the years, earning a “C” health rating in 2014 and paying out a $500,000 settlement over wage violations. But who would have thought we would see the day when Keller would apologize for the food at Per Se?

The Times review reflects changing tastes more than the quality of food at Per Se.

Per Se has been one of the most esteemed restaurants in the U.S. practically since it opened in 2004. In 2011, the Times called it “the best restaurant in New York City.” So what does its review mean for Per Se and its version of austere luxury dining? According to many of the city’s top chefs, very little. But one thing is clear: The tastes of restaurant goers have changed and the Times review is a reflection of that change rather than of the quality of Per Se’s food and service in itself (pun intended).

“People prefer the money they’re spending be on the plate rather than in the ambiance or the décor,” Mark Ladner, executive chef at Del Posto, told Esquire. “Casual and rustic is more popular now.”

Keller’s friend and business partner, Ken Himmel, said much the same to LLNYC months earlier. Himmel, president and CEO of Related Urban, developed Time Warner Center over a decade ago and is now leading Related’s Hudson Yards, where Keller plans a casual dining experience with high-end fare.

“Today people eat out in vastly greater numbers, and they enjoy more casual dining,” Himmel said. “Even your more respected, Michelin three-star chefs today are very much focused on cafes and brasseries, more casual, informal dining but done at their quality level.”

Back at our table at the Plaza, Flandern shakes his head with sympathy for his friend Keller. It’s hard to see the soup at the city’s top restaurant described as “bong water.” But we’re betting culinary-minded New Yorkers will still prefer Per Se’s “two-star” eight-courser than half the three-star restaurants in the city — no matter what Pete Wells thinks.