Gael Greene's Dispatches From Twenty Courses at Per Se

Grant Achatz and Thomas Keller celebrate themselves in twenty courses for $1,500 a head.

The world wasn't tipping over in financial upheaval months ago when Thomas Keller and Grant Achatz, two of America's most lauded chefs, decided they would team up on a $1,500 twenty-course dinner at Per Se and take it on the road to Achatz's Alinea in Chicago, then on to Keller's French Laundry in Napa. It was inspired by the simultaneous launch of their two cookbooks, Achatz's Alinea and Keller's Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide. It's possible that a $1,500 dinner without a charity attached didn't seem quite so outrageous, even obscene, as it did to me weeks later.

The foodies trickled in at seven to sip Veuve Cliquot 1970 in magnums and munch on salmon minicones and puffed idiazábal cheese with yeast and mustard seed — "Grant's cheez doodle," quips Keller. No one seems the least bit embarrassed being caught here. Two retired city schoolteachers, Per Se regulars, carrying a Tradition et Qualité "passport" of their culinary wanderings for Keller to sign, proudly confide they are the guests of their children. At my table, a Florida medical examiner and his appellate-lawyer wife with 700 cookbooks are "senior foodies," she says. They won $3,000 on a tennis game, "and besides, we don't spend much on anything but food." (She later confided in the sommelier: "My husband is a disciple of Chef Keller. He's rigged up his own sous vide setup with a $600 rice cooker and my vacuum sealer that he stole."

Per Se

Turbot with shellfish, chamomile, and ginger.Photo: Lara Kastner

There are murmurs over the sea-urchin veloute and a few tentative pokes at steelhead trout roe with coconut, coriander, and vanilla fragrance. Then the quartet of truffled custard and mousse, the black-truffle explosion, and hot potato–cold potato with truffle arrive. A boyish real-estate developer, here with his adored and adoring obsessed foodie mother, shares a spot for great fish tacos with the president and CEO of Macy's, Terry Lindgren, who says he never really gave the tariff much thought since he got his seats from a friend who signed up for all three dinners and couldn't make New York. The entire table is engaged by the time lamb and scented air arrives. "I thought foam was passé," says my seatmate from Florida.

The crowd is thinning out even before the hanging butterscotch bacon dessert arrives. "Only three more courses, I think I can make it," cries Mr. Macy's. "I liked it better when we ate the normal Per Se tasting," one man offers. Heading out, I spy the well heeled couple who had agreed earlier the timing was indeed obscene. "I take back what I said, it was an extraordinary evening," he wanted me to know. The real-estate scion couldn't sleep all night but next morning, he still felt the glow. "It was a religious experience."

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