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 — inspired by the simultaneous launch of their too cookbooks — and take it on the road to Achatz’s Alinea in Chicago, then on to Keller’ French Laundry in Napa. Possibly a $1,500 dinner without a charity attached didn’t seem quite so outrageous, even obscene, as it did to me weeks later.

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

The foodies trickle in at seven, to sip Veuve Cliquot 1970 poured from 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 spending $3,000 a couple for dinner. Two retired city school teachers, Per Se regulars, carrying a Tradition et Qualite “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 $3000 on a tennis game “and besides we don’t spend much on anything but food.”

Turbot with shellfish, chamomile, and ginger.Photo: Lara KastnerThere 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 long time obsessed foodie mother, shares a spot for great fish tacos with the president and CEO of Macy’s, Terry Lundgren, who says he never really gave the $3,000 tariff much thought since his got his seats from a friend who signed up for all three dinners and couldn’t make New York.

“I thought foam was passé,” whispers my seat mate 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’s was an extraordinary evening," he wanted me to know.

Keller is unrepentant, pointing out that the costs of the ingredients and moving the Chicago team around the country would take a big bite of the take. “I didn’t want a charity to blur the issue,” Keller says. “I wanted it to be about an extraordinary evening, a phenomenal experience that could never happen again.” Perhaps so. After a sleepless night the young realtor agrees: "It was a religious experience."