The problem with Per Se; conventions and uniqueness

There is a glowing review of Per Se in the New York Times today, declaring it the best restaurant in New York City. I went there, and I agree: the food was incredible, the service impeccable, the experience indelible.

The challenge, I think, is that food at that kind of restaurant, particularly if you are not a professional food critic, lacks a set of genres and comparables for you to make sense of it. Here’s what I mean: if you have a great slice of pizza, you know what makes a great slice. You have eaten pizza enough times not just to have strong preferences about thick v thin crust, saucy, loads of toppings v minimilist, but also to know what criteria to use to judge said slice. If you are a New Yorker, it’s probably going to be judged differently than if you are a Chicagoan. But that’s fine, of course. The point is that you have a referent for what your ideal pizza is going to be.

Likewise for most foods that you eat on a regular basis, and even new foods that you don’t eat on a regular basis. It is wonderful to taste new and delightful things prepared in an excellent fashion. They expand your taste. But at the same time, the foods at Per Se are a combination of small bites (there are many small plates) and tastes for which you probably have no referent. As Sifton notes about the green salad:

a simple garden salad is the functional equivalent of an aria — particularly as sung at Per Se, with compressed figs and young red beets, Hakurei turnips (small, plump and white, very cute in aspect), red ribbon sorrel and a coulis of pine nuts. Each flavor is bright, distinct, amazing, but none is so purely intense, as reduced to its essence, as the dense, fragrant craziness of the figs.

It’s out of this world, I have no doubt. But you don’t know if it’s sweet, bitter, sour, rich, bright. I found myself describing every dish as amazing, but like nothing I had eaten before. What’s so interesting about Per Se is not, as Sifton says, that it “represents the ideal of an American high-culture luxury restaurant.” It is almost a form of outsider art. And you know what? That’s roughly the same language people use to talk about elBulli, and Alinea, two other meccas of modern high gastronomy.

Which is kind of fabulous, really. Normally, outsider art is used to describe people whose work is created outside the bounds of cultural, artistic conventions. Watts Towers is a good example. There are many. Most of the time, outsider art remains, well, outside. But sometimes its aesthetic, form, technique, or ideals get incorporated into the existing orbit of ‘conventional’ art, changing those conventions.

But Per Se is happening at a different kind level, the same way that molecular gastronomy and elBulli-type innovation works. Here is how Anthony Bourdain described Thomas Keller in a Cook’s Tour:

What’s missing from all the wild praise of Keller, his cooks, his restaurant, and his cookbook is how different he is. You can’t honestly use terms like the best or better or even perfect when you’re talking about Thomas Keller, because he’s not really competing with anybody. He’s playing a game whose rules are known only to him. He’s doing things most chefs would never attempt – in ways unthinkable to most. Everything about him and the French Laundry experience is different from most fine dining experiences; and Keller himself is a thing apart, a man hunting much bigger game, with very different ambitions than most of his peers.

It’s possible, I think, to simply chalk this up to Weberian charismatic authority, as with someone like Steve Jobs. But I think it’s helpful in the case of Per Se to think about how conventions ground us. I came out of Per Se thinking that it was a wonderful meal, but not one that I can even remember in any kind of detail – there wasn’t enough that I was familiar enough with for me to do that. I had a gnocchi dish once at Tru in Chicago that made me swoon; a wild combination of substantial but not heavy, rich without cloying. I still remember how it tasted. By contrast, I can’t remember a single dish I had at Per Se. They were heavenly, but essentially all unreproducible.

And this, for me, is what’s interesting. Sometimes you can be different by doing what everyone else is doing, but doing it so much better that it takes on a kind of phase-shifting, difference-of-degree-becomes-difference-of-kind. This seems very different from doing something just plain different from what everyone else is doing. Analytically, it’s hard for me to articulate exactly how this is working, but it seems really important.

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