It was not your average night at Per Se, if there’s such a thing at the legendary Manhattan restaurant helmed by the legendary Thomas Keller. Last week, a small group of gourmands gained access—through American Express’s By Invitation Only program—to a private meal hosted by Keller and Chef de Cuisine Eli Kaimen. Little did they know that they were about to experience a modern interpretation of a feast that might have been enjoyed by Marie Antoinette (though wile she might have enjoyed hundreds of courses, guests received a much more palatable nine). To set the mood, period instruments were being played in one corner, two women in full 18th century garb (powdered wigs and all) worked the room, and Keller himself got in on the spirit in a period chefs hat. He was also sure to explain to guests where the champagne bowl they were sipping from got its shape (answer: Marie Antoinette’s breast).
After Keller escorted small groups through the labyrinthine and immaculate kitchens, past bacon-wrapped partridge that had been slow-cooking surrounded by aromatic veggies and butter for days, and past the pastry chefs putting the final red and pink rose petals on some brightly-colored galettes—it was time to eat. The dining room had been draped in red and gold fabric and smoke from dry ice machines billowed across the floor, a sign that signaled a new course.
“The time of Marie Antoinette was a great time for food,” Keller explained to the group. “But it wasn’t a great time for restaurants because the greatest chefs were in the court.” And Keller and Kaimen would certainly have been cooking for the court. Accompanied by wines from producers that existed in the 18th century, out came the feast: dishes like wild hare consommé with freshly shaved black truffles, a healthy (or not so healthy) portion of foie gras, the aforementioned slow-cooked partridge hand-carved by Keller in the center of the room, and a beautiful table of six decadent desserts.
It was certainly a departure from the ordinary, but Keller explained that AmEx regularly challenges him to create over-the-top experiences for their cardmembers. They began the tradition in 1922 with a 30,000-mile, four-month around-the-world cruise and have since offered events like shopping with Roberto Cavalli, viewing America’s Cup from a private yacht, or an upcoming Keller extravaganza at his other legendary spot, The French Laundry. Marie Antoinette seems like it would be a natural theme for that meal, but with no chance for a repeat, one can only imagine what he’ll cook up next.
Images courtesy of AmEx.