Photos by Lauren Bloomberg and Teddy Durkin
On Sunday, September 18, the high-backed, cushy seats at Thomas Keller’s famed Per Se restaurant were filled not with couples celebrating anniversaries, but with the future generation of foodies. The restaurant's premiere First Timers Lunch was already underway when my Ralph Lauren blazer–clad three-and-a-half-year-old, Teddy and his Mickey Mouse stuffed friend and I settled into a cozy two-top overlooking Columbus Circle. The plan: a seven-course meal, where kids under 16 eat free and the ticket price is slightly reduced for adults.
Per Se isn’t the first restaurant to bring underage eaters into the dining room nor is it their first time. This past spring they were part of Claus Meyer's Kid's Table program and The Four Seasons (R.I.P.) used to send guests of its Kids Lunch off on a cotton candy high. Roving parent-plus-child dining group Nibble+squeak will take over Per Se’s lunch service on January 21, 2017. Kiddie fine dining is definitely a trend that shows no signs of stopping. But why is chef Keller doing this meal specifically? A note tucked inside the menu folder explains:
When I was growing up, I did not have to opportunity to dine at nice restaurants. But because my mother and brother worked in kitchens even before I did, I learned from an early age how meaningful it can be to gather with family or friends at a favorite place and share a meal while being taken care of by caring and dedicated servers, hosts, cooks and all the other people who make a restaurant come to life. I am delighted to provide this experience to you today.
“This is a little stinky.”
Shortly after we sat down we were presented with the first course: the salmon cornet. “This is a little stinky” Teddy proclaimed while wrinkling his nose, then completely inhaling the dish, a Thomas Keller signature starter bite. Presented with the cornet was a duo of gougères. “I like cream cheese better than string cheese.” Teddy ate half his gougère and left the remainder on his bread plate.
“Fish eggs?! Weird.”
Course #2: Yukon Gold potato blini with caviar. Most courses feature two options: one more advanced and one with elements familiar and foundational to a budding palate. Three-year-olds are fickle and true to form Teddy rejected the lump of caviar riding alongside the duo of blini even though he’s enjoyed different varieties of fish eggs in the past.
Teddy serving himself butter as a stand-alone course. Paula Deen would be proud.
The consommé earned a toddler eye-roll and was forgotten in favor of mini parker house buns: “try the bread mommy. The bread is so yummy. Have you had bread like this before?” He also happily picked apart two pretzel rolls.
Making a Caesar salad: Tableside service à la toddler.
Time to get Teddy involved in the culinary process. The staff pulled out all the stops in making sure that the mini guests felt special. Mickey Mouse was presented with his own toque and Teddy was invited to assist in the tableside Caesar salad preparation exclaiming, “I’m a master chef!”
Teddy plucking noodles from the langoustine tartelette. Minestrone noodle scavenger hunt.
Next, a miniature tart appeared wearing a single, plump langoustine floating in a chef’s fever dream of minestrone soup. Teddy plucked out all of the noodles and ate them on their own, who needs gross veggies?
Thomas Keller, please open a pasta restaurant.
Caponata-crowned spaghetti alla chitarra was the big winner. Thomas Keller, if you ever want to open a pasta palace, Teddy would be first in line on opening day. He ate every single noodle.
Lamb course, photo by Teddy
The meat course was where things started to derail. Although the chicken boasted a swervy puddle of smooth, buttery mashed potatoes and a duo of shatter crisp onion rings, Teddy wanted nothing more but to play Curious World on my iPhone. When the waitress came to clear the table, he lifted his head long enough to grunt, “no meat!”
Banana split with coffee ice cream, an obvious winner
All the first timers devoured their two dessert courses, starting with a concord grape sorbet and then a reimagined banana split with banana-shaped tuiles, cubes of Valhrona chocolate mousse and crème fraîche ice cream. Teddy ate both his banana split and mine. "That was so thoughtful of them to give me pineapple because I love fruit. How did they know? Yum.”
Guests were also treated to Per Se’s famous coffee semifreddo and donuts. “Coffee ice cream makes me dance.”
Teddy with Chef Keller. Would Teddy be a return diner to Per Se? “For 100 desserts!”
A Slytherin blond preteen at a neighboring table took great interest in the mignardises and was invited into the chocolate room, while a crying toddler was toted around by a staff member so her parents and brother could enjoy their course. Chef Keller graciously checked in with each table then posed for photos in the kitchen. It was obvious that this special event meant a lot to the restaurant scion and he connected with each of his guests. The celeb-chef asked Teddy if he could pick him up and admired his blazer before a quick photo shoot, a strong handshake and an invitation to return any time. Asked if Teddy would come back he announced “for 100 desserts!”