Last week, the culinary world was rocked by the news that Per Se in Manhattan had received a “C”on its most recent health inspection, essentially a failing grade. Per Se---the East Coast establishment of famed chef Thomas Keller--- is one of seven restaurants in the New York area to hold three Michelin stars, and one of only about 110 in the world.
Media outlets had a field day with the story, both in New York and around the country. Virtually every piece gleefully pointed out the fact that Per Se charged $310 for their priciest tasting menu. “Think your neighborhood Chinese restaurant is filthy?” the stories seemed to ask. “Well, it’s no different from this fancy place.” Realistically, no one would maintain that Per Se is cheap---add in tax, tip and alcohol, and you’re probably going to spend in excess of $600 per person.
Restaurants in New York City are evaluated by a point system, and also assigned a letter grade. Per Se’s point total was 45, which could be conservatively described as terrible (Serendipity 3, on East 60th St., was recently closed by health inspectors after grades of 33 and 41 points). Even worse, some of the violations were critical: hand washing facilities not provided in food preparation areas; tobacco use in food prep area; soiled hand towels for kitchen workers; both hot and cold food held at improper temperatures.
When reached for comment, Keller observed that the restaurant was appealing the results of the inspection, which it is entitled to do, and that the final grade hasn’t been determined. However, the fact is that Per Se has received similar grades in the past. The worst part of it is that the city requires all restaurants to post their letter grades from inspections on the front door, for all to see.
Rumor has it that Keller doesn’t spend much time at Per Se these days. Another rumor is that the kitchen of his celebrated Napa restaurant, The French Laundry, contains a video screen that relays images from a camera in the Per Se kitchen. Perhaps Keller should look at it.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, published by Lyons Press; his second book, Moonshine nation, is forthcoming from Lyons Press in June. For more information, go to amazon.com