10/05/2012 04:15:00 PM

Best Service: Inside the Pre-Service Meeting at Per Se

The service meeting at Per Se
One of the major winners in this year's New York City Restaurants survey was Per Se, who was voted the number two restaurant in the city and also took the award for Top Service for another year in a row. The entire operation behind those blue doors has to run like clockwork to turn out dishes for the 80 or so patrons that fill the restaurant every night, and the staff is constantly reminded that maintaining high standards requires an extra push. There are a number clocks in the kitchen and each sits above a sign that reads "Sense of Urgency." There isn't even time for a proper pre-service family meal - when it's time for the staff to eat, they use a buddy system. Each member of the front-of-house team prepares two plates, one of which they bring back to the kitchen to give to a chef. It's crunch time, with only about an hour before the doors open, so the kitchen employees eat standing up at their stations.

As the blue-apron-clad chefs rush to finish their prep work, the service team gathers for a daily meeting. The chef comes out to go through the nine-course tasting menu, which is sometimes finalized only an hour or so before the first guests sit down for dinner at 5:30 PM. The staff greets him with a unified "chef!" and they begin furiously writing as he describes the night's offerings. It looks like the Wall Street version of a restaurant meeting - the largely male service staff are dressed in sharp black suits, their hair slicked perfectly into place.

The employees delve into the provenance of the ingredients - one menu item was described as being grown "on a river bank between Russia and China." It is clear from their questions that folks in this room are knowledgeable - when head sommelier Michel Couvreux starts detailing the evening's wine pairings (after being greeted with a shouted "Michel!"), he throws a few questions to the group and hands are eagerly raised with the answers.

Then it's the maître'd's turn - if you are eating here, this staff knows you're coming. Each reservation for the night is discussed, and, with repeat visitors and special requests specially noted. One table is making their first visit to Per Se, but are regulars at Keller's French Laundry in California. Another table wants pre-arranged gifts presented to them, and the staff is ready to oblige. Special attention is also paid to anyone who works in the industry. On this night, there is a chef coming in from Australia and another is visiting from Spain. There's also a party that is described as being filled with "New York socialites," and another table was booked by a CEO of one of the city's biggest banks. The staff is instructed to greet certain VIPs with a glass of champagne.

But they don't just take care of their guests, the staff at Per Se takes care of their own. One French-accented employee has just graduated from training, and it will be his first night working on the floor. The entire staff gives a round of applause, and the maître'd asks if any of the more seasoned members have any advice. It quickly becomes a support group. One employee describes his first night and reminds the newbie to "be within yourself." Others goad him to ask questions, reminding him to stay calm. While it's not as formalized as the kitchen during family meal, it's clear that these employees have their own buddy system while on the floor.

Anthony Rudolf, the restaurant's Director of Operations, points to one thing that make's this restaurant's personnel stand out from the rest: commitment. “The service staff don’t have other careers, they don’t have other jobs,” he says, noting that many have degrees from top culinary and hospitality schools. Eschewing center stage is also part of the culture in the Keller empire, where seamlessness is put ahead of fanfare. Though the staff here has spent ample time preparing for nightly service, the diners would never guess what goes into every meal. “What chef Keller embodies, thus what we embody, is subtlety,” Rudolf says. “It's not flamboyant, there's not a lot of showmanship. We're more of the background, and the guests are the stars."

As the meeting breaks, the entire team shouts "service!" and makes final preparations as guests arrive, only to sit outside on benches and wait, oblivious to all that has just gone on behind that iconic blue door.

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