Matt Peters, Per Se’s (10 Columbus Circle; 212-823-9335) executive sous-chef, always wanted to cook at a top-tier restaurant. And here he is, at nine in the morning, prepping for Per Se’s service, scraping the dirty skin off bright red radishes, the world’s tiniest, with a small knife. It’s a situation that calls for patience, and it brings out steadiness in a person. The tub of radishes seems bottomless, but he’s a quick hand with the knife. Later, after they’ve been roasted and glazed with a bacon gastrique, the radishes will star in a bacon-wrapped veal tenderloin dish during lunch service.
This legendary restaurant in a shopping mall has secured iconic status as one of the most unimpeachable homes of high-level cuisine, committed to creating a dining experience unlike any other.
In the morning, the mall is dead, but the chefs have been cranking it out since before sunrise. So at this point, the hive mind of the Per Se kitchen has already kicked in. Chefs bend over their gleaming stations, all doing their part, and Peters scribbles some last-minute changes to the menu. Soon, graceful uniformed waiters will present the restaurant’s finessed food philosophy — “delivering excellence” — with a succession of nine refined small plates: convoluted to create, but easy to wolf down in a few bites.
The luxurious Oysters and Pearls, or the O&P, as Peters refers to the dish, is the decadent marathon’s first course: a plate of impossibly creamy sabayon, with tapioca formed into little spheres — the pearls — finished with a caviar that looks as if it’s been strategically placed there by a fairy. Sauces here don’t wander. Instead, emulsions are poured in perfect circles, mirroring a perfect, spherical dome of pommes dauphine, which in turn reflects the pattern of the fanned chips arranged in perfect concentric circles on top. “When you eat the dishes, they just make sense,” Peters says.
Peters is second in command in the kitchen. He starts his rigorous twelve-to-fourteen-hour day by greeting every single employee, as they all do each other. He then goes over menu changes from the night before, and sets about his job: communicating chef Thomas Keller’s vision from Eli Kaimeh, the restaurant’s chef de cuisine, to the sous-chefs. While he shepherds the flow of information to the sous-chefs under him, he tries to translate the overall vision to each one differently. “With some, I’m more hands-on. Some people are visual learners, and some can just listen,” he explains.
Watching him in action, you still get the feeling that the walls may start bleeding if a chef burns something, but Peters admits to making cooking mistakes every day. “It’s how you fix the mistakes,” he says. Now that the 32-year-old Peters is in his seventh year at Per Se, mastering the unpredictable is natural for him, but it wasn’t always.
Peters grew up in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and, after graduating from Le Cordon Bleu in Pittsburgh, cooked at the Ritz-Carlton in Naples, Florida, where he tried to nail Keller’s signature coronet shape for a canapé before he had the experience to pull it off.
On his first day in the blindingly white kitchen at Per Se, Peters was entranced by the grandeur of it all. He then spent five hours picking and blanching peas, using his fingertips to get them out of their shells, and yanking the germ out of every single one. “Sitting there, I thought these guys [were] not going to hire me because I wasn’t fast enough,” he says.
If he was going to hang with them, he’d have to up his peapod game. But after he started as a chef de partie, the work made him hyper-focused, and now, microscopic detail obsesses him. “It slows everything down. You realize it’s not just about the food,” he says. “It’s all the moving parts.”
He has a vivid memory of titan chef Keller entering the kitchen and pointing out a smudge on the ceiling. “I looked at the ceiling more after that,” he recalls. “I’m always looking for the nick on the plate or the spot on the wine glass.” Keller invited Peters to be executive sous-chef in February 2013, in the kitchen office. Peters is loyal. The whole game of the place depends on respect for the rank you earn — and Peters has a lot of it.
“It’s a very competitive kitchen. Everyone is striving to be better than the next and better than they were yesterday,” he says.
Lately, Peters has been concentrating on tasks like folding caramel ribbons into a pumpernickel tuile lavash dough, and wrapping chicken with croissants and baking it with spinach mousse and gruyère cheese. This December, he will battle NoMad chef de cuisine Brian Lockwood and other New York toques for a chance to compete on the U.S. team at the chef Olympics, the 2017 Bocuse d’Or competition in France.
Kaimeh tells the Voice that Peters makes some of the most beautifully composed dishes he’s seen, which is significant at a restaurant where even the toilet paper is beautifully arranged. “We noticed Matt was comfortable moving in those very intense bottleneck moments when you have to be very precise and stay cool under pressure,” Kaimeh says. “Like with the tuiles and terrines, he’s patient when it comes to the labor required of something that’s very intricate, the things that take a lot of time to do.”
That focus propelled Peters up the ranks of the Per Se hierarchy; when he’s plating a dish, he’s totally absorbed in it. Before anything hits the plate, he asks himself: “Is the protein cooked correctly? Is the glaze seasoned correctly? Are the vegetables cooked correctly? Is the consistency of the puree correct?”
Finally, at the end of his shift, Peters is already planning for the next one. “I’m thinking about the dish we’ve just come up with, and how we’re constantly going to perfect it the next day. They say not to bring work home with you, but when you’re creatively thinking of these things, naturally, they’re rolling through my head. It’s about getting those fine points and thinking about the next thing to make better.”