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Not a Cook-Off Per Se

It was more a love-in than a competition when Thomas Keller and Jonathan Benno of New York City's Per Se each took on the challenge of creating a fast menu using the same set of iconic summer ingredients.

"It's all about integrity," said Thomas Keller, sniffing and then rejecting an imperfect peach. For Keller, the chef and owner of New York City's Per Se, and Jonathan Benno, Per Se's executive chef, only the most honest, pure, pristine ingredients will do. So when F&W invited the two men to participate in a cook-off, the summer produce—corn, tomatoes, fresh beans, herbs and peaches—had to be at its peak. We challenged each chef to use these ingredients in a quick, delicious, doable menu (no sous-chefs permitted), with poultry as the main course. To keep things interesting, each chef also had the choice of one or two bonus ingredients.

Keller quickly chose a fresh, smooth French cheese called Petit Suisse. "It's so creamy, almost like custard but with a cheese flavor," he explained. "It will be perfect with the confit of peaches with mint I'm going to make."

Benno asked for bacon to add to his summer corn chowder with saffron and tarragon. "I'd gladly take bacon over Petit Suisse any day," he said playfully.

Aside from their respective preferences for Petit Suisse and bacon, the chefs share an extraordinarily similar style in the kitchen. Keller's intense devotion to fresh ingredients, his mind-blowing creativity and his mastery of haute cuisine technique have made the French Laundry, his 11-year-old Napa restaurant, one of the most acclaimed dining destinations in America. Benno, who has worked with Keller on and off for the past 10 years, learned those lessons perfectly, so much so that he can channel his mentor from 3,000 miles away.

"Thomas was and is a huge influence on me," Benno said. "I learned about refinement, perfection and the importance of being uncompromising from him. And now it's my turn to pass that on to all the kids working chop-chop-chop at Per Se."

Keller returned the compliment. "Whenever I look at one of Jonathan's dishes at Per Se, I immediately feel a connection to it even if I didn't create it. I see a lot of myself in him actually—that drive, that ambition, that quality of workmanship. And his modesty. I think modesty is so important."

In a sense, the cook-off menus are modest ones, though that doesn't make them any less delicious. Keller roasted his chicken whole, in a covered grill. "It's one of the easiest things to do in the summertime," he said. "Most people think of putting other kinds of meat on the grill, not a whole chicken. But I love roasted chicken." As an unfussy accompaniment, he slapped thick slices of good country bread on the grill after the bird cooked, then spread them with a garlicky herb oil. Nothing could be homier. Benno took a slightly more elegant tack, marinating butterflied game hens in olive oil and herbs, and grilling them over high heat so they quickly turned golden and juicy.

As the aroma of the grilling birds filled the air, the chefs worked rapidly on the rest of their menus. Keller filled lightly roasted tomatoes with sweet corn, lima beans and diced red peppers. Benno added fingerling potatoes to crisp wax and green beans, seasoning the mix with a pungent anchovy-garlic dressing for a lighter, tuna-less Niçoise salad. Then he transformed his peaches into a tarte Tatin: a flaky puff-pastry shell filled with tender, caramel-drenched fruit.

Meanwhile, Keller removed the skins of his peaches with a vegetable peeler, marinated them in a light, minted sugar syrup, then added dollops of Petit Suisse. The lightly tangy, voluptuous cheese slowly dissolved over the warm peaches and fragrant syrup. Luxurious, yes—but as Keller said, "People think everything I cook has to be over-the-top in technique. It doesn't. This is just a simple, great summer dish. I could make peach confit to the nth degree if I wanted to, but I'm not sure it would be better."

The French Laundry, 6640 Washington St., Yountville, CA; 707-944-2380. Per Se, Time Warner Center, 10 Columbus Circle, New York City; 212-823-9335.

Published August 2005
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