Interview with Best New Chef Jonathan Benno
Sub-specialty. Pastry; he spent a year learning to make doughs and ice creams with Claudia Fleming, Gramery Tavern's renowned former pastry chef.
What keeps him going. "My fiancée, Elizabeth [Chapman], and a lot of coffee."
Favorite season. Spring. "The day you see the first fava bean and the last black truffle."
Most interesting item on Per Se's menu. A Squire Hill Farm Araucana hen egg. "A 16-year-old girl named Mariele Marki e-mailed Per Se and said she had really beautiful eggs from her family's farm in New Milford, Connecticut, and that we should buy them. The eggs are so pretty, they look like Easter eggs, but the pinks and blues and yellows are natural. Their colors match the colors of the hens' plumes. Her mom drives her in every Saturday to drop off the eggs. Mariele sent a picture of her horse, Magic, too.'"
Favorite kitchen tool. A Japanese Masamoto chef's knife. "It's 100 percent carbon steel; it's basically like a razor blade. It's great for slicing meat, fish or anything that's not acidic like tomatoes—the blade will turn brown and the tomatoes will taste steely."
Fantasy splurge. "I'm jazzed up about Martin Berasategui in San Sebastián. I've been to Spain, but never with any money. Now that I can pay my rent on time, I'd like to go back there and go to some of the big places."
All-time most memorable meal. The first time he trailed at the French Laundry and met Thomas Keller. "Thomas was cooking the meat, Ron [Siegel, F&W Best New Chef 1999] was cooking the fish. I'll never forget watching them work together. And that was in the original French Laundry, where the kitchen was tiny. Compared with what we have now at Per Se, it was like a joke. Sometimes I hear people here complain that they don't have room to work; it makes me crazy."
Favorite guilty pleasure. Carl's Steaks' Philly cheese steak, a little place in Murray Hill, at 2:30 a.m.
Most heroic moment. The night a fire broke out in Per Se the first week they were open. "I helped get staff out of the restaurant. The most heartbreaking moment was being in the kitchen later on with Thomas. We'd spent two years at French Laundry, working like crazy to get Per Se open. And then at 4:40 p.m. on our first Saturday night, there's a huge fire."
What he'd be if he wasn't a chef. A BMW motorcycle mechanic. "I had one in California, but for the commute from Chelsea to the Time Warner Center I can't justify a BMW motorcycle."
Who he'd team up with to open his dream restaurant. "I already did that."