Industry Insiders: Jonathan Benno, Per Se Persona

Jonathan Benno, chef de cuisine at Thomas Keller’s Per Se Restaurant at the Time Warner Center in New York, on the downside of popular gastronomy, BMW motorcycles, and escaping the kitchen to make time for the fam.

Where do you go out when you’re off duty? Al di Là in Park Slope. It’s a husband and wife team I’ve known for a really long time. They do traditional Italian cooking, and it’s just a place that’s from the heart. She does the kitchen, and he does the dining room. It’s small and special. Either of Michael White’s New York restaurants — Convivio or Alto — because he has such a command of Italian cuisine, and he’s a really, really nice guy. Hearth by Marco Canora, formerly of Craft, and Paul Greco, formerly of Gramercy Tavern, is great because the place is a real labor of love for two guys who were at the top of their games at successful restaurants. They borrowed the money to open this little restaurant in the East Village, and they made it work.

How would you describe yourself? I’m a quiet, focused, disciplined, and passionate person.

How’d you get started? The turning point for me was the first time I worked at the French Laundry. I worked there about 15 years ago, during the first year that it opened. I started at Daniel where Café Boulud is today, then worked for Christian DeLuvier at the Essex House. I spent most of my time working at Gramercy Tavern for Tom Colicchio before I traveled to southwest France to work for Gilles Goujon at L’Auberge du Vieux Puits, then went back to the French Laundry for a couple of years before the opening of Per Se. In my mind, I always look at the French Laundry as the turning point for me.

Who do you admire in the hospitality industry? Thomas Keller for what he’s done for our industry and people’s perception of a chef/owner. Never mind the fact that he’s really set the bar for fine dining at the French Laundry and Per Se as well as Ad Hoc and other venues. Somebody said that he’s a “cook’s cook,” and after all the accolades, that sums him up best. Also, Danny Meyer, for what he’s done for American restaurants and service over the course of the past 20 years at Union Square Cafe. On so many different levels, whether you’re having the tasting menu at Gramercy Tavern or you put up with the lines at Shake Shack, these are two wonderful restaurants at both ends of the spectrum. I was fortunate enough to have worked for him for two and a half years at Gramercy, and it stays with me today.

Name one positive trend that you see in the hospitality industry. I think the downward trend in the economy affects restaurants at every level. You’re not going to see the Per Se’s and the Daniel’s open in the near future as freestanding restaurants. The trend is going to be towards more casual restaurants, and I hope chef/owner-driven small restaurants with a lower price point will make it for the next year or two until the economy comes back.

Negative trends? The use of chemicals in cuisine. There’s this whole molecular gastronomy movement. I object to the manipulation of food that’s been developing over the past couple of years. Even to take a carrot from the green market and juice it and then add chemicals to it to make beads or whatever — why use high-quality ingredients and corrupt them with chemistry?

What is something that people might not know about you? I’ve always daydreamed about being a BMW motorcycle mechanic.

Any non-industry projects in the works? My wife and I have a nine-month-old baby girl. So, they’re my projects out of working hours. I like to read, but it’s like stealing time, and so is going to the gym.