Per Se actually has a list of people who aren’t allowed to go back. There’s a range of behavior that’s appropriate. We can accommodate wacky people, and for the most part, 95 percent of the guests are well behaved. Then you have the couple that goes and has sex in the bathroom—that happens quite a lot. You have people who throw up—they throw up a lot. There was one woman—it was a VIP tasting menu, I remember this: She just threw up on the table, in the middle of an extended tasting menu. They cleaned it up, and she “boot-and-rallied.” She finished the meal. I had an old woman tell me about giving her husband head, which was just disturbing. You see people cheating on their spouses, overhear bits of conversation.
Most of the time when people complain, they’re just looking for something for free. I worked on the Upper West Side for a long time, and my favorite is people who would complain, like, “What, $9 for a glass of wine?” And then you pour it, and they say, “This isn’t very good!” and you’re like, “Yeah. It’s a $9 glass of wine.” That means we’re buying the bottle for about $9, because that’s the way by-the-glass markup works. That’s the only way that we make money on it.
There’s nothing more fun than to wait on someone who is genuinely interested in the food. You’ll get a couple that comes in, and this is their one time a year, and they’re just so happy to be at the restaurant. There was this kid blogger, he was like 16 or 17, and he had blogged about how he was saving up his allowance to come to Per Se. And he did. He came by himself and had lunch.
Some people come in and just can’t decide what to order. What you do as a good server is rotate your recommendations. That way you don’t oversell any one item, which makes things easier on the kitchen. So my favorite items will vary from table to table.
Most of the VIP guests get to be VIPs because they spend money and tip well. The wait staff fight over the VIPs because of the way the system works. Basically, there’s a service charge, so everyone gets an hourly rate, which is fantastic because that means the kitchen all get more money, paid vacation—all these other benefits come from that. Then, if people leave any money on top of that, which they normally do, the head server keeps half of it and the other half goes in the tip pool. So the captains will fight over the people that are ballers and spend a lot of money. The more senior captains can make anywhere from $6,000 to $10,000 a night. That’s very rare, like once every two years. But there was a private party where these people left like $8,000 as a tip, so the captain walked with $4,000.
Spitting in the food doesn’t happen in New York restaurants. Honestly, people wouldn’t do that to the food. At Per Se, the cooks work 70 or 80 hours a week and make next to nothing, but they work because they want to cook. And to do that to something, to spit in prep work that someone has spent eight hours of work on—blood, sweat, and tears and all—it’s just not done. And if something drops on the floor, it gets thrown away. With the recent Department of Health crackdowns, those letter grades are bought—by that, I mean every restaurant that has an A has either an in-house specialist or a specialist they’ve hired. Before the DOH inspections, every high-end restaurant has four or five in-house inspections, and then everyone has their own set of fire drills—you put on hats and gloves when the inspector comes, you hide things away.
There’s a hierarchy based on position, so there’s servers, bussers, back servers, runners. Then there’s an ethnic hierarchy. There’s a huge Bengali population that works in restaurants, and they all have their own hierarchy. You’ll have the Spanish-speaking—Dominicans, Mexicans, and Guatemalans. They’ll kind of get along, and within each group they’ll have their own hierarchy. There’s usually one key person who has hired everyone else or who has gotten their friends or family members to come work there. The staff is incestuous. I think half the staff is dating the other half of the staff right now. I mean, you spend 60 hours a week with these people, so what do you think is going to happen?
As told to Christine Whitney