The world wasn’t yet tipping over in financial upheaval months ago when Grant Achatz and Thomas Keller, two of America’s most lauded chefs, decided they would team up on a $1,500 twenty-course dinner at Per Se—inspired by the simultaneous launch of their two cookbooks, Achatz’s Alinea and Keller’s Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide—and take it on the road to Achatz’s Alinea in Chicago, then on to Keller’s French Laundry in Napa.
The foodies began to trickle in at seven, to sip Veuve Cliquot 1970 poured from magnums and munch on salmon minicones and puffed idiazábal cheese with yeast and mustard seed—“Grant’s Cheez Doodle,” quipped Keller. No one seemed the least bit embarrassed spending $3,000 for dinner. Two retired city schoolteachers, carrying a Traditions et Qualité “passport” of their culinary wanderings for Keller to sign, proudly confided they were the guests of their children. A Florida medical examiner and his appellate-lawyer wife, with a 700-cookbook library at home, are “senior foodies,” she said. They won $3,000 on a tennis game, “and besides, we don’t spend much on anything but food.”
There were murmurs over the sea-urchin velouté and a few tentative pokes at a steelhead-trout roe with coconut, coriander, and vanilla fragrance. Then the quartet of truffled custard and mousse, the black-truffle explosion, and hot potato–cold potato with truffle arrived. A boyish real-estate developer, there with his obsessed-foodie mother, shared a spot for great fish tacos with the president and CEO of (recession-troubled) Macy’s, Terry Lundgren, who said he got his seats from a friend who signed up for all three dinners and couldn’t make it to New York. “Only three more courses; I think I can make it,” cried Lundgren. The crowd was thinning out even before the hanging butterscotch bacon dessert arrived.
Keller was unapologetic, pointing out that the costs of the ingredients and moving the Chicago team around the country would take a big bite of the take. “I didn’t want a charity to blur the issue,” Keller said. “I wanted it to be about an extraordinary evening, a phenomenal experience that could never happen again.” Not till the next boom, anyway.