As any successful restaurateur will tell you, opening a restaurant is one of the craziest things you can do. And the more prestigious the restaurant, the more complicated things become. So one can only imagine what being on staff, at what has come to be one of the most famous restaurants in the world, was like on opening night.
When asked directly, André Mack says simply, “It was insane.”
In 2004 André was hired as the beverage director at Chef Thomas Keller’s Per Se, perched on the southwest corner of Manhattan’s Central Park. This meant that he was not only holding rank as head sommelier but also running the bar, putting organizational systems in place to navigate the wine cellar, grooming a team of sommeliers and working with the lead bartender to craft cocktails.
The staff undertook an 8-week training program where they learned fine dining techniques, how the restaurant was going to operate and understand the legacy of what was about to open. A ballerina was hired to teach the staff how to walk through the dining room, where they passed feathers to practice grace when walking between tables and passing plates.
“Chef wanted us to know it was a dance,” he says. And to put this in perspective, André mentions that on average a restaurant normally trains staff members for only about two weeks.
During training, to really immerse the team in the culture of Per Se, field trips were scheduled to visit local purveyors of ingredients and guest speakers came to educate the staff on the sourcing of food. For one field trip, the beverage team went to Brooklyn Brewery to see how the beer they actually sold in the restuarant was made.
“This was key,” says André, “I think sometimes you have to break outside of your element, go outside of your four walls to visit somebody, your supplier, partners and all those kinds of things to really get that part of it.”
A week before the scheduled opening night, plenty of dress rehearsals were held to practice all the structures that were put in place for a cohesive flow. Through role-playing, and even exchanging roles, it was a time for waiters to experience what it’s like to be a guest and for the chefs to experience what waiters do on the floor.
Despite these weeks of training, opening night ended in a tragedy. A fire broke out in the kitchen which ultimately caused the restaurant to be closed for a further two months. This didn’t stop the team though, and time was spent continuing to train with online quizzes to keep everyone sharp and motivated.
Superb service aside, Per Se’s wine program is run a little differently than other fine dining restaurants. Typically when a tasting menu is offered it is accompanied by a suggested wine pairing with each course. But at Per Se, the ethos of wine is that it should be a very personable experience, with each guest having a unique taste that should be catered to and explored. As a result, there are quite a few half-sized bottles on the wine list, encouraging diners to collaborate with their server’s knowledge of the menu and their own personal preference to decide what to drink.
Despite all of the aforementioned insanity, André is still at it. Despite the crazy hours and unending challenges, he’s opening his first restaurant of his own with his wife in their Brooklyn neighborhood of Lefferts Gardens. It’ll be an all American ham bar, where American charcuterie, cheese and wine will be the stars.
“We wanted to give back and we felt like the skills we had the best were our skills that we learned through hospitality and hosting people,” André says of the upcoming opening. “So we truly think of it as a continuation of our dining room.”
Photograph courtesy of Thomas Keller Restaurant Group