A light went off in my head as I was reading the bio of Per Se’s chef de cuisine, Jonathan Benno. I interviewed him today for a special section in Nation’s Restuarant News that comes out on August 14.
The section’s called "The Next Generation of Talent," and it profiles half a dozen chefs recommended by some of the country's top chefs as great protégés.
Jonathan Benno was one Thomas Keller's picks.
His other choices, in case you were wondering, were Grant Achatz, Corey Lee, Eric Ziebod, Ron Siegel, Gregory Short, Stephen Durfee, Ryon Poli and John Fraser. I bet you wish you had such good protégés.
I could only pick one, though, and for reasons of my own I picked Jonathan Benno.
Part of his résumé- and experience-building process was a stint with Michael Mina at Aqua in San Francisco.
Now that’s interesting, because one of New York's very earliest bits of exposure to Per Se’s food was at Chef’s Night Out, the pre-Beard Award party, in 2004.
The party was held at the Time Warner Center and a bunch of the restaurants there served food. Per Se's offering was truffled popcorn. People gushed. They oohed and aahed: "Can you imagine truffled popcorn? Amazing!"
Which of course it wasn't. Michael Mina, when cooking for the Citymeals-on-Wheels event not long before, also served truffled popcorn. It's been a signature item of his for years.
I accused Jonathan of being the truffled popcorn connection and he looked annoyed. He said that neither he nor Michael Mina invented truffled popcorn. I didn't press the issue because I knew he was right. According to Mina, truffled popcorn was invented near the turn of the century (as in a few years ago), at his Aqua restaurant in Liguna Niguel, Calif., by his chef de cuisine at the time, Jeff Lloyd.
Mina was trying to think of an interesting lounge snack to be served at the big deck outside the restaurant and Lloyd suggested doing something new with popcorn.
Mina had just received a shipment of white truffles, and he stored them in unpopped popcorn.
The popcorn retained a surprising amount of truffle aroma when they popped it, and they finished it with butter flavored with truffle shavings.