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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, February 21, 2007

A top chef returns

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By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor

Jonathan Benno's Oysters and Pearls a sabayon of pearl tapioca with oysters and white sturgeon caviar characterizes the star chef's meticulous style.

Photos courtesy of Per Se

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Benefit dinner with Jonathan Benno of Per Se

8 p.m. Monday, Alan Wong's Restaurant

$1,000 per person, including multiple courses, wines, taxes, tips.

Benefits Hale 'Aina 'Ohana's culinary education efforts

Reservations: 941-9088

Information about Per Se and Jonathan Benno: www.perseny.com

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Jonathan Benno

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Alan Wong

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Heralded chef Thomas Keller, right, owner of Per Se and French Laundry, handpicked Jonathan Benno to be his culinary partner.

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Jonathan Benno is a Food & Wine best new chef and chef de cuisine of Per Se, a James Beard best new restaurant award-winner. New York's tough critics have used words such as "wondrous" to describe him. He is the handpicked culinary partner of a man many consider a culinary god, Thomas Keller, owner of Per Se and French Laundry.

And the man who put his feet on this path with a few well-chosen words is the Islands' own Alan Wong.

Benno was a twentysomething line cook at the Hard Rock Cafe here when he met Wong, who was then halfway down his own road to fame as chef of the CanoeHouse at Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows on the Big Island's Kohala Coast. Benno, who had taken a job as a dishwasher at age 16 as a way to "get out of the house, hang out with adults and drink beer," was drifting. He'd come to Hawai'i at 19 at the invitation of a college pal, Brendon Donnelly, son of publicist Sheila Donnelly, and ended up staying for three years. Sheila Donnelly, who represents the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel, introduced him to Wong, who kindly agreed to give Benno a tour of the CanoeHouse kitchen.

"He offered me a piece of advice that has stayed with me ever since," recalled Benno in a phone interview from New York. "He said, 'If you're really serious about this as a career, you should really go to school, and the Culinary Institute of America is a good school. You should also always work for great people, and you should work in New York at some stage of your career.' He told me that 20 years ago, and now I tell it to young people all the time."

Next week, Benno will enjoy what he acknowledges is a homecoming of sorts, preparing a dinner at Wong's King Street restaurant that will benefit the education of culinary students and young chefs here through the work of the Hale 'Aina 'Ohana. In addition to the $1,000-per-plate feast featuring white truffle-infused custard with ragout of Perigord truffles, terrine of Hudson Valley mouland duck foie gras with black winter truffles, butter-poached Nova Scotia lobster tail and more, he will teach a master class for Kapi'olani Community College students.

"It's really significant to me to be coming back almost 20 years later to do this event at Alan's Wong's restaurant and hopefully to have Sheila (Donnelly) as a guest," he said.

Wong, for his part, says he's flattered that Benno remembers the conversation. Noting that many were watching the opening of Keller's New York restaurant to see whether he could match the quality of the French Laundry, Wong said, "Jonathan Benno is the core of the success of Per Se. He not only cooks and leads in Thomas' style, he forges on himself and does his own thing. He exemplifies how restaurant expansion should be at a high level finding the right person to cook like you, think like you, have the same attitude as you, who can lead like you and who has the talent to take it to the next level and define his own cooking style. ... He has become one of the top chefs in the country ... and on top of that, he is humble, smart, wants to give back and just a nice guy."

Benno took Wong's advice seriously, returned to the Mainland and graduated from the Culinary Institute of America before pursuing a peripatetic career, working for chefs like Michael Mina of Aqua in San Francisco, pastry chef Claudia Fleming of Gramercy Tavern and Marco Canora at Craft, both in New York, and Gilles Goujon of Auberge du Vieux Puits in France, and in a life-changing move for Keller, at French Laundry in Yountville in Napa Valley.

Benno has said that he started out as a "horrible" cook, but experienced an eight-year awakening as he went from the CIA to Aqua to French Laundry. He recalls his first inspirational meal at Keller's restaurant. He returned to Aqua in San Francisco, where he had been working, with the firm intention of landing a job at French Laundry. Keller had no positions to offer, but he did invite Benno for a backstage visit one evening.

"That's when things really clicked for me. It was a small, small kitchen (French Laundry has since expanded), and at that time, he cooked everything and it was amazing, just the techniques, the way chef Keller and the other cooks moved and worked, it just started to make sense to me," he said. A couple of months later, he was hired to work the fish line.

Since then, he's come and gone from French Laundry, constantly seeking more training, new experiences, even studying pastry intensively for a time. But he's never been out of touch with Keller, his mentor. Five years ago, with the idea for a New York restaurant floating around his mind, Keller invited Benno to return to French Laundry for what was effectively a tryout.

"I had to earn the job. I didn't go back to California with the job in place, that was very, very clear. I had to prove myself," said Benno. The two talked incessantly about the new venture for the next year and a half. The food would be in Keller's complex, careful, meticulous style, elegant but not stuffy. Benno brought to the table his up-to-date knowledge of the New York market, its purveyors and diners.

Though both have their own specialties, Keller and Benno are one in vision and philosophy. Benno sums it up in one word: Respect. "It's trying to preserve the integrity of the ingredients that we use, trying to find the best that you can buy, and treat them with integrity and respect."

Reach Wanda A. Adams at wadams@honoluluadvertiser.com.