Both the Post and the Times have covered Thomas Keller?s announcement -- twice each -- that starting September 1 he?s going to be adding a 20% service charge to diners? checks at Per Se, replacing the customary tip with a fee that will be divided between front and back of house staff. The move is apparently to address the concerns of Keller?s army of chefs-in-training. The disgruntled lot, who are making substantially less than his waiters, have been quitting an average of two seconds after the ink dries on their updated resumes.
Everyone from Steve ?The Fat Guy? Shaw (incidentally, whose book drops
tomorrow today) to Jon Bonné of Amuse Bouche has been talking about the move. Over at eGullet they?re 9 pages into a debate. All of this is mostly over the basic question: should diners have the absolute and final authority to tip as they see fit?
Of course the practice of automatically putting a service charge on the bill is common across Europe and at a large handful of the highest-end restaurants in the States as well (Charlie Trotter's, for example, in Chicago). As will be the case at Per Se, waiters in these places are often compensated in other ways, such as with paid vacations and heath benefits. And, as McGeehan points out for the Times, this isn?t even new for high end places in New York, where The Quilted Giraffe used this very approach in its 1980s heyday. This, combined with the fact that the average tip at Per Se is already 22%, makes it somewhat hard to understand quite what the fuss is about. (Plus, you cannot read two sentences of a Per Se review without hearing about the impeccable service that Keller?s wife and front of house manager Laura Cunningham insists on from her service staff.)
In theory, we're on board with the service fee. Unless, perhaps you consider something that hasn?t been said yet. Having been served a perfect meal in a perfect room with perfect service and perfect blah-blah-blah, doesn?t this policy change in effect mean that your 22% will go up to nearly 30%? For all but the culinary elite, realistically, who is going to leave ?additional tip? blank six glasses of wine in, when all you're trying to do is make a good enough impression to be invited back?