The open kitchen is moving on to its next iteration, drawing diners closer than ever to the heart of the restaurant.
Instead of a voyeuristic peek into the kitchen, the latest designs reposition the action with diners up front and center, as if they’re sitting at the kitchen island in their favorite chef’s home.
The reason? For entertainment value, of course, but more importantly, to form a closer connection to the diner. “If you see the kitchen staff working … you get drawn into it as a participant and an audience,” says Todd Hawkesworth, chef de cuisine at Art Smith’s Blue Door Kitchen & Garden, which opened in Chicago over the summer.
“Restaurants are very much a show—hopefully a very well-choreographed show between restaurant employees and diners,” says Hawkesworth, who believes the popularity of cooking shows has helped spawn this new generation of open kitchens. “It brings you that much closer to the show in a more comfortable, more approachable way.”
Restaurateurs Nick Kokonas and Chef Grant Achatz launched their vision of a dining room kitchen earlier this year, finessing the seemingly small but impactful details at Chicago’s Roister to convey a welcome-to-my-house feel. A dozen counter seats flank the prep side of the kitchen, which is wide open to the remaining 10-plus four-tops. Executive Chef Andrew Brochu runs orders to tables, music is crowdsourced, and products—from wood for the open-fire hearth to supplies—are stored in plain view.
At L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas, diners are encouraged to interact with the chefs, who cook in a kitchen space surrounded by a rectangular, wrap-around bar. (The French word atelier translates to “workshop” or “studio.”) Teisui, which opened in New York City in March, is inspired by a Japanese Ryokan hotel where guests dine in their ocean-view rooms. “Compared to other restaurants, it’s very, very open,” says Yuko Hagiwara, the general manager. “You can see everything.”
Approachability is at the heart of the nouveau open kitchen. “The elevator pitch for this restaurant was really a fine-dining version of ‘Cheers,’” says Phillip Frankland Lee, chef-owner of Scratch Bar & Kitchen in Encino, California, which opened in December 2015. The one-room, 45-seat restaurant features an open kitchen bordered by a 30-foot countertop that extends across one side of the room.
Scratch is inspired, in part, by Lee’s experiences at San Fernando Valley sushi bars where the chefs created omakase menus in front of diners. “The idea is breaking down that barrier between the guest and the kitchen, and we took it farther,” Lee says. “The more you show people, the more honest you are, the more they’re going to accept you.”
Designing this kind of kitchen isn’t necessarily more expensive when it comes to construction or equipment, but it can require more investment in staff training and upkeep so that areas stay neat. Details typically seen only by restaurant staff are now visible to everyone.
“You have to have cooks who want to learn how to cook clean and work clean, and you have to have good, newer equipment and pay the hours to keep it clean,” Hawkesworth says. “We will sit in the dining room and say, ‘What looks good from the guests’ perspective—and what doesn’t?’”
Because now, everything is that close.
BREAKING DOWN THE OPEN KITCHEN
Panes of glass or a limited-view window no longer separate the kitchen crew from diners. Today, wide-open kitchens steal the dining room spotlight. What makes an open kitchen a star attraction? Here’s a rundown of the considerations.
The new open kitchen is more of a dining stage. An extra-wide opening into the kitchen space—think of a theater or auditorium—makes for optimum viewing from multiple angles. In some open kitchens, chefs are generally positioned a step lower than guests, but at Teisui, all the activity can be seen by diners throughout the room.
The kitchen prep counter is positioned directly behind the diner’s countertop, which allows kitchen staff to be face-to-face with patrons as they work. The diner’s counter is positioned at the same level as the prep cook.
Position the most important piece of cooking equipment in the visual center of the space, so it can be seen by the most people. At Teisui, a large grill is located in the center, so guests can watch chefs prepare yakitori.
Draw diners in from outside with oversize windows or a wide-open facade, a la L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon.
When the open kitchen is the selling point, too many tables positioned away from the action can make diners feel deprived. L’Atelier has more seats at the counter—33—compared to the restaurant’s two high top tables and four low top tables.
SEATS FACING THE ACTION
In addition to counter seating, Scratch Bar & Kitchen pairs high-top tables with chairs that all face the kitchen. The tables also put staff at eye level with diners when they deliver dishes, making the interaction easier and less jarring.
At Scratch, pots and pans line the top of the wall, and inset wells built into the countertop keep tools and squeeze bottles tucked away but still within reach. Cooking equipment can be hung or stored in an artful way.
Keep equipment that could be intrusive to guests away from the kitchen’s perimeter. At Blue Door Kitchen & Garden, nothing separates the side of the open kitchen and the path that diners take to the restroom. Keep equipment that generates heat, such as a fryer, grill or salamander, away from customer traffic paths.
Garbage isn’t pretty, but hiding things that kitchen staff needs to access—such as trash bins—is counterproductive. Empty trash frequently if it’s bothersome. Don’t choose aesthetics over function.