The Table in the Center
By Jody Shee
In the beginning, chef’s tables were for the privileged. One invited to sit at the table in the kitchen and absorb the hustle and bustle surely had heart palpitations—careful to avoid any faux pas.
Chef’s-table experiences used to be more of a badge of honor. “(Guests) wanted to sit there and be immersed in the action, and it was a ‘keeping-up-with-the-Joneses’ thing, where customers could say, ‘I sat in the kitchen here and there,’” says Bryan Moscatello, chef/partner at Chicago’s Storefront Company. He has more than 10 years of experience with chef’s tables, and notes that they are far more popular now for the educational element.
In one sense, the chef’s table is a party, with guests up dancing around and taking tours, says Danny Trace, executive chef at Brennan’s of Houston in Houston. In another sense, “We’re on stage. It’s like they are watching a live show. It never gets tiring seeing the way people react. Their eyes get big. It’s a real experience.”
Many agree that education and entertainment are the consumer value today. “There’s a high demand for chef’s tables, because gastro tourists really enjoy immersing themselves in culinary experiences and sampling off-the-cuff menus,” says Ben Pollinger, executive chef at Oceana, New York, who likens chef’s tables to sports events. “It’s the equivalent of ringside seats or sitting in the dugout and watching the action.”
Chef’s tables are an evolving trend, taking many forms, from fancy kitchen glassed-in rooms to bar counters opposite a workstation. Most require reservations, but can be available at the last minute. Some chef’s tables offer a tasting menu, while others are similar to sushi bars where guests can order at random or at the suggestion of the chef.
Before adding or remodeling a chef’s table, consider the business sense. At San Francisco’s One Market Restaurant, the chef’s table is a booth that seats four to seven guests in the heart of the kitchen. It features a seven-course tasting menu created by chef/partner Mark Dommen, as well as a tour of the wine cellar and pastry kitchen, all for $85 per person Monday-Thursday and $95 Friday and Saturday. (The price does not include beverages, tax or gratuity.)
From a business standpoint, “We’re getting four to seven more seats out of our restaurant,” Dommen says. “If the table in the kitchen wasn’t there, it would be used for storage. So we’re getting extra revenue. Plus, it differentiates us from other restaurants that don’t have one.”
All agree that a chef’s table in the middle of the kitchen keeps the staff on its toes, precluding a “Hell’s Kitchen” scenario, which some guests anticipate. Says Dommen, “Sometimes, guests will ask, ‘When are you going to yell at someone?’”
But only once did the restaurant resemble “Hell’s Kitchen.” That was when the TV show’s celebrity host Gordon Ramsey actually brought the challenge to One Market. The winner’s reward was to dine at the restaurant’s chef’s table, Dommen says.
For Storefront Company’s Moscatello, the tasting menu served at the chef’s table—or the kitchen counter, as it is called—presents the perfect opportunity to prepare and serve ingredients that aren’t plenteous enough to serve to all the guests. “We do a lot of whole-animal processing here, so we have different parts we want to utilize, and that’s how I build a lot of the (kitchen counter) menu,” he says. He may have beef tongue or heart or lamb shanks or tenderloin in quantities ideal for only 12 to 18 servings.
Moscatello also utilizes the counter for menu development. “As we work on new dishes, we put it on the kitchen counter menu and get reactions. A lot of the dishes end up making their way to the dining room menu for the seasonal menu,” he adds.
Storefront Company opened in March 2012 with four seats at the kitchen counter, located directly in front of the pastry shop, and it quickly became popular. Moscatello recently decided to expand, and opened one wall facing the kitchen, adding nine additional seats. He offers a personalized six-course chef’s tasting menu for $59-$69, not including drinks.
Also available is a three-course dessert tasting menu and a three-course cheese tasting.
Trace at Brennan’s of Houston also likes to use the chef’s table, called the kitchen table, for research and development, not only to satisfy his creativity, but also to challenge his staff. The semi-glassed-off table in the middle of the kitchen seats four to 12 guests who are served a five- to seven-course chef’s choice menu. Trace likes to use the format to give his cooks the opportunity to come up with a first or second course. “It’s a way we can get totally creative,” he says. “We wouldn’t serve a dish to 100 or 200 people in the dining room that hasn’t been tried. But with six or 12 people, we’re going to blow it out of the park. That’s what we do.”
Beyond the experience of creating new dishes, the kitchen table provides another value to the staff. “The younger cooks have confidence issues,” Trace says. “I push them to explain a course or two. It gets them speaking to guests. It’s a learning experience.”
If he were starting all over again with a chef’s table, Trace says he would have multiple chef’s tables, and perhaps one raised higher on a platform so guests could see down into the kitchen for a better overview.
Time and experience leads chefs to differentiate the chef’s table. Brennan’s recently created a Southern-style vegetarian menu called Digging Texas Creole for its chef’s table. Trace has watched the consumer trend toward more healthful eating. “A lot are steering away from proteins,” he says. “You have to understand how Texas is. People eat beef, and big cuts of it. But some are eating lighter and want more vegetables incorporated. It opens a whole new avenue for us to get creative.”
As chef/owner, Matt McCallister opened FT33 in Dallas in October 2012 mindful of the chef’s table. In fact, FT33 stands for “fire table 33,” which is the chef’s table. It seats four guests and is located about five feet from the plating counter, which is where McCallister positions himself and readily explains the food to the lucky four seated in the high-intensity zone.
“We don’t do a special menu, and it doesn’t cost more,” he says. He keeps it casual, and though the table is often reserved, he doesn’t push it as something that needs to be reserved. However, he would like to evolve the table. “We want to get to where we treat that table with special details. We’ll probably do a course of two or three canapés to start the meal and finish with something a little special to take home,” he says.
For McCallister, devising a separate super-intricate menu for the chef’s table would not be feasible, as the food he and five cooks prepare for the 74 tables is already highly stated. “To execute separate food for the chef’s table could jeopardize everyone,” he says. “How far can I push it before the kitchen completely crumbles and we can’t get the food out?”
At Oceana, the chef’s table seats four to six guests inside a glass enclosure in the kitchen next to the pass where food is transferred to the dining room. The glass helps block some of the noise and provides the ultimate in privacy, says Pollinger.
The menu is completely customizable, and guests often look online ahead of time to determine what they would like included in their meal. To sit there, the table must meet a $250 minimum expenditure for lunch and $500 for dinner.
Pollinger finds that the table is often used by executives who either aim to impress their guests or discuss sensitive business issues in complete privacy. He often sees marriage proposals in the room, with guys down on one knee and girls crying.
When chef/owner Kevin Sbraga opened his namesake Sbraga restaurant in Philadelphia within the past two years, he made sure to follow his dream of offering a chef’s table experience, called the chef’s counter. “It’s a way for me to directly work with and communicate with the guest, and it creates something exclusive. Other guests wonder what’s going on,” he says.
The chef’s counter seats six and offers a six-course $75 tasting menu (not counting drinks) that changes monthly. “It’s almost like sitting at a bar with a marble countertop, and the chefs are right there,” Sbraga says. It’s available by reservation and held with a credit card. “We release the menu a week or 10 days before the month starts. People call in right away.”
Guests freely ask what the chef is doing and chefs regularly watch how the customers are responding to the food. “We could notice she’s not eating this, and we might send something else out to her. It’s an opportunity for us to be off the cuff and do what we want,” he says.