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Trend Watch: Open Kitchens connect chefs with their customers

Visual access to meal preparation gives diners greater confidence in the process.

Fuzio Universal Pasta gives patrons a ringside view of what goes into preparing their meals. - Photo courtesy of Fuzio Universal Pasta
By Lauren Kramer
June 01, 2005

As diners become more sophisticated and knowledgeable in their food choices, they also become more curious about the dishes they consume and the people who make them. The proliferation of restaurants featuring open kitchens provides diners with visual access to everything that goes into preparing their meal.

But open kitchens satisfy much more than diners’ curiosity. They bring chefs closer to their customers, inspiring them to do a better job and giving them an opportunity to gauge diners’ reactions to the food. Open kitchens provide a source of entertainment not unlike dinner theatre, creating a center of action and making diners feel like they are a part of the process.

And, as diners see the cleanliness of the kitchen and the freshness of the ingredients, they gain a new level of comfort in the restaurant and a greater respect for those who prepare their food.

“The restaurant business is all theatre,” says Stacy Mald, vice president of operations at Fuzio Universal Pasta. “With our open kitchens, you hear the noise of oil and fresh products going into the sauté pan, and you see flames when they’re deglazing the pan. It’s a real show and brings you into the whole experience.”

At this restaurant chain, with 10 casual-dining locations nationwide, the hottest seats are at the chef’s counter, where customers can watch up to five cooks on the line, sautéing, making salads and paninis and grilling food.

“Customers often tell us, ‘Wow! That’s great, it really looks fresh,’ and they’re amazed by the speed with which the food is prepared,” says Mald. “All our food is served within 6 to 8 minutes of ordering.”

The benefits of having an open kitchen are not confined to upscale or fine-dining restaurants.

“Allowing diners to see the state of the kitchen can add a new level of comfort to their experience,” says Greg Morris, owner of The Spanish Kitchen in Los Angeles. “It gives diners a chance to see that they’re in a clean and healthy environment and makes them feel part of the whole process in the restaurant, as opposed to being spectators.

“It’s fascinating looking into the kitchen, because it’s like looking into a fishbowl.”

The Spanish Kitchen, a casual-dining concept with a strong Spanish influence, has an open kitchen separated from the dining room by a tinted window, which means diners can see in, but chefs cannot easily see out.

With diners scrutinizing the kitchen for its cleanliness and organization, Morris has to ensure his employees’ behavior is nothing short of impeccable.

“They need to be conscious that they’re on display, and that cleanliness and organization are very important. I teach them to always clean their equipment, put things away and move constantly rather than stand around idly,” he says.

Other restaurants have followed suit. In October 2003, Captain D’s, a fast-casual seafood chain with 600 units, introduced open kitchens. The design is now a mandatory feature of all new Captain D’s restaurants.

“The main reason was to allow the manager to get out of the kitchen and see what was going on in the restaurant, too,” says Mike Pearce, vice president of franchise development for the Nashville, Tenn.-based chain. “The open design of the kitchen allows managers to keep their eyes on the front line and the dining room simultaneously, as well as giving customers the opportunity to see their food prepared.”

Diners enjoy a peek inside what was once a closed, private preparation area.

“We get more credit for the work we do since introducing the open kitchen, because diners can see how carefully we prepare it, and that ours is not a typical fast-food establishment,” says Pearce.

Previously, Captain D’s kitchen was separated from the restaurant floor by a wall, which limited the manager’s control over both areas.

“Now, with our T-line kitchen,” says Pearce, “the manager can see how full the dining room is, interact with the customers and still see if there are problems in the kitchen.”

Diners who are curious about food preparation naturally enjoy the visual and acoustic access of an open kitchen.

“The beauty of the open kitchen is that diners get to see how fresh our food is and watch it go directly from the stove to the table, with no use of heat lamps or anything,” says Barbara Marie, general manager at FRESH Seafood Restaurant in La Jolla, Calif. “That makes for the ultimate fine-dining experience in terms of quality of food.”

Exhibiting the freshness of food coming out of the kitchen is a major motivator for restaurants that have opened their kitchens.

“It’s about being one large freshness queue to our guests,” says George Miliotes, director of beverage and hospitality at Seasons 52 Restaurant in Orlando, Fla. The restaurant is owned by Darden, parent company of seafood concept Red Lobster.

“All our tables can see the kitchen, and guests can walk up and see what the chefs are doing. It’s all about being beautifully fresh and seeing the chef prepare your food to order.”

Seasons 52 ensures that each dish contains fewer than 475 calories and uses only olive oil, no butter, in its preparation. At least once each night, managers take guests on a tour through Seasons 52’s open kitchen, explaining to them the purpose of each station.

Michel Richard, chef-owner at Citronelle, a fine-dining restaurant in Washington, D.C., agrees that the activity in the kitchen is a magnet for guests.

“When you sit down at a restaurant,” he notes, “sometimes you are bored. Seeing the kitchen is like having access to a huge television screen with entertainment. Also, you don’t have to wonder who is cooking, whether or not they’re clean or if they respect the
customer.”

When Citronelle opened in 1993, Richard invested $1 million in the kitchen, ensuring that it was efficient, easy to clean and well-designed.

All the tables at Citronelle give diners visual access to the kitchen through a glass wall, and Richard enjoys gauging his guests’ reactions to their food. The restaurant also features an eight-person Chef’s Table in the kitchen, where patrons pay $275 each for a 10- to-12-course meal with wine.

“An open kitchen makes chefs more careful, teaches you to be cleaner and inspires you to do a better job, because it brings you closer to your customer,” Richard says.

Many open kitchens are designed to showcase the artistry of the chef as s/he creates unique food combinations. Take the chef out of the equation, and your open kitchen is still open — but much less attractive. That can be a blessing and a curse, says Richard.

“The only problem with an open kitchen is that when you’re not there, your diners know it and complain!”

Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia

June 2005 - SeaFood Business

 

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