“It’s fun, exciting, loud, dark, and cool,” says chef Mike Isabella, owner of several restaurants in the Washington, D.C. area. He’s talking about Graffiato, his restaurant in northwest D.C., known for Italian small plates, charcuterie, crudo, and homemade pizzas. “We make the food that I want to eat, and we have a really cool space.”
One of the focal points of the two-story dining room is the large open kitchen where diners can watch as pizzas and other dishes are cooked in a wood-burning oven. When guests enter the dining room, it’s one of the first things that they see. “It adds some excitement,” Isabella says. “Our guests love seeing what’s going on and seeing the cooks make the pizzas.”
Keeping a clean and organized kitchen during service is a challenge for any chef, but the trend of open kitchens in restaurants means that there’s even more pressure since guests have a front row seat. During the planning process, Isabella and his team knew that the open kitchen concept would bring along an additional set of challenges. “We wrote the menu thinking about what was going to be cooked where and how we could divide it for the different stations,” he remembers. Six years later, the open kitchen has become a focal point of the dining room for those people sitting at tables or perched on one of the 15 bar stools along its edge. Here, Isabella shares a few things he and his team have learned about running an open kitchen and what advice they have for other teams about how to use the concept to add to the guest experience.
Training is imperative.
“We definitely go through training with staff before they step into the open kitchen,” Isabella says. “It’s important to be with them through training so they can get used to working out there.” One of the skills that Isabella and his team try to impart to their cooks that are going to be up front is that they need to be very aware of their actions. Keeping a management-level chef out in the dining room with them helps. “We always try to have a chef out there with our cooks to keep an eye on their stations and help them out if they need it,” he says. “The chef also does expo and finishes the plates so they can keep an eye on how food looks before it leaves the kitchen.” Having an extra set of eyes in an open kitchen means there’s extra security to make sure that things are right for guests.
Cleanliness is key.
“Keep it clean,” Isabella says. That’s the biggest challenge with any kitchen but especially one that’s in the dining room under the watchful eyes of curious diners. “The cooks have to be clean and organized,” he adds. “We have to make sure they’re wearing gloves when they’re supposed to and their stations are wiped down,” he says. Tasting spoons are also a big point of contention. “We have to make sure that they’re using tasting spoons when they try things and that they’re properly cleaned,” he adds. “Being clean is the number one, most important thing in an open kitchen.
Think about the customer perspective.
One of Isabella’s pet peeves is seeing cooks use their cell phone while on the floor. “We tell them not to use their phones in the kitchen,” he says. For diners, it can be off-putting to see cooks grab their smartphones. “The whole point is to be guest-facing,” he says. “You also want to make sure that they’re being quiet and not throwing pots and pans around,” he adds. The goal of this setup is to add to the experience, not distract.
Encourage cooks to connect with guests.
All this transparency means there’s more of an opportunity for cooks to interact with patrons, Isabella says. “Guests will ask ‘What is that dish you’re making?’ — and we want our cooks to be able to talk to them.” He advises his managers to encourage cooks to talk to guests about what they’re having and answer any questions. “We even ask our cooks to share small plates or tastes of stuff that they’re making because it adds to the guest experience,” Isabella says.
Running an open kitchen comes with unique challenges but it also provides another method to connect with diners. “The guest gets to see what’s going on where they usually don’t get to see anything,” Isabella adds. “It’s more work to run an open kitchen — but it’s also more fun.”
Photo credit: Greg Powers.