Slide into a seat at the chef’s counter in some of the country’s hottest restaurants, and you’ll see cooks slicing and dicing vegetables, tossing pastas, and grilling meats over a wood-burning fire. A constant hum of movement and chatter follows the kitchen staff and spills across the counter to guests, who watch the show and enjoy the resulting dishes in one holistic experience.
For guests, chef’s counters provide unique access to the people and processes behind the food. But what is it like on the other side?
We talked to Joshua McFadden, Chef at Ava Gene’s in Portland, along with Chef Daniel Eddy of New York City’s Rebelle, for an inside look at operating a restaurant with a chef’s counter. (For both chefs, the restaurants’ chef’s counters were happy accidents — not features they planned for, but consequences of the spaces and layouts.) Here are five lessons they’ve learned along the way.
Guests interact directly with cooks.
Obviously, the proximity to cooks encourages guests to ask questions — and that’s part of the fun. They ask for recommendations on dishes and details about how things are made, which can take their experiences to the next level. At Ava Gene’s and Rebelle, chefs are trained to say hello as soon as guests sit down, and beyond that, banter and questions happen organically.
“We are in the business of hospitality, of being warm and welcoming, and that shouldn’t change because someone’s a cook,” says Daniel. “We encourage cooks to look up and say hi.” He loves that guests are stimulated and that cooks can see the enjoyment of people eating their food first-hand.
Joshua admits that the conversations can be distracting for the cooks, but they also add to the professionalism of the kitchen staff, who bridge a role somewhere between front of house and back of house.
The kitchen is constantly on display.
At a chef’s counter, cooks are on display at all times, almost like a constant performance. Joshua says of his cooks: “They are hyper-aware that there are 70 people looking at them.”
Daniel credits guests’ interest in the chef’s counter experience to the popularity of restaurants on TV; they want to see and understand what goes on behind the scenes.
“It takes on a form of theater,” he says. “The spectators are there to witness it. They see people in their element doing what they do, and it’s very stimulating. They want more of that.”
That can be great for guests and cooks, but bringing every kitchen activity to the forefront has its drawbacks, too. Like most restaurants, Joshua’s team uses tasting spoons to taste as they cook, which raised eyebrows among some guests. The cooks had to explain their system of placing dirty spoons and clean spoons, since it usually happens behind closed doors.
“That disconnection is pretty interesting when people face directly what’s happening in an open kitchen,” he says. “It’s out there. Of course we’re tasting the food! We’re tasting it to make sure it’s as good as we want it to be.”
You can test out new menus.
Because of the small number of seats and the increased interaction with guests, chef’s counters can present opportunities to try tasting menus or other unique experiences. Joshua has “threatened” to introduce a pasta tasting menu at the Ava Gene’s counter for those who want it — 12 different pastas in succession, in small portions. He adds that being able to focus on one thing helps streamline areas of the kitchen that are open.
Daniel is also looking forward to developing new menus for the counter at Rebelle. “You can cook different food for eight people than you can for 80,” he says. “Like a sushi counter — you can cater to guests’ desires as they sit down and develop a rapport.”
Counters aren’t for every guest…
Rebelle and Ava Gene’s both seat walk-ins at their chef’s counters, and they are not open for reservations. (Joshua holds spaces for special friends, too.) While some guests love the interaction with the cooks, he says others don’t get it or aren’t seeking that kind of experience. Some don’t think they’re going to like sitting there but end up loving it. The interactive experience can be polarizing.
For his part, Daniel was careful to position the counter as one of many experiences offered at Rebelle. “I didn’t want it to be a place of elitism — there are only eight counter seats in a restaurant that seats 110.”
Ideally, anyone who comes into the restaurant should feel the same energy, and a counter should never depreciate the value of other seats. Says Daniel: “We’re a house.”
…Or for every restaurant.
At a chef’s counter or in an open kitchen, being comfortable and confident is key. Guests are going to see you in success and failure. Yelling and cursing are not hospitable, so you have to be careful about how you communicate with others.
“Abusive kitchens can push you to work harder, but that’s probably not what the guest wants to see,” says Daniel. “There’s this vision of the kitchen: stress and yelling and people fighting. That’s not the aura here, and it’s great to have people see a different view.”
Ultimately, it comes down to trusting your staff to maintain a professional attitude. That’s tricky now, when all restaurants are facing a shortage of cooks, Joshua says. He wouldn’t necessarily recommend an open kitchen to new restaurants that may not have solid kitchen staff in place.
“I’m very lucky because I have very talented cooks who are very professional and love doing what they’re doing, but that’s not always the case,” he says. “And dealing with 200 guests in one night and having one cook that’s bringing down the entire line — it’s not that easy to deal with an open kitchen.”
“I would really ask a lot of questions: what’s the goal? What are you trying to achieve? It’s a very specialized thing, and it’s not for everybody.”
Photos courtesy of Rebelle.