It’s no wonder they are on trend: Open kitchen concepts satisfy the curiosity and demand for transparency of the public. But they are a modern-day fishbowl for chefs. “It’s tough operationally. We are on display at all times,” says Andrew Brochu, executive chef at Roister—the upscale-casual concept from the Alinea Group in Chicago. The challenge, he says: to be tight and on-point at all times in order to avoid projecting a negative image out to guests.
“Servers get the full range of emotional connection to the guest through a dinner rush that cooks miss,” says Marie Petulla, co-owner of Union in Pasadena, Calif., and Knead & Co. Pasta Bar + Market in downtown LA’s Grand Central Market. “That sense of community with the guest is so beneficial, because it helps through stressful crunches where your head is down and you’re pounding out food. Now, cooks get to see first-time guests experience the first bite of that pasta, or be part of special occasions and interact with regulars. I think it’s invaluable.”
In fact, a study from Harvard Business School showed that not only is the consumer more appreciative of food he sees being cooked, but chefs perform better when they see the diners enjoying their dishes. In addition, when customers and cooks both could see one another, satisfaction went up 17.3%, and service was 13.2% faster.
But all that transparency comes with some caveats. Typically, closed-off restaurant kitchens are a daily drama of burns, spills and shenanigans. Here are ways to keep a positive experience for everyone when running an open kitchen.
1. Train to serve
With the back-of-house up front, everybody gets hospitality training. “Our cooks understand the food and what they’re doing incredibly, but translating that to guests requires [soft] skills that need to be honed,” says Petulla. “It’s a lot of coaching conversations on explaining to guests about things like our flour or root-to-leaf [approach].”
2. Dress for a mess
At Girl & The Goat in Chicago (pictured), chef-owner Stephanie Izard strives to keep cooks clean so guests won’t find them—and the food they prepare—off-putting. Cooks at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Las Vegas wear black shirts, pants and aprons to mask stains; Rose’s Luxury in Washington, D.C., uses button-downs over T-shirts that can be easily peeled off; and Knead & Co. keeps extra aprons and black T-shirts on hand to swap out.
3. Organize for display
Consider what guests are going to see. At Knead & Co., Mason jars are functional as well as attractive storage for spices. All are clearly labeled in black pen, and the handwriting is the same size. It’s something Petulla had to make her staff aware of. For example, with her all-glass walk-in cooler, “One day I came in to find deli containers labeled ‘Pigs’ Blood’ at eye level,” she says. Now, her staff puts produce up front and meat in back.
4. Don’t show it all
Rustic-casual Dai Due in Austin, Texas, has a butchering station away from its open kitchen. But for restaurants that don’t have a space to clean fish or cut meat, tackling protein out of guests’ sight is a challenge. Knead & Co. created a schedule before- and after-hours for butchering, because of its open food hall location.