Pulling Back the Kitchen Curtain

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Photo by Lara Kastner

The kitchen table--not the one you eat at in your dining room but the showpiece table right in the kitchen, which became popular in high-end restaurants during the 1990s--was the result of guests wanting to see, smell, feel, and hear the action of the professional kitchen. People wanted to embellish dinner with elements of adrenaline, artistry...and in some cases drama, when the infamous egotistical tyrant chef belittled his minions in an act of showmanship.

But most, I hope, wanted to pull back the curtain on the "magic show" and gain an understanding of the how, why, and what of occupational cooking. Maybe they wanted to feel connected to the chef and the cooks who were preparing them a wonderful meal, to congratulate them and show their gratitude.

A large percentage of chefs are shy and lack the desire or congeniality to deal with the public. At least that is the stereotype despite the recent rise of the "TV chef". More often than not that is how they ended up in the kitchen, their personalities excluding them from personal comfort in the dining room.

I wondered how we could show everyone what we were up to in the kitchen--show off a bit.

All cooks like to be acknowledged, and deep down they want to have a conversation about their craft. They feel what they do is special, and take a great sense of pride in their skill. To find a captive audience--often the same people who would have interest in eating in the kitchen--is very rewarding. We feed off the guests' excitement.

I had mixed feelings about the kitchen table we had at Trio, the kitchen I ran before I opened Alinea. Aside from the thoughts above, I always wondered why it was limited to so few people a night. I wondered how we could show everyone what we were up to in the kitchen--show off a bit.

Some restaurants have glass walls, and others project live video feeds from the kitchen into the dining spaces. To me those solutions seem to miss the point, robbing guests of nearly all the senses they are able to use to evaluate the performance.

Fast-forward three years to the development phase of Alinea. In the initial stages of design, Nick Kokonas, my business partner and co-owner of Alinea, asked if I wanted a kitchen table, which he had enjoyed as a diner a few times at Trio. I said absolutely not. He wondered aloud how we could bring that behind-the-scenes, unique experience to the guests at Alinea. We batted a few ideas back and forth, and half-jokingly he said, "What about a giant plate that would be set on top of a table? Chefs would come out to the dining room and plate the courses right in front of the guests." The idea was intriguing: simultaneously a modern form of traditional tableside service and moving the kitchen table experience into the actual dining room.

The idea was shelved for five years. I would often come back to it, and Martin Kastner (the designer/owner of Crucial Detail Design Studio) and I talked about the concept from time to time, but we were always too focused on other aspects of Alinea to devote the required time and energy to make it happen.

Then, about four months ago, I promised myself I would bring this concept to life.

To be continued...