Open Kitchens: Good Idea?

Recently, I had the following realization: I get the most out of friendships with people who ask themselves why they hold certain values, act in particular ways, or have unique interests.

For the past couple of years, I’ve spent considerable time and energy towards identifying my values so I can ensure that I spend my limited time and energy on what matters most to me. One thing I have discovered about myself is that if I like something, I want to learn as much as possible about that topic. One example is food and restaurants.  When I go out to eat, I don’t want to eat something that I could easily reproduce at home. I gravitate towards innovative cooking that I wouldn’t have ever thought of attempting at home and that requires skills that far exceed my own.  I also love exploring authentic regional cuisine that I am not familiar with.

My strong interest in cooking eventually made me curious about the restaurant industry (just as my passion for music lead me to spend a year researching and eventually teaching a class on the recording industry). I read many sites about food and the restaurant business, I frequently attend food-related panels, and jumped at the opportunity to accompany a successful chef around the Santa Monica’s farmers market to see how local chef’s acquire their produce. I’ve only recently become fascinated with the business-side of the food industry. I’m curious about the choices restaurant owners and chefs make in such a high-competition industry where the odds are against success.

All of this is a very long introduction to the topic that I’ve been thinking about for the past couple of months: are open kitchens in restaurants a good idea?

Waterloo and City Kitchen

Open Kitchen at Waterloo & City

I personally love the idea of open kitchens. However imperfect of a view of the restaurant world, it does provide a glimpse of the culture of the particular kitchen.  Some people might also like how you can see with your own eyes the degree to which everything is made fresh and in-house. I love reading books like Kitchen Confidential (and watching the short-lived show) about restaurant life. From the hyper-masculine kitchens filled with drug-use and excess described by Anthony Bourdain, to the strictly professional kitchens of Thomas Keller, each kitchen culture is different and equally fascinating in my view.

There are down-sides to open kitchens, however. Back in October, restaurant-focused website Eater LA published an anonymous tip from a patron at the recently-opened restaurant Waterloo & City located in Culver City:

“The bar stands in front of an open kitchen so we were getting very excited when we saw all of the different meals being sent out. All of a sudden, we heard a man yelling. Startled, we look around and see its the head chef/co-owner screaming and cursing at one of the servers. And he didn’t stop. He literally went on yelling for 5 minutes.”

A typical response by readers to the article was : “In general I think having an open kitchen/food prep area is ALWAYS a bad idea. From the lowly fastfood joint to the high-end eatries, I really don’t want to see my food being made, it repulses me every single time. Keep it behind closed doors and just present the food to me, I want to enjoy my food without being repulsed.”

Chef Greenspan Plating Food (Photo Courtesy of DrinkEatTravel.com)

About a month ago, I had my own experience witnessing some open-kitchen drama. It was my third visit to the Foundry on Melrose in two weeks. My first visit I was seated on their patio, which is the main dining area. The second visit I sat outside, and the third visit I was seated at a table by the open kitchen. I had a great view of the very talented Chef Greenspan, a couple other chefs, and all the waiters waiting to pick up orders.

I enjoyed seeing the speed and precision in which food was plated and sent out and loved getting the insight to how the Foundry kitchen operated. However, it wasn’t long before I saw Chef Greenspan chew out servers and his line cooks. At one point, a waiter returned a plate of their award-winning grilled cheese, saying that the food was cold. Chef Greenspan put his hand on the sandwich, verified that it was indeed cold, and then started yelling something to the effect of, “Even a three-year old can cook a hot grilled cheese!! Maybe I should get a child in here to cook!” Unfortunately I missed what prompted the next display of anger, but later the chef yelled at a waiter saying, “You’re a salesman! Get out there and do your f*cking job and sell it.”

I enjoyed every minute of watching the kitchen, but the several profanity-filled outbursts made my dining companion quite anxious and uncomfortable. It almost ruined her dining experience. I understand her position. Many people go to fine-dining restaurants to have a relaxing, lovely evening where they are treated extremely well and can enjoy their companion’s company without worrying about grocery shopping, cooking, dishes, etc…

Personally, I like seeing how the machine works. I get asked frequently by coworkers why I don’t go to culinary school and become a chef if I love food and cooking so much. It is not the lifestyle for me, but I enjoy these rare glimpses into the life of a cook.

This reminds me of the adage, “There are two things you don’t want to see being made—sausage and legislation.” I guess I’m the kind of person that loves seeing how both are made. What are your thoughts on open kitchens?

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4 responses to “Open Kitchens: Good Idea?

  1. Since I was the uncomfortable dining companion in this scenario, I prefer closed kitchens. There is something exciting about open kitchens because you can see the flames and the food and the hierarchy of the chef and his/her assistants at work but I think the cons of an open kitchen out-weigh the pros- yelling chefs are extremely uncomfortable to witness– especially when they are humiliating the wait-staff. That is just not professional.

  2. When we had the company Christmas lunch at Houston’s one year (where you here for that?) I really enjoyed the TV showing a live feed of the kitchen. I was too busy watching them roll sushi to talk to anyone.

  3. While I lean towards open kitchens (for many of the same reasons you indicated, curiosity about the food prep, observing the staff – the good and the bad) there are definitely times when I would rather sit away, most notably when dining with friends or dates where I think all the back-of-house camaraderie would distract from the long conversation I was hoping to carry over-the-meal. (“It’s so great to see you after all this time, let me catch you u–did someone just drop a pot of boiling pasta in the kitchen?”)

    • Yeah, I know exactly how you feel. I’ve found myself distracted on dates by open kitchens, and have found myself annoyed when friends or dates have been distracted by sports events on TVs at restaurants. I guess I do enjoy how some restaurants like the Foundry have options for sitting by an open kitchen, but you can also be far away from the hustle and bustle of the kitchen. Thanks for your thoughts!

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