Noticed how more and more restaurants are opening their kitchens up to the public? And it’s not just sushi bars. Chefs are now becoming part of the mainstream dining experience, espousing the trend for transparency and information sharing. There’s nothing to hide — diners can see everything being prepared and served right before their eyes.
Although this open kitchen concept started in cities like New York and Toronto where space was at a premium, it’s catching on everywhere, from fast food to fine dining, giving diners a more visible approach to food prep. In the wake of successful TV chefs and cookery-themed reality shows, open kitchens offer a candid view of the restaurant’s hygiene, professionalism and culinary capabilities.
Before setting off on a round-the-world voyage with Semester at Sea earlier this year, I got a chance to try this out in San Diego where the ship – my home and workplace for the next four months – was docked. The Kitchen Counter experience at the Seasons Restaurant, Four Seasons Aviara is advertised as ‘culinary magic’. The wizards in charge create a five-course menu before a group of six diners, emphasizing their choices of seasonal ingredients, unusual cooking techniques and flavor combos.
Rather than mere nourishment, it is a gripping culinary quest, customized to different palates and dietary requirements. Appropriate wines served with each course add a viticulture element.
‘There is no official menu, the Kitchen Counter experience is seasonally driven and allows the chefs to share their personal story of what inspires them,’ says Demi Ortega, Regional Vice President and General Manager of Four Seasons. ‘It showcases the creative soul of the kitchen and give guests a sneak peak of what takes place, from the preparation, to the plating, to the story behind why the chef selected these ingredients, flavor combinations, and preparation style.’
Although the hotel is 45 mins from downtown, the signature culinary experiences at Seasons Restaurant – which also include private chef, chef’s table and private dining room options – have put the Aviara’s celebrity chefs at the forefront of San Diego’s cuisine scene.
All around the world, restaurants are putting their executive chefs on display, cooking part, or even all, of a meal right in front of diners who often sit at counters, watching every move. Later in the voyage I would get the chance to witness this in Japan, learning about Kobe beef at Kobe Plaisir from chefs who apprentice for four years before being let loose in front of diners.
This ascendance of culinary scrutiny has gone hand in hand with a heightened interest in farm fresh ingredients and a general food fetishism which encompasses new fads in organic, gluten-free, lactose-free, vegan and vegetarian eating. In fact, according to a study carried out by the Harvard Business School, better food would seem to be served in those restaurants where chefs and customers can see eye to eye. For two weeks, researchers experimented with four different scenarios in a cafeteria they had converted into an authentic laboratory. The results showed that when the cooks could see their patrons, the food quality got higher ratings. One reason for this, according to the researchers, is that contact – at least a visual one – with the end-users of their work is a strong stimulus for the chefs, who thus realize the importance of their job, feeling more appreciated, satisfied and motivated to do their utmost.