Fancy cooking suites are no strangers to fine dining these days. In many cases, they’re the stages upon which celebrity chefs strut their Michelin-starred creations.
However, the Stir Food Group , a multiconcept operator based in Washington, D.C., which recently renamed itself from Star Restaurant Group , has a broader purpose for its new sleek, custom-designed, French-made Athanor cooking suite. Not only is it a high-powered production device that integrates multiple pieces of cooking equipment, it’s a versatile tool for engaging customers, testing new products and building revenues in diverse ways, Stir Food officials said.
Situated inside Zola Wine & Kitchen , a new concept that Stir Food bills as a hybrid of a retail wine shop and a chef’s test kitchen, the gleaming, stainless-steel suite is the focal point of hands-on cooking classes, wine dinners, benefit events, and private parties and receptions. It’s also the platform Stir Food uses to develop new menu items for its other ventures in the nation’s capital, namely Zola, its flagship American cuisine restaurant, the casual Spy City Café, and Potenza, a new Italian restaurant and bakery slated to open in late March.
“The idea is to have something different going on here every day,” said Bryan Moscatello, executive chef and partner. For example, Stir Food offers cooking classes such as Dollar Saving Comfort Food and Saturday Skills, which are priced at $65 to $75 per session.
“We’re booking them up two months out,” Moscatello said. “Sometimes we have 12 or 14 people around the suite, all making hollandaise for the first time.”
That sort of interactivity is also encouraged during private events.
“Part of the reception hour is spent making hors d’oeuvres in front of the guests,” Moscatello said. “If people choose, they can put on an apron and pitch in.”
The most popular interactive station thus far has been dumplings, where guests try their hand at making crab Rangoon, shumai and pot stickers.
He credits Dan Mesches, chief executive of Stir Food, with pegging Zola Wine & Kitchen as an “incubator” for the company.
“It’s really pulling people in and showing them what we do,” Moscatello said. “We’re making some good, good friends, and I think it’s only going to grow.”
Encouraging that is the eye appeal and versatility of the suite. The rectangular, island-style unit, measuring about 5 feet wide by 12 feet long, is outfitted to Moscatello’s specifications. The principal elements include three ovens clad with heat-retaining cast iron, a plancha grill for directly searing food, a French top, or solid cooking surface, with variable heating zones and six open burners.
The suite affords greater precision and control for his cuisine. “The French top is great for controlling sauces and fitting a lot of sauce pots,” Moscatello said. “When it’s cranked to 850 degrees Fahrenheit in the center and 350 degrees Fahrenheit on the sides, the surrounding areas stay consistently warm for holding cooked meats.”
Although some suite designs replace open burners with solid cooking tops, Moscatello believes it is important to have both.
“I like to have open flames for making my compotes and quick sautés,” he said.
He also raves about the plancha.
“It’s the best thing in the world,” he said. “We do everything on it, from searing our scallops to cooking our crispy-skin bass to roasting our green beans with garlic.”
Already, the suite has come in handy for designing the menu of the soon-to-open Potenza. Moscatello notes that there is much more freedom for menu making at Zola Wine & Kitchen than there would be in one of the company’s busy, crowded working kitchens. In addition to being the test kitchen for new food items, the place will also be an equipment-proving ground.
“This is where we will try out the thermal circulators, the Anti-Griddles, the Pacojets,” said Moscatello, ticking off a litany of trendy kitchen tools.
The fact that the cooks work around all four sides of an island suite encourages smoother flow and better sight lines for cooking classes as well as production.
“I can really control what goes on because I’m not running back and forth on a long line,” Moscatello said. “I can see what people are doing on the plancha while I’m working with someone on the burners, and vice versa.”