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NRN 50: Be our guest

Visiting chefs, bartenders can generate attention that boosts traffic, sales

When Los Angeles restaurateur Bill Chait opened the temporary Test Kitchen restaurant last year, offering a revolving line-up of guest chefs, he had no idea the concept would take on a life of its own.

Chait’s goal was to make productive use of a restaurant space after one of his concepts closed and another was being developed. Rather than leave it empty during the interim, Chait invited guest chefs and bartenders in to take over the space for limited engagements.

In the end, Test Kitchen was only “marginally profitable,” Chait said. But Los Angeles diners loved it.

Test Kitchen closed in December, as planned, after only about four months, leaving customers clamoring for more. Chait sees the use of guest chefs and bartenders as an opportunity for restaurateurs who want to create a bit of excitement and generate traffic:

How was Test Kitchen different from a pop up?

A lot of these pop ups are done in spaces that are sub par. It’s one thing to be working in a real restaurant kitchen and quite another to be working in an art gallery or something like that. Test Kitchen was a program of rotating chefs in a restaurant setting and, whether they want to call themselves guests or temporary, we were taking what effectively was the most variable menu route we could take. It created interest.

Why is the notion of a guest chef or bartender attractive?

It’s a vehicle that will enliven the restaurant. It stimulates traffic.

Are there other examples of guest chefing you’ve seen in Los Angeles?

The guy who probably was the most influential in my experience was [the late] Mauro Vincenti, who owned the Rex il Ristorante downtown. In the 1980s he opened a bistro called Fennel, and he had a lineup of five French chefs with four or five Michelin stars among them — major names — and they’d rotate through the kitchen during the year. That exercise was the most adventurous of rotating conditions. They would do eight- or nine-week stints and leave their restaurants and come over. It was really exciting and way ahead of its time. Vincenti also used to do guest chef events at Rex, like one dinner with the major female chefs of Italy. He was the granddaddy of doing those highly visible, famous events.

What worked about the events?

They were a great marketing tool. His strategy was to create new angles for publicity, which is particularly important if you have a mature restaurant, like he did. And he was downtown at a time when downtown was horrible. He had to create events to drive people to come there.

Is guest chefing becoming more popular again?

From what I can see, which is completely anecdotal, it’s on the upswing, but it’s ebb and flow. You can use social media now to really drive it. We had a group of chefs come to Test Kitchen from Baja, California — like Javier Plascencia, a really distinctive chef who owns five or six restaurants there, but he’s not really known here. He cooked for four or five nights, and I was really surprised at the response. There was this outreach through social media that was so huge the regular media came in to write about it after the fact.

What are your plans for the Test Kitchen space?

Upstairs we are opening Picca with chef Ricardo Zarate with Peruvian cuisine. Downstairs will be an Italian concept called Sotto with Steve Samson and Zach Pollack. Both will open in late February, early March.

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