Bret Thorn, Nancy Kruse: What restaurant chains can learn from chef's tables

Bret Thorn, Nancy Kruse: What restaurant chains can learn from chef's tables

In a monthly series, menu trend analyst Nancy Kruse and NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn debate current trends in the restaurant industry. For this installment, they ponder whether or not restaurant chains could learn from high-end kitchen counters or chef’s tables.

NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn shares his thoughts on high-end kitchen counters.

Nancy, last Sunday I spent five hours perched on a stool at a five-seat counter in a 26-seat room hidden behind a sliding door in back of a bar in Brooklyn. The stool was slanted downward slightly, which is probably okay if you’re a normal-sized person, but being the short, chubby guy that I am, I had to work to keep myself from sliding off.

For five hours, Nancy.

And that was a coveted seat — I was sitting right in front of the kitchen, watching the chefs earnestly slice marble-sized cucumbers, sear portions of duck breast, place them on streaks of salted plum purée and garnish them with shaved beets and duck hearts.

The food ranged from good to great, and had the meal lasted for two hours instead of five and consisted of four or five courses instead of 19, I would have thoroughly enjoyed it, although I did wonder what was up with that bar stool.

These kitchen counters, also known as chef’s tables, are all the rage at the high end of fine dining, and I wrote about one iteration of them back in May. I wrote about the special seats in otherwise casual restaurants where chefs who have largely abandoned the fine-dining world for more populist (and populous, and profitable) pastures, get to display their high-end chops to those few customers who are in the mood for that kind of experience.

But other restaurants, such as Momofuku Ko in New York City and The Catbird Seat in Nashville, are all kitchen counter (or virtually so — The Catbird Seat does have a couple of banquettes). The chefs are on the stage, and guests sit and watch as chefs slice and sauté and whip and plate their guests’ food.

I suppose it’s kind of like Benihana, but with much more esoteric food. And these fine-dining chefs aren’t the performers that Benihana’s knife flippers are. They’re focused on the food and really don’t have time to chat, let alone perform.

These restaurants are also considerably more expensive than Benihana: Dinner for two at The Catbird Seat, with a standard beverage pairing, will set you back nearly $400, including tax and a 20-percent tip. And that’s a steal compared to places like the Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare in Brooklyn, N.Y., where the 20-plus-course meal is $255 per person, excluding tax and tip. At Masa in New York, a couple can easily spend $1,200. For those prices, the chefs cook whatever they like. Substitutions are frowned upon or refused outright. If you have a dietary restriction, you’d be better off eating somewhere else.

I’d suggest that you check one of these places out, as long as you don’t plan on charging Nation’s Restaurant News for it, but you probably can’t get in. Reservations are devilishly difficult to score at these restaurants, and if you do manage to book a seat at the counter and fail to show up, you’ll be charged a cancellation fee.

As overall restaurant traffic remains stagnant and family-dining and casual-dining restaurants continue to take a beating while going out of their way to cater to their guests’ every whim, these elite restaurants are turning guests away.

Of course, their audience is different — fewer in number and with more disposable income — but they’re still part of the growing number of Americans who see food at least in part as entertainment.

What do you think, Nancy? Is there something more mainstream restaurants can learn from these culinary theaters? Would they benefit from making the dining experience into more of a show? Is it even possible to say to their guests something like, “I understand that you don’t like mushrooms, but why don’t you try them this one time, just for me?”

Entertainment as important as food

The following is Kruse Company president Nancy Kruse’s response to NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn’s thoughts on whether high-end kitchen counters could translate to mainstream dining.

Bret, I am truly impressed by your culinary stamina. I mean, five hours of discomfort and 19 courses constitute a real endurance test and deserves some sort of medal — followed by a long nap. But I bet that if you took your ringside view of the kitchen out of the equation, the event would have been considerably less pleasant and seemed much longer.

The experience that you’re describing isn’t anything new. It’s really a benign form of the old Roman axiom of bread and circuses, right?

Restaurant-goers want a combination of sustenance and entertainment when they eat out, and operators have been providing both for a long time. It has been over a decade, for example, since super-chef Joël Robuchon opened his storied L’Atelier in Paris, where customers sit at a counter in the midst of the kitchen action. It was totally in tune with the zeitgeist and emblematic of the culinary revolution that made chefs into stars and put patrons in the thick of things.

Exhibition kitchens were all the rage for a while, a de rigueur design element in dining hot spots. Many mainstream chains attempted to jump on the bandwagon, too. Red Lobster and others dabbled with opening up parts of the kitchen and/or exposing some of the prep process, but it’s a risky move in a high-volume operation that must balance customer engagement with operational exigencies.

And there are limits to what most consumers actually want to see, as Phil Romano found out years ago when he hung sides of beef in the original Fuddruckers and elicited howls of protest. It was a gastronomic case of TMI — too much information — and a good object lesson. Most chains that still do exhibition cooking strictly limit the practice, as with the tortilla-making machine, dubbed El Machino, at Chevys Fresh Mex. It’s a signature of the chain, makes time pass while waiting for the food and underscores the freshness position. Above all, it’s clean and inoffensive.

But your experience raises a couple of other issues. This my-way-or-the-highway notion of forbidding substitutions may work for an expensive, chef-driven meal, but would be folly in mass-market chains where have-it-your-way is the rule. Customers expect some degree of customization; indeed, players in the burgeoning fast-casual pizza segment are building their businesses by putting patrons in charge from the crust up. Most casual-dining chains with set menus also allow choices; sometimes it’s prep method or side dish, often it’s dressing or sauce. Totally ceding control to the whims of the chef may work in very selected circumstances, but it is and will remain a total nonstarter in the market at large.

It’s actually your last question that I find most interesting. Sure, I think it’s possible to coax patrons to try something new, but I also think most restaurateurs could do a better job of it. One of the reasons shoppers love supermarket delis is because they can sample something before they buy. Indeed, product sampling is a standard promotion approach at retail grocery, yet most restaurateurs never give it a shot. Why don’t they offer tiny tastes of a new dish, either in the dining room or, better yet, in the lobby as patrons wait for their tables? It could induce trial, keep them interested and even gauge their reaction to new items.

Gosh, Bret, it seems as if we’ve covered the waterfront this time around. And it also seems like you’ve been covering some interesting ground yourself. Hidden locations behind sliding doors in the back of a bar? Wait a minute; is a secret password required? I’m impressed and think I may start hanging out with you more often.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary
Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta and a regular contributor to Nation’s Restaurant News. E-mail her at [email protected].

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