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Facility Design: Knife & Fork in Atlantic City, N.J.

A beloved restaurant gets a major makeover. 

An open kitchen allows customers to see production in this compact, yet efficient space, which contains a wood-burning charcoal grill, sauté ranges, fryers and other equipment that staff employ to keep the food quality among the highest in this growing, ocean-front city. The expansion of the full-service bar provides an added attraction. 

Constructed in 1912 as a popular men’s club, the original Knife & Fork Inn encountered hard times during Prohibition. In 1927, the Latz family bought the operation, eventually transforming it into one of the city’s finest dining restaurants. Since then, generations of residents and tourists have gravitated to the Knife & Fork, introducing their children and grandchildren to an upscale, fine-dining experience in Atlantic City, N.J. In January 2005, Frank Dougherty purchased the restaurant. After an extensive restoration that involved gutting the interior and replacing systems for heating, air conditioning, electrical and plumbing, the four-story establishment reopened under the same name in July 2005.

“We also replaced the roof, then put the red clay tiles back on to maintain the historic feature of the restaurant’s exterior,” Dougherty explains. Along with his mother, Dougherty also owns and operates Dock’s Oyster House, a seafood restaurant located about 15 blocks from the Knife & Fork, which was founded by his great grandfather in 1897. “Throughout Knife & Fork, we wanted to keep as much of the original charm of the old structure and interior features as we could so people who had grown up coming to the restaurant would want to come back to the place they had known as kids. The biggest compliment we receive is when people come in who grew up eating at the restaurant and say they can’t tell the difference between the new and old restaurant. At the same time, we wanted to modernize it to attract new generations."

Among the facets of the restaurant that were kept the same or replaced to look similar to the original features were the leaded and glass-etched windows, the arched ceiling, the original brass entrance door and the Knife & Fork emblem.

New features include a sparkling, rather minimalistic kitchen designed with stainless steel, quarry-tile floors and white resin walls, which customers can see from the main-floor dining room. “Though the original kitchen was visible to customers, the new version is much more of a functional 'show’ kitchen,” says John Egnor, principal of JEM Associates and the restaurant’s kitchen designer and consultant. Egnor has a special, emotional attachment to the restaurant. “As a native of Atlantic City, I was taken to the restaurant as a kid and would take dates here when I was older,” he says. “I took my kids here when they were young and still take the family and guests here now.”

The kitchen is in the same position as it was in the original restaurant, Egnor explains. The main difference is that the kitchen is now equipped with contemporary equipment, including two chef ’s counters that contribute to its efficiency and staff productivity. Another major change is the addition of several pieces of cooking equipment and an 18-foot hood positioned over the hot cookline, which replaced an eight-foot hood. The wood- and charcoal-burning grill requires a separate hood.

An additional key feature is a new full-service bar designed in mahogany and positioned under a tin ceiling. “We took out 50 dining room seats to install a 29-foot-long bar with 27 seats,” Dougherty says. “In order to expand the bar, we built a new vestibule in the building and moved the entrance from the side to the front.” When the Latz family took over the space in the 1920s, they eliminated the bar, thinking Prohibition would last. When the law was rescinded, however, they added a small bar in what was the foyer of the original design, in keeping with Mrs. Latz’s request. Today, Dougherty says, many customers come to the restaurant exclusively for drinks and appetizers in the bar, which also contains two plasma televisions and an intimate lounge.

When vendors deliver produce and beer to the restaurant, staff take these items downstairs to respective walk-in coolers. “Storage space is minimal, yet sufficient,” Egnor says. “Frank wants frequent, if not daily deliveries so all products are fresh.” Staff use three worktables to prepare garde manger that is taken upstairs for final production as needed. Also in this lower-level kitchen is a slicer for cutting prosciutto for the cheese plate, and tomatoes and carrots for appetizers and salads. A countertop mixer blends salad dressings and items for desserts, such as the walnut crust for the cheesecake and lemon curd filling for the lemon pie. A salad spinner aids in production, while hand mixers help in the preparation of soups and salad dressings. Staff can wash pots right there in a three-compartment sink. Staff take garde manger up the staircase to the main-floor kitchen.

In fact, staff bring all food and supplies up and down via stairs in the absence of elevators. Food prepared downstairs is placed into two double-door reach-in refrigerators and undercounter refrigerators on the chef ’s counters at the cold and hot line. The cold prep chef ’s counter also includes a utility sink, a refrigerated cold rail, an ice cream freezer with a dipper well, and two-tier shelving for cold plates. Staff prepare desserts, such as profiteroles and bananas foster, on one side and use a convection/microwave oven to reheat menu items such as blueberry tarts and banana burritos, as well as specialty breads for the cheese platter. On the other side of the cold prep station, staff prepare salads, such as mixed greens with pomegranate vinaigrette, goat cheese and spiced pumpkin seeds, and cold appetizers such as shrimp cocktail and tuna tartar served with waffle chips and tomato concasse. Staff also cut vegetables here as needed.

“We placed a lot of equipment in a small space,” Egnor says. “The kitchen depth is only 10 feet. We used an ‘L’-shaped chef ’scounter to enable staff to pick up food at the end of the line vs. the front of the line. There’s a center area where staff pick up cold and hot dishes from areas that face one another. We couldn’t design deep so we went sideways.

“We were able to enhance the staff ’s work environment by positioning the cooking and cold pantry line to minimize the amount of distance traveled by servers and cooks,” Egnor continues. “In addition, the cold line is customized so each area has its own compartmentalized function. This way, staff have access to raw seafood while avoiding cross-contamination.”

On the short part of the “L”-shaped chef ’s line on the hot cookline sits a heated pass-through cabinet, two-tier shelving with heat lamps, a pick-up window and plating area. On the longer part of the “L,” a three-bin steam table with various sized containers holds such items as Kobe beef burgers, three different sauces, potatoes au gratin and garnishes such as brocolini for steak plates, clarified butter for lobster tails, and soup, such as corn and crab chowder and roasted French onion.

Further down is a prep sink and main sauté area, containing eight burners and a griddle. On the ranges, staff make crab meat for filet oscar, five-spiced tuna, sauté flounder with crabmeat, crab chowder, pan-seared halibut and red snapper, and king salmon. Staff also prepare pan-roasted veal shops, cider-cured prime pork chops and vegetable dishes such as spinach with shaved parmesan on the ranges, as well. The adjacent hot griddle keeps ingredients, such as clarified butter, warm. An overhead salamander melts cheese on soups.

In the two fryers, staff sizzle pommes soufflé and other side dishes and appetizers such as beer-battered string beans, lobster spring roll, calamari, onion rings and french-fried beet chips. Fryers also cook fish and chips.

At the end of the station, a steamer heats vegetables and lobsters. For lobster Thermidore, for example, staff steam lobsters in the steamer, remove the meat, cook it on the range with cream and mushrooms, and place it back into the lobster shell and top with hollandaise. The salamander browns it lightly.

Also on the line is a wood- and/or charcoal-burning grill for meats and fish. Steaks are the restaurant’s specialty, so staff take great care to cook prime sirloin, rib-eye filet, prime porterhouse and filet mignon to Dougherty’s high standards of perfection. “We use hardwood charcoal because this allows us to cook the meat on natural fire,” Dougherty says. “I’ve never found a piece of equipment that can put out as much heat as a natural fire. This gives distinctive flavor. In addition, using this preparation, we can crust a steak and have grill marks, as well.”

“We customized the hoods so the exhaust goes back through a triple brick wall, rather than up through the top,” Egnor says. “We only had a 9' 6” ceiling height and we had to have enough clearance. We made this decision based on aesthetics and cost. But, if a building is put in next to the restaurant, we’ll have to redo the system.”

Dishwashing and warewashing take place at one end of the kitchen. This area is adjacent to the stairway, which separates the dish- and warewashing from cold prep. “The stairway is narrow,” Dougherty says. “It’s barely wide enough for carrying a serving tray. You need a mirror to look to because two people can’t pass at once. But, the flow is nice. Staff bring dirty dishes down the stairs and go one way. Prepared food comes from the other side of the kitchen and is then taken up the stairs.”

Potwashing, on the other hand, is on the right side of the cooking line. “We integrated it here, so we could consolidate the amount of space needed for this function,” Egnor says.

Though known for its food and service, the Knife & Fork boasts an extensive wine selection. As customers walk into the restaurant, they see nearly 1,000 bottles of wine kept 58 °F. under the staircase. The bar stores wine, as well. The majority of wine, about 10,000 bottles, is kept on the third floor in a glass-enclosed, temperature-controlled wine storage area. “The storage room has insulated walls and an evaporator coil to keep it at a cold temperature,” Egnor says.

As one might expect in a historic restaurant, customers often have favorite dining venues. Some prefer the 40-seat hearth room on the main floor, which looks into the kitchen, and includes mahogany wainscoting, historic photos of Knife & Fork customers and staff and the building’s original 1912 fireplace. Some customers prefer the 20-seat terrace at the end of the bar. Others gravitate to the 65-seat dining room on the second floor, enjoying the original, though now restored, vaulted stone ceiling, leaded and glass-etched windows, rich fabrics, scarlet walls and a new Roaring’20s mural. Fourteen seats are available in the private dining room and 24 seats in the ladies dining room.

No longer just for ladies, this room features luxurious fabrics, pendant lights and ocean views. On the third floor, up to 30 seats are set up for banquets in the wine room, featuring hardwood floors, exposed brick and ocean views. No doubt delivering upscale menu selection to customers dining on three floors via staircases challenges the Knife & Fork staff. “We’re all accustomed to the conditions,” Dougherty says, admitting the staff must be in top physical condition to work in this restaurant.

“The kitchen itself is a good example of how a good operator can produce a great product in a small space,” Egnor adds. Positioning equipment so it operates efficiently allows maximum staff productivity and a historic restaurant to keep its charm while satisfying customers’ contemporary preferences.

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