Operators from all foodservice segments now use expo kitchens — once the exclusive domain of fine-dining restaurants — to add some zest to customers' experience. Here we explore the evolution of this foodservice phenomenon and offer a few tips on how to make your expo kitchen a functional element of design.
That might be an old home-entertaining saw, but it's also a notion that chefs and concept developers from fast-casual to fine-dining operations increasingly take to heart. They bring diners "into" the kitchen with design-forward exposition kitchens and dining room configurations that break down almost all conventional barriers between the front and back of the house.
And why not? In this age of celebrity chefs and Food Network fanatics, putting the kitchen on display adds big entertainment value to the dining experience. While open kitchens aren't new — operations from lunch counters, sushi bars and diners to five-star restaurants have incorporated variations on the theme for years — a new energy surrounds them. And that energy is on display in almost every segment of the foodservice industry.
Colleges and universities ditched old straight-line cafeteria serving models to incorporate multiple display-cooking stations where staff and guest chefs interact with students and whip up customized, restaurant-quality meals. Business-and-industry foodservice is doing likewise. Microsoft's campus in Redmond, Wash., for example, was recently renovated to include a chef's table expo cooking station among other made-to-order concepts.
Chipotle Mexican Grill defined the fast-casual restaurant space with its open kitchens and ingredients-out-front fresh meal assembly. That same model now drives the most robust growth in the industry, with fast-casual concepts from Italian street food to Korean and "better burgers" giving customers full view into their kitchens and prep procedures and, in the process, adding sizzle to the experience.
Even QSRs and takeout concepts are rolling out new prototypes with refreshed open-kitchen designs. Domino's and Papa Murphy's recently unveiled theater-style designs that put the kitchen front and center. In December, White Castle celebrated the grand reopening of a unit near Columbus, Ohio. The refresh of the 48-seat operation maintains front-counter seating and incorporates a new open kitchen design that allows guests to watch their orders being made from start to finish.
"The new kitchen provides us a better line of sight to our customers and what we feel will provide for a more streamlined operation," says White Castle vice president Jamie Richardson. He says the company is evaluating and fine-tuning the new design and will incorporate lessons learned as it builds new stores and remodels existing units.
Hip, casual independents like Girl & the Goat in Chicago and OX in Portland tout live-fire cooking, making large wood-burning ovens and grills centerpieces not just of their kitchens but of their dining rooms. Says Stephanie Izard, chef-owner at Girl & the Goat, "We wanted the kitchen to be part of the décor, rather than just a functional part of the space. I wanted it to look 'badass.' The wood-fired oven is one of the first things you notice when walking in. That and the grill truly make the line what it is. The campfire smell gets your appetite going, and there's no better way to impart awesome flavors than with wood cooking."
OX goes a step further, bringing its Argentinian-style hand-cranked wood-fired grill right into the dining room. Drawn like moths to a flame, customers happily endure two-hour waits to enjoy the warm atmosphere, open-flame grilled meats and seafood, and, for those lucky enough to snag seats near the grill, a chance to chat with the chefs while they work. Underscoring the importance of just that type of interaction, OX co-owner George Denton noted in an Oregonian report naming OX its 2013 Restaurant of the Year, "Nobody works the grill who can't talk to people." Expo kitchens aren't just a casual phenomenon either. Grace, a Chicago restaurant with two Michelin stars that opened in late 2012, artfully ties the open-kitchen concept into a quiet, elegant fine-dining experience. Enclosed on two sides by thick glass walls, it's hushed and lab-like, giving diners the ability to watch chef-owner Curtis Duffy and his staff artfully create Grace's 13-course haute cuisine menus. "It's not a traditional open kitchen, but it offers an open view of the kitchen," says Christopher Lawton, of Lawton + Stanley Architects, the firm that designed the space. "It's incredibly interesting and a huge part of the experience, but the idea was not to have people feel like they're right in the middle of the kitchen or have it too exposed."
In a more intimate take on a fine-dining expo kitchen, chef Cesar Ramirez serves 20-plus-course tasting menus to just 18 guests 4 nights a week at Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare, a specialty grocery store and restaurant hybrid awarded 3 Michelin stars. Each patron at the Brooklyn, N.Y., venue pays a fixed price (currently $255 plus a 20 percent service fee) for a seat at the horseshoe-shaped counter around the line where Ramirez and his assistants cook, plate and finish dishes, as well as educate and entertain.
"Consumers today have a voracious appetite for learning about food and the whole restaurant experience, for getting close to what the chefs are doing," says Ed Doyle, president of RealFood Consulting, with offices in Boston, New York and San Francisco. "The chef is the celebrity. Anything the consumer can do to get closer is proving popular, whether it's a tasting counter wrapped around the kitchen, a more traditional exposition kitchen along a wall or seamless experiences where the chefs really bring the kitchen out into the dining room."
Tom Ricca, principal at Denver-based Ricca Newmark Design, agrees, saying very few projects today don't have at least some part of the kitchen on display. Transparency, Ricca adds, drives the trend. "Today's dining public is enthralled with seeing where their food comes from, how it gets made and put together. It's a way of engaging all five senses in the dining experience. Putting that on stage as part of the experience has growing appeal and part of it is designing spaces in which the chefs don't just cook but also interact with diners."
Chefs continue to drive this trend as much as their customers, says Bryan Voltaggio, executive chef and owner of three restaurants in Fredericksburg, Md., and one in Washington, D.C. A finalist on Bravo TV's "Top Chef" series, Voltaggio incorporated variations on open kitchens in each of his concepts, Volt, Lunchbox, Family Meal and Range.
"The thought process in building these kitchens is that I want to see the reactions of the guests, I want to be a part of their experience and experience it with them," he says. "At Volt, there are 30 seats that are literally in my kitchen. It used to be that you didn't want to see the back of the house. The kitchen staff was like 'the help' — not really respected. That's not the case anymore. Now being a chef is a well-regarded profession, and there's a lot of pride in it. That's also fueling the trend toward more and more thoughtfully designed open kitchens."