Known for their “wow” factor and custom designs, celebrity-chef-driven designs pose their own set of challenges. By taking a team-first approach and remaining true to the menu and desired brand experience, foodservice designers can overcome these challenges and produce jaw-dropping results. Designer Ken Schwartz of SSA shares his experiences in this article.

Working on big name celebrity chef restaurants comes with glamour and its own unique set of challenges.

We caught up with Ken Schwartz, president and CEO at SSA, who talked about some of his projects, working with Michael Mina and other acclaimed chefs.

Most recently, Schwartz has been working with Mina, a longtime client, on Michael Mina’s Tailgate, a members-only diner’s club, and Bourbon Steak & Pub at San Francisco’s Levi’s Stadium, which will be home to the NFL’s 49ers. Also in San Francisco, Mina opened Pabu and the adjacent The Ramen Bar in San Francisco. In addition, Schwartz is working with Scott Conant, owner of the successful Scarpetta in New York and Las Vegas and host of the Food Network show “24 Hour Restaurant Battle.” Over the last 15 years, he’s also worked on a variety of branded casino and Hard Rock projects throughout the world, including Rio, Brussels and Florence.

“Wow” Factor

When it comes to working on these celebrity chef projects, “you have to think outside just the kitchen and figure out how to create that ‘wow’ factor,” says Schwartz. “We have to design as much for the client as we do the guest.” From glitz to glamour these places have it all in terms of the food, ambiance and experience.

Custom Designs

For the Tailgate restaurant, Schwartz worked with Mina and his team to design a two-story rotisserie with that one-of-a-kind appeal and functionality to handle high volumes without sacrificing quality.

Many projects have interior designers but with more kitchens out front, operators look for equipment with aesthetics and functionality. He once designed an $84,000 Brazilian-style broiler/rotisserie for a casino, which used four of those pieces. To execute these designs, Schwartz will reach out to his resources, including custom fabricators and even artists in some cases.

Smells Like Team Spirit

Often, chef-driven restaurants, casinos and other high-glamour projects will involve a team of professionals, including foodservice designers, interior designers, architects, chefs, food and beverage directors, operations directors and others.

“We’ll think of general ideas from 50,000 feet and then present those concepts to the entire design team to work through,” says Schwartz. In the case of Tailgate and Bourbon Steak & Pub, Mina had the concept but flushed out more details and ideas with Schwartz and his team. Sometimes, chefs will call Schwartz at all times of the day when traveling to run ideas past him to determine feasibility and functionality.

“It’s a learning experience for both sides,” says Schwartz. “We feel like we bring years of knowledge to the table that allows us to share things the operations team might not have thought of, but often they’ll open us up to new ideas and suggestions.”

Speed and Efficiency

Of course, high-profile projects experience many of the same challenges as other, less glamorous projects, including tight budgets, space constraints and more. But these high-end projects tend to operate on a faster track in terms of deadline. Often, chefs will time openings with events, holidays or specific times of the year; in the case of Mina’s Levi’s Stadium restaurants, the team has been focused on finishing the project even before the NFL schedule kicks off for some special events.

“Time is of the essence,” says Schwartz, who must work quickly and efficiently with the entire team through the entire project timeline, from concept development to construction, installation and final run-throughs. Often, there are weekly phone calls and plenty of emails in between. “These projects require that time of devoted attention to make sure everything stays on track,” he says.

Menu and Construction Management

When it comes to celebrity chef projects in particular, flexibility in the kitchen design and equipment is important. “For some restaurants, the menu remains fairly static, but oftentimes, the celebrity chef restaurants will want the option to make changes down the line. Equipment packages must remain basic but versatile enough to accommodate. Schwartz finds he’s more involved in the construction phase to make sure everything meets everyone’s needs. 

Tabletop items are also hugely important. “Even just a basic burger must be presented in the most high-level way possible,” says Schwartz.

Though similar to other high-end projects like casinos and large-scale chains, celebrity chef restaurants and other branded concepts have to remain true to just that: the brand. That means Schwartz needs to do the same — with his own company and approach.