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A Glance at Two Back-of-the-House Spaces

While FE&S’ sister pub restaurant development + design magazine led a group of designers and architects around trendy, front-of-the-house spaces at Chicago restaurants June 11, two experts offered insights on the related back-of-the-house areas. Beth Kuczera, president of Equipment Dynamics Inc., provided an insider’s perspective of the kitchen design at Gibsons Italia; and Chef Andrew Zimmerman led us on a back-of-the-house tour of Proxi.

In the Kitchen at Gibsons Italia

G4maindiningatGibsonsItaliaThe main dining area at Gibsons Italia.The latest outpost of the Gibsons Restaurant Group, the three-level, Italian steakhouse dubbed Gibson Italia sits in a brand-new building. It features a fully equipped, bustling bar on the second floor, a luxurious dining room on the third floor and a rooftop lounge, all with clear views of the Chicago River and the surrounding bridges and skyscrapers. The spacious front of the house doles out polish, elegance and glamour.

When it came time to define the back-of-the-house space, the unique shape of building presented some kitchen design challenges.

As the project’s kitchen designer, Equipment Dynamics’ Kuczera scraped together every inch of space possible. “There is not a straight wall in the plan!” she said, noting that space was built over a parking ramp.  The kitchen format at Gibsons Italia divides the space into two fully functioning and efficient operations to serve the busy bar on the second floor and the dining room on the third.

In the second-floor bar kitchen, the line sits toward the back left. The flow enables servers to walk in, make their way the through a service station, make a U-turn by the line and exit through a separate door. The equipment package focuses on maximum efficiencies and flexible items to outfit the uniquely shaped small kitchen spaces. It includes a combi oven; steak upright broiler; fryer; range; pasta cooker; and prep equipment for homemade pastas and sauces includes a blast chiller and tilt brazier. A salumeria outside and around the corner of the bar and lounge area will open in the near future to offer a fast-casual format.

The third-floor dining room kitchen creates more of an L-shape with the small expo/plating/pickup line set out in the middle of the space with heat lamps overhead. Several double upright broilers here support the restaurant’s signature steaks. The hot line also includes a pasta cooker and burners, fryer and steamer. There is also a pantry for fresh seafood, salads, salumi and dessert stations, plus another prep area and separate refrigeration for butchering and fish. Walk-in coolers are set around the corner toward the back doors. G2gibsonskitchenA direct view of the thrid floor kitchen with a centrally located plating and pickup line.

G1gibsonsservicebarA peek at the full-service beverage/bar station housed inside the third floor kitchen.Perhaps the most unique aspect of this kitchen is the fully stocked and equipped beverage service bar located inside the space that takes up the whole right wall. A bartender works full-time in this pocket bar making drinks for servers who slide in from the entrance door and slide out through the exit door without having to walk too close to the cookline. Because there's no bar on this level, the service bar allows staff to quickly make drinks without the need to run up and down flights of stairs.

Point-of-sale stations are tucked into the kitchen so staff can ring up items without getting too far into the frey of the kitchen or dining room.

G3retailatgibsonsThe soon-to-open salumeria at Gibsons Italia.Given the smaller, more unique kitchen spaces, building ample storage into the design was another challenge. One solution: a galley-style space sits directly over the parking lot ramp. Staff can access this storage area by weaving around back doors and stairwells like a maize. This storage space includes cage after locked cage of liquor bottles along with other dry storage, paper and cleaning supplies. A separate dry storage space sits off the bar kitchen.

In the Kitchen at Proxi

S1proxiThe first view as guests enter Proxi.It took nearly a decade for the brains behind the longtime, Chicago fine-dining institution Sepia to open their second, more polished casual restaurant, Proxi

Owner/manager Emmanuel Noni and co-owner and award-winning chef Andrew Zimmerman gave this project ample thought, eventually partnering with boutique design firm Meyer Davis in New York City to flush out the design for the 5,800-square-foot, 140-seat space.

Global street food was the inspiration for both the design and the menu at Proxi. The front of the house showcases polished, Havana-like, dome light fixtures, sleek black subway tiling, plentiful woodwork, black leather seating, various succulents and ferns throughout. Lightweight woven drapery cordons off a semi-private dining area on one end of the facility, while a prominent, curved bar sits at the other end near the entrance.

The design of the kitchen — essentially a narrow line at the one end of the restaurant with a cutout opening and chef’s counter seating in front — supports the refined street food menu with the restaurant’s wood-fired grill serving as the focal point. Staff access the pickup line on the other side of the kitchen through a window. Zimmerman often picks up plates here to serve guests at counter seats. He also often finishes menu items in this space.S2chefZproxiAndrew Zimmerman at the chef’s counter space; the open window behind him allows access to the kitchen.

Chef Zimmerman worked closely with the manufacturer of the wood-fired grill to design the piece so it would be large enough to handle what and how much he wanted to cook, but also compact enough to fit into a tight space. “You should have seen my original drawings — I had to scale back the size quite a bit,” he said. Wood-fired cooking is a staple in many countries around the world so Zimmerman knew he wanted this cooking medium for his globally influenced menu.

Zimmerman gets creative with the wood-fired unit, using the dual wheels/levers to wheel each cooking grate up or down depending on the heat he desires for a dish. Sometimes it’s a quick sear of a piece of meat or a slower roast of a fish or vegetable.

Zimmerman also maximizes the top of the grill by setting vegetables directly into the ash below to add more smokiness to dishes. Examples of the chef using this technique include pumpkins for smoked pumpkin walnut tahini and even garlic, chiles and onions. He’ll even take leftover vegetable scraps and dehydrate them by slow-smoking the items in off-heat areas of the unit.

Zimmerman prefers wood-fired cooking because it forces culinary professionals to think and remain present. “The wood can flare up at any time or need more stoking, so you constantly have to work to maintain the temperature you’re looking for,” he adds.

Proxi goes through a pallet of wood per week. The restaurant stores the extra logs beneath the wood-fired grill. S3proxigrillwithwoodProxi’s wood-fired unit was built to chef Andrew Zimmerman’s specs; he designed the piece to accommodate what he wanted to cook while sized for a tight space.

A six-burner range sits next to the wood-fired grill, along with a small fryer and ample work space.

While front-of-the-house design remains of utmost importance these days as diners seek more enhanced experiences, the kitchen remains the backbone of these spaces. It is the workhorse of the chef and restaurateurs’ vision. Efficienct, multi-use equipment and a little creativity can create functional, smaller spaces.