What is in this article?:
- Bret Thorn, Nancy Kruse: What restaurant chains can learn from chef's tables
- Entertainment as important as food
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 ’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?”