Open restaurant kitchens can improve meal quality

Open kitchens might be a result of a trend toward smaller, more casual restaurants. They're also a bit louder, sometimes downright chaotic, and the cooking itself is part of the ambience. A surprising side benefit of the design might be that the food is better.

When chefs could see their customers, diners scored meals higher

The open kitchen is increasingly common in the restaurant industry. It might be a result of a trend toward smaller, more casual restaurants. They're also a bit louder, sometimes downright chaotic, and the cooking itself is part of the ambience.

But a surprising side benefit of the open kitchen design is that the food may be better. 

It all comes down to the fact that kitchen workers can see their customers, said Ryan Buell, a professor at the Harvard Business School.

"This transparency, allowing customers to see the chef and allowing chefs to see customers ... doesn't just yield an aesthetic benefit for the customer," he explained. "It actually meaningfully alters the way the chef experiences their job, and in turn, the effort they are willing to exert and quality of the product and the experience of the customer."   

Buell is an expert in something called operational transparency. Among other things, he studies ways to make behind-the-scenes work more visible.

In the case of restaurants with open kitchens, that transparency has been happening for years. But Buell set out to measure whether food quality actually improves if chefs can see their customers. 

He experimented in a Harvard dining hall, which wasn't designed to allow kitchen staff to see the people they were cooking for. Buell set up iPads and video conferencing software so only the chef could see the customers.

"The satisfaction of the customers went up 10 per cent," Buell said. "So nothing was different for the customer, but all of a sudden they said the food tasted better."

Ryan Buell said quality was perceived to be even higher when both sides could see one another. 

From a customer's perspective, Buell said a view of the chef provides a bit of entertainment, quality assurance and a sense of the effort that goes into a meal.

Buell added allowing the people doing the cooking to see customers provides a whole other benefit. "For the chefs, when they could see their customers they felt more appreciated. When they felt appreciated, they were willing to exert more effort and they were more satisfied with their jobs."

And Buell said it's not just about accountability or a sense that workers might feel obligated to perform better because they're being watched. That might be part of it, but he says his research shows a feeling of being appreciated is a much stronger driver of quality.