Open kitchens bring the theatre to dining, but maybe it's a show you don't need to see
And there was that time a customer declared an allergy to a pasta shape ...
I want to use a four-letter word that begins with F …. and it sure isn't food.
Let me explain.
I cook for a living, and sometimes I want to — need to — swear.
In an open kitchen, I can't do that.
As a chef, I feel confident in saying that world of food and the landscape of restaurants have changed. Chefs used to be an invisible force. Tucked away in restaurants and hotels, you used to feel their presence, but you didn't really hear from them. They were the invisible backbone controlling the chaos from the shadows.
Lately, people have become fascinated with food, where it comes from, how it's made, and that curiosity is altering the layout of restaurants — and the role of chefs.
I blame Netflix. Shows like Chef's Table glorify the culinary world.
Being a chef does not mean that orchestra music will swell while you dice an onion. I love this industry, but the reality is cold cement floors and $14 an hour.
The layout of kitchens is also being affected by this new fascination.
It's not just dining; it's part of the action
The most drastic example of this is the "open kitchen" concept. Customers want to feel like they're part of the action; they want to hear the sizzle and even feel the heat.
Open kitchens, then, are dinner and a show. However, for chefs, there are almost as many drawbacks.
But let's discuss the pros first.
The most obvious one is that you are not going to get salmonella in an open kitchen.
Everything is on display, so the staff are working as neatly as possible. This is a plus for chefs and customers alike. Customers know they are safe, and chefs perform better in a clean space.
Another obvious plus is that mistakes can be corrected with ease. If I'm working the line, I can see if someone is grimacing. My manager can go over and chat and discover that I under-seasoned something.
Not a big deal. It happens. I want you to leave happy, so I'll correct the error and send over a free dessert. That transparency works to everyone's advantage.
The open kitchen has another big advantage: I get to receive the compliments in person. Someone telling me that it's the best meal they've had in recent memory?
Oh, I can live on that for a month.
I didn't know you could be allergic to a shape
A major con is that chefs have to grin through the most insane requests.
I had someone once order a bread salad — with no bread.
Look, I respect your gluten intolerance, or your celiac disease. I don't want anyone to get sick, but there were four other delicious salads on the menu. They all featured local vegetables grown from nearby organic farms. None of these salads contained bread.
For the love of God, please don't make me create an abomination.
Another time, a customer informed me that they were allergic to penne. I struggled to maintain my composure because, well, penne is the shape of the pasta.
In a normal working environment, I could openly gripe. In an open kitchen, I have to smile and nod while my left eyebrow twitches due to suppressed rage. Every time a chef has to deal with requests like these, it increases their odds of having a heart attack later.
While caring about food is a good thing, I sometimes wonder if people are starting to veer toward the obsessive.
Likewise, in an open kitchen, I can't swear if I accidentally burn or cut myself. Instead, I have to politely excuse myself and clean the injury. Then, maybe, I take a quick walk (not too slow because the chits are piling up on the line), throw a rock into a ditch and return to work
So, are open kitchens a positive or negative thing? Probably both.
They are a symbol that people are concerned about food in a way that they haven't been before and while caring about food is a good thing, I sometimes wonder if people are starting to veer toward the obsessive.
I was at a coffee shop recently, and overheard two ladies discussing what I assumed were their newborns, but after half an hour I realized they were comparing their sourdough starters.
Are they weird or am I weird? Or is food getting weird?
Are we through the looking glass?
I want people to care about food. I also want to say that other F word when I've burnt my hand. The open kitchen only appeals to one of these desires.
Speaking of delicious food …
Andie Bulman prepared a series of short videos for CBC a couple of years ago, on simple, three-ingredient appetizers you can make for holiday parties. One of them is below; click here to see the series.