Dr. Hudson

Food & Beverage

Open Kitchen Concept Spreads to Hotels

By Simon Hudson, Endowed Chair in Tourism and Hospitality, University of South Carolina

As TV chefs have morphed into global celebrities in the era of TV reality shows, a new restaurant trend in Open Kitchen Dining has emerged. Although the concept is not totally novel - after all, sushi bars have been doing it for years - it is the polished level of performance, highbrow cuisine and the proliferation of the trend that is more recent. All around the world, restaurants are putting their executive chefs on display, cooking part, or even all, of a meal right in front of diners who often sit at counters, watching every move. Cooking has become a reality show, adding an extra cachet to the restaurant experience. This ascendance of culinary scrutiny has gone hand in hand with a heightened interest in farm fresh ingredients and a general food fetishism which encompasses new fads in organic, gluten-free, lactose-free, vegan and vegetarian eating.

In today's 'Information Age', where transparency and information sharing inform how we live our lives, it is not surprising that restaurants have adopted a more visible approach to preparing food. It provides customers direct access to information about the establishment's hygiene, professionalism and culinary excellence. The model spans cuisines - from sandwiches to sushi - and categories - from fast food to fine dining.

The open kitchen trend seems to have been born in big cities such as New York, where chefs originally cooked within view of diners largely due to tight space constraints, but it has now spread worldwide, as far as Kenya, South Africa and Kobe Japan. Investors are renovating their restaurants to accommodate the model in a bid to offer their customers a unique experience. A good example is the 19-seat Kitchen Table, in London's Soho district, a restaurant that encourages full interaction with the chefs as they prepare the food. Awarded a Michelin star in 2014, Kitchen Table prepares, cooks and serves a daily changing 10-15 course menu of meticulously sourced and foraged British ingredients. Head Chef James Knappett, who has previously spent time in the kitchens at The Ledbury, noma and Per Se, says the idea of the restaurant came from wanting to do something completely different: 'In my previous jobs I was cooking for over 100 people a day in other people's restaurants and I went home not really knowing if anyone enjoyed their meal or what their experience was like. So I wanted to put the guests right in front of us and really find out what they are thinking about food. We can also interact with them, and tell them in detail where the ingredients come from.'

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Kitchen Table in London's Soho

Forward-thinking hotels are also experimenting with the open kitchen concept. Just outside San Diego, California, the Kitchen Counter experience at the Seasons Restaurant, Four Seasons is advertised as 'culinary magic'. 'Socializing and dining around the kitchen is the heart of Seasons Restaurant's operating philosophy,' says Demi Ortega, Regional Vice President and General Manager of Four Seasons. 'We wanted to create an environment where guests felt at home and could stay as long as they please. Here you'll know the chef's making the food and know that our team will take care of your personal needs and understand your discerning taste.' The culinary team at Seasons Restaurant prepares a five-course menu before a group of six diners, explaining about the choices of seasonal ingredients, cooking techniques and flavors. Rather than mere nourishment, the experience is touted as a 'thrilling culinary adventure' which can be customized to different tastes and dietary requirements. Appropriate wines are served with each course, adding a viticulture educational element. 'There is no official menu, the Kitchen Counter experience is seasonally driven and allows the chefs to share their personal story of what inspires them,' Ortega explains. 'It showcases the creative soul of the kitchen and give guests a sneak peak of what takes place, from the preparation, to the plating, to the story behind why the chef selected these ingredients, flavor combinations, and preparation style.'

With elegant décor and a relaxing ambiance, the Four Seasons Aviara is a rambling complex of topnotch apartments and villas with pools, spa, fitness center, salon and shop set on a lush, landscaped hillside near Carlsbad, around 45 minutes from downtown San Diego. But the signature culinary experiences at Seasons Restaurant - which also include private chef, chef's table and private dining room options - have put the Aviara's celebrity chefs at the forefront of San Diego's culinary scene. 'This kitchen is reminiscent of dining at your own home, providing comforts of your kitchen and enjoying the relaxed atmosphere of interacting with members of the family,' says Ortega.

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The open kitchen concept at the Four Seasons Aviara, San Diego

In fact, according to a study carried out by the Harvard Business School, better food would seem to be served in those restaurants where chefs and customers can see eye to eye. For two weeks, researchers experimented with four different scenarios in a cafeteria they had converted into an authentic laboratory. The results showed that when the cooks could see their patrons, the food quality got higher ratings. One reason for this, according to the researchers, is that contact - at least a visual one - with the end-users of their work is a strong stimulus for the chefs, who thus realize the importance of their job, feeling more appreciated, satisfied and motivated to do their utmost. This is definitely the case at Four Seasons Aviara: 'Kitchen and chef will be the heart of the personality of this place,' says Ortega. 'Everything from food on table, to the food to go, will speak about chef's passion and connection to food. Chef will come out and interact with the guests while the manager will be able to help select the right wine for the guests to buy for their dinner.'

Certainly, consumers are on board with the concept. Gathering data from 277 regular restaurant customers, a study by Alonso and O'Neill in 2010 explored the images of open restaurant kitchens. Overall, respondents' comments demonstrate their positive views about the open kitchen concept, including fun, entertainment, cleanliness, trust, and being able to see both the chefs and the food being prepared. While clearly an open kitchen concept may not be appropriate, convenient or feasible in all hospitality scenarios, the findings suggest that many consumers do appreciate elements of the concept that can be experienced during the consumption of their meals. What may be even more important is the 'reassuring' aspect of how their food is being prepared, including cleanliness, attention to allergies and food intolerances and hygienic measures.

The National Restaurant Association recently asked two industry experts on how to make an open kitchen worthy of a standing ovation. 'An open kitchen is no longer just a hole in the wall where you can see someone working,' says William Eaton, chairman of the board of Cini-Little International, the world's largest foodservice design consultancy. 'Display kitchens serve as a focal point,' says Rodolfo Farber, co-founder and partner of San Diego-based Jaime Partners, a construction and project management company specializing in the hospitality industry.

The two experts have come up with a list of guidelines to make the open kitchen a harmonious experience for culinary teams as well as diners. Acoustics are integral to this and they recommend careful attention to kitchen clatter and, in particular, dishwashing noise. Ventilation and smells also have to be addressed, preferably using an air modulation system: 'You also want to draw the air from the dining room gently into the kitchen,' says Eaton. Aesthetics are equally important: 'Plan sight lines strategically. Build a counter high enough to shield the kitchen work area and the floor, but low enough to give guests a glimpse into the action,' says Eaton. Farber advises: 'Let guests see the cooking line, the fire coming up and the big hood, but keep the dishwashing area hidden.' With this heightened transparency, the aesthetic planning of the restaurant should also extend to kitchen equipment, although attention should also be given to functionality, cleanliness and tidiness. Cooking crews literally become cast members in the open kitchen concept and they need special preparation and training for their starring roles.

Simon Hudson is a tourism aficionado, exploring the world, spreading his passion for travel, and enlightening audiences on every kind of travel research from winter sports to film tourism. He has written eight books, and over 60 research articles, many of them focused on tourism marketing. He is the Endowed Chair for the SmartState Center of Economic Excellence in Tourism and Economic Development at the University of South Carolina. Dr. Hudson can be contacted at 803-777-2705 or shudson@hrsm.sc.edu Extended Bio...

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