There For All To See: Open restaurant kitchens bring diners into their dishes

Sometimes it’s not enough for customers to see what’s on their plates. They want to know how the entrées were put together. If diners are curious enough to ask, Jamie Komorek, co-owner of Trattoria Marcella, will give them the kitchen tour and expose them to the inner workings of his popular Italian restaurant.

This happens at least once a week. A parent comes up, says her teenager likes to cook and would like to check out the kitchen. Or people are contemplating culinary school and are anxious to see what they’d be getting themselves into.

“I think the Food Network has spurred some of this on,” Komorek said of the inquiries.

Whatever it is, there seems to be an ever-increasing fascination with food, and some St. Louis chefs are spending more time revealing the tricks of their trades to curious customers. Some restaurants in the metro area have gone to the extreme and planted their kitchens right out in the dining area, far outdoing the behind-the-scenes sneak peek. These open culinary quarters invite customers to sit or stand, sometimes an arm’s length away, and watch meals in the making.

Although working on what basically amounts to a stage brings a whole new set of rules for chefs, many said abiding by those rules is worth it because they enjoy performing in front of an audience.

“People are more into food than ever before,” said Ivy Magruder, executive chef of the extremely open kitchen at Eleven Eleven Mississippi in Lafayette Square. “It seems like a popular thing right now to want to cook, and I get a kick out people taking interest in what we do.”

At Eleven Eleven, there aren’t tables or counters directly in front of the kitchen, but almost anywhere you sit in the three-level restaurant, you have a view of it. Customers are welcome to stand nearby and observe, and they do. “They walk up and peek their heads in and see what we’re doing,” Magruder said. “People really get into it. They come up and stop us and ask,
‘What’s that?’”

The chance for Magruder to then explain what he’s doing is a big part of why he’s such a fan of the openness. “I love it when people are like, ‘I saw you guys do that, and I would have never thought of it.’ Obviously we’re all food nerds here and we get off on that,” he said.

Regular customers at the Westin’s Clark Street Grill, another St. Louis restaurant with an open kitchen, pay so much attention to the chefs, they know most of them on a first-name basis.

“A lot of our guests know who’s working back there,” said Jeffery VanCamp, food and beverage director at the Westin. “People are more learned on the cooking process, and they want to become involved.”

They definitely have the chance at the Clark Street Grill. Patrons have a full view of every aspect of the kitchen, and they are welcome to strike up conversations with the cooks.

“We have people who sit at the counters and talk to the chef about what he is making and how to make it,” VanCamp said.

Along with the questions from customers comes another thing cooks appreciate: compliments. “Servers in most restaurants are good about passing on compliments, but there’s no middleman here,” Magruder said of Eleven Eleven’s open kitchen. “If a guest comes up after the meal to compliment you in the middle of a busy Friday or Saturday when you’re getting pounded on, you are reminded of why you’re here, and that’s to make guests happy. It benefits all of us to hear that we’re accomplishing what we set out to do.”

Patrons at Kitchen K, a downtown St. Louis restaurant with an open kitchen, can also directly thank the cooks if they want to, as the culinary crew works behind a long stretch of counter that’s one of the focal points of the restaurant. Diners can grab one of the front-row seats or stand alongside and observe the entire operation, from the prep work to the cooking to the final presentation. The only hidden area is the dish room.

“There’s no ‘behind kitchen doors’ here,” said Pablo Weiss, owner of Kitchen K. “The entire thing is open. You can see cooks peeling potatoes, preparing fish and even doing less-glamorous things.”

As chef Byron Smith cut meat one morning in preparation for Kitchen K’s lunch rush, he said that people often do stop and stare, and he doesn’t mind a bit. “People are responsive,” he said. “They’ll sit here and watch, amazed at what we do. I like having the show.”

So, it seems, do cooks at Modesto. “Just to be on display adds another dimension to the chefs’ work, rather than being stuck in a kitchen where nobody sees them,” said Brendan Marsden, owner of the restaurant.

Not only does an open kitchen add another dimension to cooking, it adds another layer of professionalism to the cook. “There’s no hiding anything,” Magruder said. That means cooks must look and act presentable at all times.

The level of cleanliness of the food prep areas is noticeable, too. “The customers are immediately able to see how clean the kitchen is,” Marsden said. “I think that’s important. Not that it’s something people should question, but it gives them peace of mind; it’s reassuring to see a spotless kitchen.”

At Kitchen K, the staff goes out of its way to stay mess-free. “You have to almost be theatrical about cleanliness and organization,” Weiss said. “When we wash our hands, use sanitation to keep our utensils clean or wipe things down, we make it obvious. We don’t want the impression that there are any problems. It keeps us on our toes.

“Jackets better be clean,” he continued. Mise en place (pronounced meez ahn plahs), a French term for having all the necessary ingredients, bowls and cooking utensils in place, must be accomplished so cooks can assemble meals quickly and effortlessly.

“You have to be show-ready at all times,” VanCamp said, adding that when “you’re jamming on a Friday or Saturday night,” this can be challenging. Even so, “you always have to maintain the kitchen at 100 percent.”

With all of these rules come benefits beyond aesthetics. When a cook has everything together, he tends to enter a certain mindset and sometimes perform better. “The cleaner you are, the more it boosts you professionally,” Magruder said. “As silly as it sounds, it makes you a better cook. You don’t take shortcuts.”

A spotless appearance isn’t the only thing to worry about, though. In an open kitchen, a cook must be on his best behavior. This means no shouting when stress levels rise, and, even more importantly, no cursing – something many have to watch, as restaurant kitchens are notorious for triple-X language.

“During the peak of service, it can get hectic in any kitchen, no matter where you are,” Marsden said. “The challenge is to keep it under control. You don’t want yelling or arguing, so the chefs and cooks have to maintain composure.”

Keeping things under control didn’t appear to be any problem for the kitchen staff at Eleven Eleven on a recent Friday night. The restaurant was so busy that walking to a table or the bar required a couple “excuse mes” and sideways twists because if you went full on, you’d never fit through the layers of people. Yet, if you judged the busyness by the cooks’ faces, you’d have thought there were only two tables seated.

With relaxed expressions, they twisted and turned, gliding around each other to toss the contents of sauté pans or pull food from a wood-burning stove as if they were choreographed. The only truly audible noises were the clanking of dishes and the occasional hisses from the fire. Conversations from the patrons drowned out any other racket.

If there were any slip-ups, it would have been difficult to notice. Mistakes do happen, though, kitchen crews admit. “We’re human, and we make errors,” Magruder said. “We don’t lie about them or blame them on something else when it’s really our fault. We tell [our customers] what happened. It creates character.”

At Modesto “there are things that customers may notice and things they may not,” Marsden said. “There are so many things going on, it’s tough to catch a mistake. We’ve never had anything blow up or had any fires or anything like that.”

All in all, the extra effort involved in running an open kitchen proves worthwhile, owners said. “We wouldn’t have a closed kitchen,” said Wendy Hamilton, co-owner of Eleven Eleven. With her husband and co-owner, Paul, she designed the restaurant to have a casual yet upscale style with an inviting, cozy atmosphere. They wanted the restaurant to exude the same feel as a kitchen at home, a place they view as the gathering spot for family and friends, for conversations and good times.

“Our philosophy is ‘come into our home,’” Hamilton said. “We want our guests to feel warm and welcome. They’re called guests, not customers.”

An open kitchen also fit perfectly into the environment at Modesto, a tapas bar and restaurant that offers a taste of Spanish cuisine and culture. “We have a lively, energetic atmosphere, and having an open kitchen goes with that,” Marsden said. “In a quieter restaurant, you might not want an open kitchen because of the noise. In a formal restaurant, it may not be something to consider.”

But various degrees of openness allow the concept to work in a variety of settings. At one time Trattoria Marcella’s kitchen was much more exposed than it is now. That’s mostly because the restaurant underwent a redesign a year and a half ago, and the new space didn’t accommodate a fully open kitchen. Currently, if patrons want a glimpse, they can go to the bar area and peer behind it. The arrangement works well, Komorek said, because he prefers a quieter atmosphere. That’s not to say that the dining room at Trattoria Marcella is subdued; there’s just reduced clamor.

“We’ve never been known to be a quiet restaurant, but the added noise of clinging silverware, pots and pans, that’s a distraction to me,” Komorek said.

On the other hand, sometimes no matter how much the volume from an open kitchen is cranked up, diners come and go without paying much attention to it. This happens sometimes at Kitchen K, but even then, Weiss still finds the concept to be successful, so much so, he’s considering opening another restaurant with an open kitchen near the new baseball stadium.