The designer who first invented and implemented the open kitchen unequivocally had a taste for warm ambiance and social theatrics. There are few design elements that compare to a restaurant’s open kitchen. The allure and sexiness it adds to any space, that view of an open flame, the wafting aroma of roasts in the oven and garlic on the stove, melds with spacious dining rooms and intimate eateries welcoming customers into the experience for which they came.
Stepping through the front door of a restaurant that has an open kitchen poses a completely different adventure than walking into one without. The open kitchen restaurant entices the customer’s eye directly to the center of activity. Whereas in restaurants without an open or exhibition kitchen, the customer’s eye wonders to the main focal point of the restaurant – usually the bar.
But you don’t have to have a full fledged open kitchen to achieve a welcoming feeling. In many restaurants, a large window into the kitchen will prove just as inviting to diners. And there in that inner sanctum of secrecy lies the problem: inviting diners into your kitchen to see every move your staff makes, or worse, doesn’t make.
Since the first recipe was secreted away for no one to see except its creator, kitchens have long been vaults of creation. To spy, to watch and to capture techniques known only to kitchen Gods and their prepping Apostles was at one time sacrilegious. Now, as restaurants have opened their doors and hearts to their customers, opening the kitchen is a sign of welcome.
But to have an open kitchen without reinforcing the rules of cooking engagement and hygiene can quickly turn an asset into a liability.
Seasoned restaurant owner’s often see things in restaurants others often overlook. This is what makes dining out difficult for professionals. The constant critiquing of not only the food, but the operation, can at times be difficult. We know the tricks and where to look for what’s hidden and frequently we find things we needn’t know.
On a recent visit to a restaurant with an open kitchen I had the pleasure of watching the chef scoop salsa from a container and spread it on a piece of toast during brunch service. Obviously, the combination was delightful. The other three members of his kitchen team decided to join in on the toastaurant adventure. Unfortunately for the owner, they enjoyed their breakfast in his kitchen window – in full view of the customers. And, they didn’t stop with one scoop, they scooped and tasted, scooped and tasted, using the toast as a vessel for the freshly made salsa.
Let’s be realistic here. Chefs sample. They have to. They are supposed to. It’s part of their talent. Just as an artist steps back to look at their work, chefs step forward to delve into theirs.
But, their needs to be a line between the sample and the small plate meal in full view of the public while still in the kitchen cooking. Of course it frequently happens in kitchens across the country. Chefs eat. Kitchen staffs eat. We would be fools to think that although the health department in every community in the country frowns upon this that it doesn’t happen.
The problem is it can’t happen in front of an open kitchen window in full view of customers. As food professionals we need to stress the importance of hygiene. Whether in a restaurant setting, at a food truck, a hot dog cart, or a restaurant or food show managers and owners need to become more aware of hygiene infractions and set standards for their employees and staff members.
There are other solutions to this problem. First and foremost training needs to be implemented on a regular, scheduled basis. Maintaining health codes in accordance with the guidelines set by your local health department is a mammoth task and takes constant supervision, reinforcement and discussion. Reminders work for a while until they fade away and become part of daily d?cor. So it’s the continual verbal reminders that everyone needs along with setting examples.
In the particular restaurant I was in, the wait staff was drinking water out of quart bottles of Evian, munching on toast and going about their daily tasks as though they were having a party at their home.
It was a very enjoyable atmosphere. The food is outstanding. The cafe is an icon in the town that formed around it and the owners are good operators. But, they let their customers see more than customers need to see.
I enjoy the mystery of the restaurant business. I revel in the fact there are operational secrets not everyone knows. Basking in the light as your competition goes dark certainly saddens the outer us, but inside we know there are less plates to choose from in the neighborhood and business, for us, will increase.
But there is one level we all need to maintain and that is a high standard of hygiene. Without it we lose our base of loyal customers and the word spreads like an epidemic.
People tolerate the occasional bad meal, weak service, or mismatched ambiance. They draw the line at hygiene.
If you have an open kitchen, remind the staff not to talk with their mouths full.
If your wait staff is eating and drinking in view of customers, demand they stop.
If your bussers remove glasses from the table placing their fingers over the rim, instruct them on the rules of bussing. Teach them to wash their hands after every trip to the kitchen.
If your kitchen is open, close the door to your office when you lay down the rules to your chef.
If your bartender drinks during his shift, replace him – you’re losing money.
And if the staff gets a meal with their shift, make sure there is a designated table or area where they can eat, enjoy the meal and feel as though it truly is a perk of their job, not something that belongs to them because they work for you.