All the World's a Stage

The inspirations and mechanics behind the dining formats so ubiquitous we've come to expect them.

April 27, 2016 ● 5 min read

There’s something uniquely gratifying about watching someone cook your dinner.

Seeing the transformation of raw ingredients into something composed and intentional is hypnotic, and we like it, a lot — which is probably why alternate dining formats, which bring us closer and closer to the action, have self-actualized into restaurant design staples.  

As a dining public, we crave a brand of intimacy that wasn’t present 10, even 20 years ago (unless you count the deep eye-contact with the server making a tableside Caesar). Service style has never been so interactive, with dim sum-style carts wheeling around and flames leaping a few feet from where you sit at a counter. It’s also never been this voyeuristic — it’s dinner and a show, experience via proximity.

Getting up close and personal presents its own challenges, since even now, not everyone will get what you’re doing when you serve food in a nontraditional way. Stuart Brioza, co-owner of both San Francisco’s State Bird Provisions and The Progress, says that after he and wife Nicole Krasinski opened State Bird, they had to tweak the service a lot before people understood what was going on.  

State Bird is often credited with crafting a style that, since opening in 2011, has opened the floodgates to other inventive techniques across the culinary world. Inspired by the catering gigs they’d done between jobs, the couple opened State Bird “riffing on the idea of an hors d’oeuvres party,” Brioza says. “How do you have an hors d’oeuvres party when people are sitting down?”    

His restaurant’s now-famous dim sum carts and trays allow for a rapid-fire chef-to-diner interaction more akin to street food hawking than the quiet reverence we’d previously come to expect from high-end cuisine. It’s often the State Bird chefs themselves who ferry just-plated dishes to the table and say, “I just made this! Don’t you want to try it?” You can’t say no to this, so you try it.  

Knocking down that wall between diner and chef isn’t just a gimmick, Brioza admits: it’s a sales tactic — and it works. Besides the bump of good old-fashioned peer pressure, visuals trump written menus. On a nightly basis, Brioza watches diners fall in love with dishes they would never have picked off of a menu. “You look at that ‘grilled duck hearts’ and go, no, I think I’ll go with the burrata,” he says. “But you know what? When we grill it off and pair it with a little persimmon vinegar and sansho pepper, and put it on a tray and put a price tag of $4, who’s not gonna buy it, right?”

Manning a chef’s counter combines all the technical challenges of cooking with the pressure of that performance and conversation, plus the demands of high-end service. It lands you front and center before a divided audience. Some diners have an encyclopedic knowledge of food; others don’t. You’re tasked with answering everyone’s questions, respectfully, while cooking.  

At Counter 3.Five.VII in Austin, Texas, 25 diners sit on three sides of a wrap-around counter watching chefs prepare three different seasonal menus — one with three courses, one five, one seven. It’s the only chef’s counter destination in Austin’s overwhelmingly “casual fine dining” scene.

For former pastry chef Sarah Prieto (who recently moved on to Emmer & Rye, which also uses — you guessed it — dim sum carts), moving her work to the front of the house gave her the satisfaction of seeing diners enjoy her work for the first time. “People cook less now, but there’s more of a desire to watch people cook,” she says. While diners come for the show, Prieto found an unexpected pleasure in watching her audience. “Hearing people scrape the bowl, or lift up a bowl to drink all the liquid, or that moment when somebody eats something and their eyes close…that’s the stuff that I never got to experience.”

Prior to working behind the counter, she’d never thought much about service. “The things I never used to notice now stick out like a sore thumb,” she says. Keeping water refilled, pointing wine labels toward the guests, and maintaining eye contact all required a level of nuance she had previously underestimated. 

And so the blurring of the lines between front and back of the house marches on. “All the best people in the kitchen I know understand service, and all the best servers I know understand working in a kitchen,” she says.
About those carts at her new home: where State Bird’s fast-and-furious carts may overwhelm tentative diners as much as they excite the enthusiastic ones, Emmer & Rye only sends two rounds, each cart bearing only two or three options. “You don't want to miss something,” Prieto explains. “You also don't want to fill up on something when you're gonna see something way better later.”  

The key with troubleshooting dim sum carts then, is to figure out how many options your diners can handle. Find the right mix of items ordered off a menu — giving diners a road map and some sense of how the meal is going to go — and items presented on carts or trays. A chef’s counter requires specific design attention: make it too deep, and service can get awkward; make the stools too high, or too low, and your guests are either crushing their knees or eye-level with their plates. Figure out how you’re going to do substitutions. Some diners don’t like their dietary restrictions being called out behind the counter. Be ready to talk to people. A lot. A counter also requires a high level of commitment from everyone involved; when the traditional breakdown between front-of-house and back-of-house isn’t there, everyone does everyone else’s job. 

These are the details currently weighing on the minds of Anthony Rush, Chris Kajioka, and Eddie Lopez — three chefs who are bringing a chef’s counter to Honolulu with Senia, opening later this spring. This kind of thing is totally unheard of in Honolulu, a place where tasting menus are still relatively new. “A lot of chefs here have tasting menus, but [they're] four to five courses. That just feels like you’re still eating an hour dinner,” Lopez says. On the island, he adds, people are still flummoxed by the idea of a three-hour-long meal. (All three chefs also happen to be alums of the Thomas Keller Group, where parades of multi-course meals bend the clock nightly.)

That hesitation spurred the addition of a traditional dining setup: the plan is now to seat eight adventurous diners around a chef’s counter, along with 44 seats at tables where guests can order à la carte.  

Aside from their obvious love for the format, the reasoning behind bringing a counter to a unexperienced public comes in part from Kajioka’s affinity for sushi restaurants. “There’s nothing to hide. You can’t hide cleanliness, how fresh the fish is — you can see everything,” he says. “It’s mind-blowing how clean and how technical, yet how hospitable they can be serving a whole restaurant while cutting fish and cooking, too.” Rush wants to emulate Frantzen in Sweden, where he recently finished a meal without ever realizing that servers had been there — the mark of excellent service. 

In keeping with current trends, the chefs at Senia will also act as part of the service staff. As Lopez sees it, “the only person you can blame if you fuck something up is yourself. That’s our fun.”

For better or worse, we’ve placed the act of cooking on a stage. And, where there’s a demand for the show, there’s a thriving cast of chefs willing to oblige — now if only the audience members would turn off the flash. 

By Allison Levitsky | Collage by ChefsFeed