An Open Invitation…
Exposed kitchens are redefining today’s restaurant design.
The past decade has been all about breaking down traditional boundaries … between farmer and diner, front of house and back of house, customer and chef. The most visible manifestation has been the evolution of the open kitchen, a red hot concept that is elevating the dining experience everywhere from bustling walk-up smoothie bars to quietly elegant bistros. What’s behind, or more accurately, right upfront about this trend? The key words are connection, transparency, appreciation for craft and customization, as you’ll see in the conversation below with some of the industry’s most imaginative designers and thought leaders. Explore and discover how you can embrace the movement and open the doors to the legion of customers who savor every detail of their meal, down to the final flip of the spatula.
co-founder and co-creative director, The MP Shift, a ‘notoriously chic’ NY-based design studio that specializes in turning clients' ideas into lasting brands.
CEO, Rebel Design, an award-winning restaurant and hospitality design firm established in 1985, known for successfully integrating bold, contemporary design, regardless of budget, locale or client challenge.
self-professed ‘total foodie’ and leader of starrdesign, a firm headquartered in NC that takes pride in connecting people and brands through inspired environments.
Editorial Director, restaurant development + design (RD&D), a leading national resource for restaurant professionals charged with building new locations and remodeling existing units.
What inspired this trend?
Morris: Restaurants have evolved into a third space over the past 10 years: a place where you connect with the community. An open kitchen feels more welcome and evokes a connection to home — where your friends gather. Additionally, the chef is more aware of looking beyond the kitchen to create the right experience. Having a view on the room creates a deeper understanding.
DeBoer: The perceived value of an open display kitchen is the staff's interaction with the customer, and the customer's feeling that the restaurant has nothing to hide in the preparation of dishes. Customers can satisfy their curiosity about the inner workings of a professional kitchen, while being reassured of hygiene conditions. Above all it is a question of taste and appreciation. Not only does the customer have more appreciation for the dishes being prepared for them, the chefs perform better when they see the diners enjoying their dishes.
Starr: In the beginning, it was all about the magic of food prep and celebrating the chef. Seen more in fine dining at that point, it was a precursor to the popularity of celebrity chefs like Emeril, Giadia, Boulud, and places like Nobu and Le Cirq. That was followed by a shift to ‘eatertainment,’ a focus on food theatre and the emergence of hyper-themed restaurants such as Rainforest Café and Hard Rock Cafe, with expo kitchens to emphasize the idea of cooks as entertainers … not about the craft but more about the energy and dynamics of the kitchen. It was also seen in the tableside guacamole preparation at Mexican restaurants. Today, this trend extends well beyond the chef-driven realm to polished casual and fast casual dining, and the message has become more about transparency, and the freshness, authenticity and integrity of the food being produced. The stakes have changed along with the message, and the point of entry at fast casual now is an expo kitchen or people feel as if you’re concealing something. So what do you do now to make it better than real or fresh? The message now is ‘made to order,’ which is clearly seen in an open kitchen.
Carbonara: First, transparency - customers love the action and the drama that goes with the kitchen. The desire to know more about the lineage of the food has transitioned into food prep as well. Second, customization, or the Chipotle effect, which has gone way beyond fast casual, as customers in all settings want to see their meal made for them. Third, the experience. This is the Food Network generation, and everyone wants a seat by the kitchen so they can watch the meal unfold before their eyes. It’s been a gradual build, and there’s no end in sight; we’re seeing this move into healthcare facilities with restaurants on the property as well as on patient menus.
What are the particular challenges and opportunities that operators should be aware of in opting for this kind of design?
DeBoer: The two most important design-related challenges are the transmission of noise and aromas. In small venues particularly, these two issues can have a profound effect. Some restaurant operators like the "buzz" of an open kitchen as it make a place feel alive. On the other hand, it can make intimate conversation difficult and drown out background music often used to set the mood in a restaurant.
Starr: To do it well you have to commit to a highly trained labor force and be incredibly rigorous about process and procedure and protocol in all areas because you’re in the public eye and being watched constantly.
Carbonara: Everyone starts out with great intentions but realizes there are some things the customer doesn’t want to see. Understand what belongs under the customer’s watchful eye and what doesn’t – butchering whole animals, ice process, dishwashing, cutting chicken parts. There’s a big difference between cooking to order and preparing to order; you’re primarily bringing the meal assembly and finishing out into the open. Also, consider the impact on storage needs and labor costs – can you prep during shoulder periods when there’s not a huge line of customers but you’re still out in the open?
How have you been incorporating this concept into your designs?
Morris: When working on the floorplans for a brand, we always look to create an additional connection … a traditional standing coffee bar, or a private counter for four that is hidden at the end. One of our most recent examples is Verde, a new fast-casual concept by chef Gonzalo Gout, in Flatiron, NYC, where culinary techniques are applied to fresh and local ingredients. The kitchen is half open – all the prep is done in a back kitchen that is divided by a glass fridge wall from the front kitchen, where the mise en place and final plating are visible to the public. Verde features a counter service for lunch, and an easy-going downtown atmosphere for a dinner service at night, meant to bring a less corporate dining experience but still offer refined dishes. Warm pink, blue and green tones are mixed together with high-end materials like marbles, oak and copper to reflect the high quality of the salads in a casual setting. We also inserted details that highlight imperfection such as the reuse of marble in the floorboards.
Starr: We used it in Zoe’s Kitchen, a successful chain of healthy Mediterranean quick-serve restaurants featuring meals freshly made in-house, daily. Our newest project, Bellagreen (literally meaning ‘beautiful world’) in Houston, is a fast-casual concept featuring an open kitchen, chef-inspired environment that’s inexpensive and convenient. Sustainability is a core value, and the menu is created around people with dietary restrictions, but with no compromise on flavor or taste. There’s high-protein ‘hempanadas’, honey fried goat cheese arugula salad and quinoa mac and cheese. The entire hot prep line is on display, and customers see the natural ingredients, the people cooking their food, and how everything is made to order.
DeBoer: Open or display kitchens have popped up across the world in venues from street food to fine dining. We’ve been designing and building open-style kitchens of one form or another since the late ‘90s.
Is it possible to adapt this design to an existing space?
DeBoer: Yes, the only issues for open kitchens include structural limitations, hooding/extraction requirements and building code limitations for some structures.
Starr:strong Yes, but certain factors must be considered. To meet food health department regulations, a kitchen must be well lit, much brighter than the dining area, and easily cleanable. It can be a bit tricky to make it look good and still comply with regulations. The least expensive strategy would involve fiberglass reinforced plastic on the walls, but this certainly does not communicate healthy and sustainable! Put a lot of thought into how to present the cooking process. A retrofit might make it difficult to bring everything out front, but if you feature specific hero products, and one or two elements of the process, it’s more possible to achieve. For instance, maybe you have a salad tossing station, but all the ingredients are assembled and prepared in back. Consider what Danny Meyer did in Gramercy Tavern – the kitchen is hidden except for the grill, and only the small plate specialty items are cooked on it. Or the Original ChopShop in Phoenix, Ariz., where the veggies are out in full display on white marble islands and counters, but the hardcore cooking is done in back. The customer still feels like everything is made to order, because they see their juice and protein shake made that way.