While some restaurants have been hosting chefs' tables for a number of years now, only recently have these intimate and personal dining experiences in restaurant kitchens been catching on.
“Historically, the head chef would never have dreamed of cooking in front of guests,” says Melissa Abbott, director of culinary insights at the Bellevue, Washington-based Hartman Group. “What occurred in the kitchen was part of the ‘magic’ that they did not want to the diner to see.”
But now, thanks to a combination of factors—including the reality television craze featuring celebrity chefs, and the farm-to-table movement encouraging consumer interest in knowing where their food comes from, and how it is prepared—chefs’ tables are satiating consumer cravings for more, industry experts agree.
“Providing guests with a unique dining experience is a way to differentiate yourself in a tight market,” says Annika Stensson, spokesperson for the National Restaurant Association.
“A chef's table experience can be that special touch that nudges people to visit your restaurant over another.”
“You create a personal connection with your customers,” she says. “They recall how a chef prepared that amazing risotto or how he personally welcomed them with a tiny bite of intensely flavored crostini. This is far more powerful than a great meal served by a waiter in the impersonal dining room.”
Executive chef Sean Woods of the Ritz-Carlton Orlando (Florida) holds chefs’ tables two or three times a week to do tastings for weddings and bridal showers, and other events. "[This] gives us a chance to create special menus and work with our guests to create memorable experiences,” he says.
The hotel’s chef’s table experience is often booked for special occasions—mainly group business and weddings, Woods explains. The table, which accommodates 10 people, is available every day to guests as well.
“We also use the table to showcase our hotel and to book groups, which helps keep [us] top of mind for group business.”
One Market Restaurant in San Francisco also has a popular chef’s table. It’s used for special occasions and budding or experienced foodies, according to Larry Bouchard, general manager. The restaurant has been offering its chef’s table, which seats a maximum of seven, since it opened in 1993.
“We felt there wasn’t anything like it in the city at the time; a place where guests could be seated in the middle of all the hustle and bustle of a busy fine dining kitchen and be entertained by the hard work of our staff; sort of a version of reality television before there was reality television,” Bouchard says.
As far as both the Ritz-Carlton Orlando and One Market go, there are no challenges to speak of, they say.
“We don’t need to do anything differently operationally at the chef’s table as far as an ROI is concerned,” Bouchard says. “It is an integral part of our overall operation and its negative or positive effect on ROI is negligible. That applies as well to labor and staffing.”
For the Ritz-Carlton Orlando, the ROI is clear in that it allows the restaurant to upsell and create a greater experience for its guests, Woods points out.
“We normally have one chef with the guests talking through the whole experience and giving insight into the culinary world,” he says.
But space can be a challenge, points out the NRA’s Stensson, as well as the chef's workload during busy dinner services when he/she is also cooking for the rest of the dining room.
“Some restaurants solve this by setting the chef's table adjacent to the kitchen or in a separate room,” she says. “Doing that would potentially take away some of the experience of seeing the chef in action, however.”
And mostly chefs' tables come down to a visual pleasure.
“The greatest benefit of all is simply the guests’ ability to watch our chefs in action. They love it,” Bouchard says.
“An additional draw for food enthusiasts is being right in the action,” Abbott says. “It’s the ultimate in food theater.”
“I’m surprised that more new-build or remodeled fine dining restaurants don’t incorporate a chef’s table into their plans,” Bouchard says.
“We’ve seen first-hand the smiles of satisfaction they bring.”