Sitting with the Chef

  • Shaun Tolson

Art Buchwald, the late Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist for the Washington Post, once wrote of an evening meal: “Dinner is not what you do in the evening before something else. Dinner is the evening.”

Such a philosophy has grown more popular over the years, especially as it pertains to dining out, the very act of which requires trust in—and respect for—the chef responsible for your meal. Oftentimes, an expansive tasting menu alone, arranged and crafted by a world-class chef, is enough to make for a memorable evening. But there are times when a situation calls for more than that. Merely enjoying a grand chef’s creations can seem commonplace when more in-depth experiences allow for interactions with the chef and views of the entire culinary process. In that respect, a chef’s table knows no equal.

Such a table offers a unique form of entertainment. However, the expectation of how that entertainment manifests itself has evolved in recent years.

With a penchant for free-flowing expletives and a short fuse, Gordon Ramsay shook up the culinary world in 2004, when his first British television program, Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, depicted the behind-the-scenes workspaces of Michelin-star restaurants as combat zones bubbling over with animosity and rage. Although it may have been an inaccurate representation of restaurant kitchens in general, Ramsay’s show—and the subsequent ones that would follow—popularized the notion that a fine-dining kitchen was a setting dominated by heated exchanges and outbursts peppered with abrasive language. “You’re hoping that Gordon is freaking out on someone because that’s his trademark,” Relais & Châteaux grand chef Jonathan Cartwright says of the opportunity to dine at the chef’s table in Ramsay’s New York restaurant “[You’re hoping for] the firsthand experience of him blowing a gasket with someone. We chefs acknowledge that we don’t really mean any of it. Under the pressure, that’s just how we react.”

But Cartwright, who had firsthand experiences cooking for a chef’s table when he was the saucier at London’s Savoy Grill in the late 1980s, believes a chef’s table is enticing for two reasons: it offers an intimate meeting with the chef and it promises an exclusive meal. “So much is the expectation of meeting the big orchestrator,” he says. “There’s a lot of pressure there, but there’s a lot of excitement to show off your craft. We always keep a little in our arsenal to trump the meal and impress [the customers]. The theater, the drama, the expectation of that customer coming in, it needs to be delivered for them to walk away feeling that it was well worth it.”

If the thought of in-kitchen dining has you hungry, you’ll be pleased to know that many reputable, fine-dining restaurants can satisfy that craving. Just be sure to bring your appetite and a sense of adventure.

A Room with a View

Make no mistake about it; chef Scott Conant knows his way around a kitchen. He first enrolled in cooking classes at the age of 11, and by the time he was 15, Conant was working full-time in professional kitchens. The Connecticut native also is comfortable in front of an audience—a character trait no doubt conditioned by hours in front of television cameras hosting his own Food Network series, 24 Hour Restaurant Battle, and appearing as a guest judge in other culinary television programs including Chopped and Top Chef. Conant’s culinary expertise led him down a path that culminated in the opening of his Scarpetta restaurants in five locations around North America, and his ability to work and perform for an audience manifests itself at his two Scarpetta chef’s tables at the Cosmopolitan (www.cosmopolitanlasvegas.com) in Las Vegas and also at Montage (www.montagebeverlyhills.com) in Beverly Hills, Calif.

“They can watch the cooks work, but it’s still quiet,” Conant says of guests’ experiences at both of his chef’s tables, which are set in glass-enclosed rooms. In addition to the close-up views of the kitchens, each room offers its own unique ambience, including an in-room fireplace in Beverly Hills and a one-of-a-kind view of the Bellagio fountains in Las Vegas. But, as is customary with a chef’s table, each also comes with regular interactions with Conant (or the head chef when Conant is cooking elsewhere). “That interaction with the customer, it’s the reason they book that room,” Conant says. “A lot of people want to speak to me, which is nice. It’s good for the ego,” he adds with a chuckle. “But it’s nice to get them into the kitchen to show them that I have a very professional staff, and it showcases who they are.”

 At both locations, patrons will begin the night with a discussion with the chef, which establishes the expectations for the meal and also unveils how adventurous the diners happen to be. Conant says that they can choose to stick with only the classic dishes that currently or previously appeared on the menu, such as ash-spiced venison loin with braised radicchio and smoked polenta dumplings or roasted sea scallops with caramelized sunchokes and porcini mushrooms. But if guests are feeling more adventurous, they can choose to incorporate dishes that remain experimental. “It’s a great place to get immediate feedback from the customer,” Conant says. “And in my experiences, customers are brutally honest when put in those situations.”

To reserve the chef’s table in either Las Vegas, which seats eight, or in Beverly Hills, which seats 12, a party must meet a $1,200 minimum in Vegas or $2,000 (during the week) or $3,000 (on weekends) in Beverly Hills. Alternatively, Conant’s Beverly Hills location offers a five-seat chef’s counter ($200 surcharge per night), where 20-course tasting menus are not uncommon. Unlike at the chef’s table, which allows for a quiet and private dining experience, the Scarpetta counter thrusts diners into the kitchen, where the cooks also serve each course. There, Conant has had the challenge of meeting some very specific requests, like an entire tasting menu of pasta dishes. “It was a challenge to me,” Conant recalls. “I didn’t know I had that many different types of pasta in-house. I was cooking every course for them, and it was a blast. It was a lot of fun. When you have something like that, it keeps you nimble.”

Office Space

Walking through the back hallways, the workstations, and the prep kitchens of Manhattan’s Daniel (www.danielnyc.com), a three-Michelin-star restaurant near the corner of 65th Street and Madison Avenue, one quickly discovers that the restaurant’s namesake chef, Daniel Boulud, is not afraid of the spotlight. Numerous photos of Boulud posing with fellow chefs and friends, as well as some of the Frenchman striking whimsical poses for publicity shots, hang on the walls. And while patrons of the restaurant will never see these particular images, those lucky enough to dine at Boulud’s chef’s table are treated to a bevy of similar photos on the walls that surround the intimate four-seat table adjoining his office.

Unlike many other chefs, who treat their personal tables merely as a more exclusive form of private dining in the restaurant, Daniel Boulud takes a more traditional stance. His chef’s table, which is suspended 10 feet above the kitchen, is reserved mostly for his friends and family, although it can be reserved by outsiders on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights for a $1,200 minimum. But for Boulud, the table remains an extension of its name. “It’s the table of the chef,” he says, “which is where he conducts his business during the day; it’s where he sits down with his team; it’s where he eats his meal. It’s almost like being invited to a chef’s home … to his own table. It’s a privilege.”

Like any good chef’s table, Daniel’s offers great views of Boulud and his team as they work the line. It also provides guests with a chance to meet with the chef and to learn about the menu that he has planned for the evening. “Usually, the people who take the chef’s table are big gourmands,” Boulud says, “so we always do a special menu.” While those special tasting menus vary from night to night, a glance at the restaurant’s traditional menu, which includes such items as a duo of Vermont quail with potato gnocchi and truffle sauce, provides an insight into Boulud’s commitment to marry French culinary techniques with locally sourced ingredients. “I definitely think of French cuisine all the time, but I’m also very inspired and driven by ingredients and culture and the fact that we’re in New York City and are exposed to many great things here,” he says. It’s a statement that conveys Boulud’s introspective approach to his craft, and one that reveals his passion for creativity as a proud French chef. “It’s like art, or music, or writing,” he continues. “You’re inspired by the greatest artists of the century and it’s the same for food. The present is certainly what is spontaneous and seasonal and very current. The past is the inspiration.”

A Taste of Island Flavor

The concept of a chef’s table is nothing new for Jean-Claude Garzia, the head chef at Beau Rivage, an 18-table restaurant at the Newstead Belmont Hills resort (www.newsteadbelmonthills.com) in Bermuda. The 51-year-old chef constructed a chef’s table at another of the island’s restaurants earlier in his career, and when he opened Beau Rivage in 2008, he was adamant that his new kitchen also include a front row seat for enthusiastic guests. At that exclusive table, capable of seating eight to 14 people, Garzia prepares French-inspired dishes highlighted by as many fresh, local ingredients as he can source. Naturally, Garzia is surrounded by first-class seafood, but given Bermuda’s small size—21 square miles—and its location—650 miles off the coast of North Carolina—sourcing fresh produce becomes a more daunting task.  Nevertheless, Garzia works wonders with what he has, especially in preparation for the five-,  seven-, or nine-course tasting menus—$105, $125, and $165, respectively—that he plans for those wishing to dine in his kitchen. “I create the menu at the request of the guests, but they don’t know what they’re eating,” Garzia says, though he is dutiful in asking of any food allergies or general dislikes to gain a better understanding of his VIP patrons for that evening. “Then I’ll shop in the morning to see what I’ll find that’s fresh.”

With large hands and thick fingers, Garzia delicately creates dishes such as homemade foie gras terrine accented with fig marmalade or pan-seared fresh rockfish with a beurre blanc sauce. Expectedly, the talk of culinary pursuits brings a twinkle to the acclaimed chef’s eyes. “It’s my job and it’s my hobby and my passion,” says Garzia, who was recognized as the French Chef of the Year in 1998. When it comes to his chef’s table, Garzia is just as passionate, and the welcome sign hanging on the outside of the kitchen door proves that he dons an apron every evening not only in the pursuit of creating great food, but also to provide people with an enjoyable experience. “They are really in the heart of the kitchen,” Garzia says of the parties that dine at the white linen–dressed table that spans the length of his kitchen’s main line. “They can see everything that we prepare for them. If you’re willing to do something, you have to do it right. People are coming to see something that they don’t usually see, so we have to make sure that we’re [delivering that] presentation.”

Pomp and Circumstance

Years ago, the late winemaker Robert Mondavi dubbed chef Patrick O’Connell “the pope of American cuisine.” It was a moniker that O’Connell took to heart. So much so, in fact, that the self-taught chef and theater enthusiast designed the introductory experiences of his chef’s table dinners at Virginia’s Inn at Little Washington (www.theinnatlittlewashington.com) to emulate—in a not so serious way—the ceremonial proceedings of the Catholic Church.

It begins when the kitchen doors are first flung open and the chef’s table’s patrons are greeted by a precisely arranged lineup of the entire kitchen staff, which can reach 34 people on a given night. An altar boy of sorts then leads the patrons past that lineup—creating a path with incense as he goes—and introduces them to the chef, who escorts them to their table. A ceremonial hand-washing with rose-scented water; large, silver chalices of drinking water; and individual boxes of truffle popcorn set the stage for the meal and experience that will follow. “It would be very boring to me if we just let people sit in the chairs in the kitchen and watch,” O’Connell says. “It wouldn’t intrigue me enough.”

A chef’s table event ($300 surcharge during the week, $450 on Saturday) may unfold differently at The Inn at Little Washington than anywhere else; and such distinction reflects the preparation and creativity that O’Connell injects into it.

Similar foresight also was required to construct the setting for such an elaborate, interactive affair. When the inn built a state-of-the-art kitchen from the ground up in 1999, O’Connell created an alcove punctuated with a baronial fireplace and two flanking six-seat tables. “We didn’t know at the time how popular it would be,” he says. “I envisioned early on that we might invite people in for a cocktail. But we realized that once they sat down, they weren’t leaving. We realized that we had to serve an entire dinner.”

The fireplace exists as a dramatic backdrop—and an extension of a kitchen that was designed to resemble the dairy at Windsor Castle—but it also becomes a cooking apparatus, when needed. A spit can be erected over the open flame on which O’Connell has roasted veal loin, and in the fireplace’s hot ashes the chef also regularly roasts black truffles, which are immediately sliced and incorporated into a salad. These are a few of the surprises that O’Connell can bring to a chef’s table dinner, but he says it’s all predicated on the people seated at his table. “If people are adventurous enough to dine in the kitchen—and more and more people are—they ask us to plan a menu,” he says. “Then it becomes more exciting.”

A personalized menu at the hands of O’Connell is an enticing proposal, given that the chef creates a variety of unusual dishes on a daily basis, including a carpaccio of herb-crusted baby lamb with Caesar salad ice cream, and curry-dusted veal sweetbreads with homemade apple sauce. But according to O’Connell, the opportunity to peek behind the curtain is as much a reason for the continued success of his chef’s table. “You’re seeing things that you might have never seen before, and you leave with a much greater appreciation of the value in a fine restaurant in terms of how many people are required to produce the show,” he says. “It’s like visiting a Champagne house in France for the first time, seeing the handwork that goes into creating a bottle of Champagne. You have a completely new respect for it and a new enjoyment of it.”

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