By Dan Maas
Principal, ai3, Inc.
The open kitchen—some say it’s a byproduct of reality cooking shows and celebrity chefs. Others say it’s simply design following the evolution of cooking, which has grown more intimate and personal over the last decade. Regardless, it’s a white-hot design trend that shows no sign of cooling off anytime soon.
As diners, why shouldn’t we love open kitchens? They add an extra dose of liveliness to our experience and give us a peek behind the curtain. It facilitates a more personal connection between the guest, the chef, and the food. When executed well, it has communion-like qualities.
The problem with the open kitchen is that it’s not a fit for every restaurant and chef—especially as the boundaries between “open” and “closed” continue to be pushed. Not long ago, a half wall with a view into the kitchen constituted an open kitchen, still providing a partial cover for more unsightly tasks and equipment. Today, however, there are fewer visible boundaries between the dining and cooking spaces.
This is certainly the case with Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails. Chef Tom Gray’s newest restaurant in Jacksonville, Florida puts the kitchen in the very center of the space to create a stage-like effect. It invites guests to commune with the chef and the cooking experience, to see every aspect of it. Forget peering behind the curtain—there isn’t one!
The radical openness of today’s open kitchens demands some soul searching. Designers must challenge their chefs to answer a few tough questions, starting with to what degree does the chef really want guests to see how the proverbial sausage is made. Additional design considerations include:
Purpose. An open kitchen doesn’t work if it’s simply a design tactic. It needs to be a vehicle for storytelling, for creating an experience that is unique and intimate. What will guests see and why? How will they interact with the chef? These are important questions that are often overlooked, and should dictate the degree of openness that is achieved through design. Chef Kevin Gillespie, of Top Chef fame, took these questions into careful consideration as he created Gunshow in Atlanta, Georgia. He was insistent on creating a kitchen where guests could interact directly with him and other cooks—a far cry from his previous fine dining establishments that kept him at arm’s length. That’s part of his narrative and the design of the open kitchen facilitates the telling of it. A chef’s table in his prep area and an intentionally conservatively sized space gives guests the intimacy to experience the story.
Light. The functionality of an open kitchen can be a challenge, especially when it comes to light leakage. Preparation of food requires bright lighting. In fact, some health codes mandate it. The problem is that most dining experiences are lit warmly and dimly. Bright fluorescent lighting in the kitchen can be an assault on the senses. To protect the dining experience and keep light leakage to a minimum, designers should evaluate new advances in warm LED and fluorescent lighting technology.
Sound. The sound of a busy kitchen can be deafening. And, the sound of some chefs in a busy kitchen can be distracting to diners. Chefs need to think about how they will communicate with staff, and carefully consider if they’re content being “on stage” in front of guests no matter what’s going on in the kitchen. Likewise, designers need to think about how they can minimize loud acoustics. While kitchen surfaces have to be hard for practical purposes, adjacent areas can be treated with acoustical ceiling panels or softer finishes such as drapery and upholstery.
Construction Costs. Many chefs forget that the open portion of the kitchen is one more area that has to be designed to guest-ready standards, which costs money. In a closed kitchen situation, functionality is the name of the game. In an open kitchen situation, less costly wall coverings may need to be traded for more expensive finishes, and a well-used grill for a shiny new one. As such, designers have an instrumental role in selecting finishes and elements that are guest-ready, but highly functional and easy to maintain. At Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails, this challenge was met by creating a kitchen that had a laboratory vibe that creates a blank canvas where chef Tom Gray and his staff can create art during each service.
The open kitchen presents a tremendous opportunity for chefs and designers alike. But, like most great opportunities, it doesn’t come without risk. By giving it real purpose, aligning its openness with the personality of the chef, and mitigating the design risks inherent in revealing so much, restaurant designers can give the kitchen the voice it needs to invite guests into the fold.