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In Dining Commentary

Chef Zach Espinosa working behind the oyster bar at Harbor House. (PHOTO: Joe Laedke)

In Dining Commentary

Customers enjoy a view of the open kitchen at Harbor House. (PHOTO: Joe Laedke)

An unobstructed view: A peek into Milwaukee's open kitchens


Nothing compares to the drama of a bustling open kitchen at a great restaurant. But why?

In New York, open kitchens were born of necessity – small spaces required means to prevent claustrophobia, and the inches saved by an absent wall often meant extra seating in the restaurant itself. But these days, the open-kitchen concept has evolved from an architectural need into a form of entertainment.

The trend began in earnest five or six years ago, and has spread like wildfire across the nation, impacting the way restaurateurs view the separation between consumer and chef.

In 2005, The New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni wrote an article criticizing the trend of the open kitchen:, saying, "There was a time when much of the point of fine dining was to be liberated from the frenetic, clangorous, sweaty making of a meal, to have it magically appear, an unlabored gift from unseen elves. Not these days. Not even close. Now you are primed to ooh as chefs simmer and aah as they sautée. You are prodded to watch the sausage being made (not literally, but almost) and feel the heat."

But, it seems that the "heat" is what modern diners are after. In response, a variety of restaurants in Milwaukee have designed their spaces to accommodate a new level of intimacy in dining.

"The popularity of open kitchens is on the uptrend," says Zach Espinosa of Bartolotta's Harbor House, a restaurant with not only one of the most beautiful views of Lake Michigan, but also one of the most dramatic open kitchens in the city. "I do think Milwaukee is catching up to a more national trend. Thanks to celebrity chefs and good food, the dining public wants to see what's going on. Also chefs, me included, are proud of what we do and like to showcase our habitat."

Pat Moore and Peg Karpfinger, owners of Riverwest's Centro Café, see a more open design as central to a dynamic restaurant experience.

"We have always enjoyed the vibrancy and warmth of restaurants with open kitchens," Karpfinger explains. "They're reminiscent of a hearth and are attractive and even comforting to people. Guests seem to enjoy the kinetic nature of the atmosphere – clinking pans and bowls, rising flames, the chef calling 'order up' – all these make people feel as if they are a part of the action. They enjoy the sounds, sights and the aroma of their food being prepared. People appreciate the skill of the chef and the stamina it takes to keep up on a busy night."

In part, the open kitchen concept can be attributed to the increased interest in food culture, as well as a desire to connect with the process and art of creating food. The wall between diners and the kitchen has literally been taken down. Open kitchens make restaurants more noisy and some chefs are uncomfortable always being on view, but many diners welcome the added sense of intimacy an open kitchen offers.

Adam Siegel of Bartolotta's Lake Park Bistro, where the kitchen table is inhabited nightly by guests who want to watch and learn, agrees. "People are intrigued by what happens in the kitchen, how everything is put together; they want to see how all of the food is prepared. The idea is to create energy in the dining room. Guests want to see and be a part of the action more and more."

Meanwhile, Espinosa compares the experience to the theater. "The open kitchen concept is designed for the purpose of the 'show,'" he explains. "I think the idea, if executed well from a design point, lends itself to the show. Chefs preparing food are the actors in the show. The open kitchen the stage."

Chefs are no longer the faceless, blue-collar workers who toil in the back; they're now celebrities who perform in front of the dining room. As an added bonus, restaurant kitchens have become a central attraction, artfully designed, sometimes lined with bar stools to let curious customers sit even closer to the cooking. In the dining space at Braise, Dave Swanson's new restaurant in Walker's Point, customers get a bird's eye view of the kitchen when seated at the "food bar," a counter dining space facing the kitchen.

"(It) allows people to actually see their food being created, which follows our philosophy of reconnecting people with their food," Swanson comments. He points to the increased intimacy that open-kitchen dining creates. "Typically, the chef is so far removed from the guests, but I want to have a close relationship with my guests and be able to interact with them."

There's also an innately social component to dining at a restaurant counter, where even solo diners can take a seat and chat with other customers while they're enjoying their food.

Julia LaLoggia of Ginger Tapas Bar in Walker's Point agrees that the experience is highly social. "Our guests really enjoy watching the chefs at work. They also enjoy interacting with them and giving them feedback about the food. Our regulars frequently stop by the kitchen to ask the chefs what the daily specials are before sitting down at their table."

But, as much as it creates connections, an open kitchen doesn't come without its challenges.

"The chefs get to see people enjoying the food they have prepared; on the other hand, they must face their critics. There is no place to hide and their line must be spotless. So there's a lot of pressure," admits Karpfinger.

And yet, that same pressure appears to create a mood that most, if not all, chefs seem to enjoy.

"We love working in an open kitchen," LaLoggia confirms. "We feel that we are connected to the whole energy of the restaurant. We enjoy seeing people arrive and hearing people talking, eating, drinking and having a good time. The chefs become part of the social event instead of being separated from it."

What are your thoughts on the open kitchen trend? Do you like to see the action or would you prefer that the magic go back behind the scenes?

Talkbacks

CarolV | Feb. 2, 2012 at 4:42 p.m. (report)

Triskele's is a good place to watch Chef Jolinda Klopp do her thing too! That's out of necessity - but its a fun and different experience to be seated at the bar and watch her do her stuff.

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lindsayb | Feb. 2, 2012 at 3:31 p.m. (report)

Open kitchens really do add to the atmosphere of a restaurant. I have noticed them a lot in bigger cities, and I am happy that Milwaukee has so many. I can't wait to check these places out. Thanks for the suggestions!

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dagwentim | Feb. 2, 2012 at 9:24 a.m. (report)

Completely agreed. Ginger seems to be open only when management feels like it. This is unfortunate because, in order to build regular clientele, they have to be somewhat reliable and consistent. Even people who live in the neighborhood don't seriously consider Ginger as a happy hour / dinner destination because they're never open -- even during posted business hours.

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merton | Feb. 2, 2012 at 9:14 a.m. (report)

Nice to see Ginger represented. I just wish they had regular hours.

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