Dinner last night at the Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare Kitchen and tonight at ABC Kitchen underscored two (unrelated) trends in restaurants that intrigue me lately—besides using the word “kitchen” in the name. The first is actually a combination of two trends we’ve seen before, the Benihana chef show that debuted in the 1960s and the chef’s table that became popular in restaurant kitchens in the 1990s. Let’s call this trend “Chef Front and Center.” The second trend is also something old that’s new again. It’s the return of the piece of pie or cake for dessert. I’ll explain.
Chef Front and Center
One of the things that struck me on my first visit to Japan about 10 years ago was the way the Japanese molded other cuisines into their own dining format. I ate in an English style steakhouse and a Mexican restaurant that were both set up as a sushi bar would be, with the chef preparing the food to order in front of guests who were sitting at a bar watching. The chefs also served the guests.
I remember thinking then that if I had to weigh the value of paying $500 for a meal which the chef actually served me from his or her own hands, or $500 for a meal in a large restaurant where the chef was four or five layers of service hierarchy away from me, the former would win. At arguably the best sushi restaurant in Tokyo, Sukiyabashi Jiro in Ginza, the master literally fed me from his own hands.
Of course Benihana wasn’t exactly Jiro, but the idea that you sat around the “chefs” who entertained you as they “cooked” caused a sensation.
In the 1990s, when chefs started seating diners on the other side of the swinging door, I always questioned the desire to spend so much money to eat in the noisy, hot, high-stress, fluorescently lit environment that is the restaurant kitchen. As the trend took root, of course, restaurants built beautiful environments in their kitchens for chef-table diners.
At about the same time, though, chefs also began building global empires. And what fun was it to sit in a celebrity chef’s kitchen if the chef wasn’t there? Watching a bunch of tattooed stove jockeys just didn’t provide the same thrill.
Now, places like Brooklyn Fare Kitchen and Momofuku Ko have returned the chef to the center of the show. I have loved my meals at both. In truth, it’s probably Joël Robuchon‘s Atelier concept—which was no doubt conceived while he was in Japan—that started the trend. Whatever the source, it is now possible to sit in the kitchen (Brooklyn fare) or at a sushi bar (Ko) and have the chef cook for and serve you. I welcome the trend. But I wonder how long it will last.
I can’t help but think that what this trend represents is the pendulum swinging back from that global restaurant chef who is behind exit rows more than he or she is behind the stove. There is no question who’s cooking your dinner when you and your new gourmet friends are sitting in the kitchen surrounding the chef.
A Piece of Cake
The second trend just speaks to my personal preference for a piece of cake or pie cut from a larger whole. In my opinion, rarely is an individual tart or cake as good as a slice of something or other. I’m not totally sure why, but I think there is something about the proportion of the edge to center that makes the difference. Most individual tarts have too much crust and not enough filling. Similarly, small round cakes often have too much icing and not enough moist yummy cakiness.
Deep down I’ve longed for the return of the dessert cart, which not only afforded the opportunity to select a piece of one dessert, but pieces of lots of desserts. I will never forget the arrival of not one but three tables of dessert at the conclusion of our meal at the legendary Frédy Girardet in Crissier outside Lausanne, Switzerland, back in 1992. When the cheese trays arrived I thought I had died and gone to heaven. And then came the desserts, which confirmed my hunch. And although the ice cream selection was overwhelming (and the silver ice cream canisters stunning), I will never forget the simple slice of lemon tart I chose.
One of the last old-fashioned dessert carts I recall was at Le Bec-Fin in Philadelphia. Although the bundt cakes and bowls of mousse were not on par with my Swiss memory, I still appreciated being able to choose a piece of this, a slice of that, a spoon of something else.
About the slice thing, Karen Demasco at Locanda Verde knows the truth. A slice of her fresh ginger cake was one of my dessert highlights of last year. At ABC Kitchen, Cynthia Bearman also knows that a slice of Meyer lemon tart or carrot cake is better than an individual dessert. I’m sure there are others. Tell me your favorites.