A Seat at the (Chef's) Table
Call it theater for the five senses.
While an evening of dance, music or a play tickles the eyes and ears, a different kind of performance also engages touch, taste and smell. Restaurant chefs often compare playing to a full dining room to opening night at the theater. And nowhere is this act more akin to the stage than at a chef’s table.
Often located in the kitchen and reserved for special guests or groups, the chef’s table brings restaurant-goers into the heart of the action. While relaxing at the table and awaiting each creation, diners watch the chef at work and converse with the man in the toque.
The level of participation depends on the group, says Bill Carbone, executive chef and co-owner of Dish in downtown Hartford (dishbarandgrill.com), who sometimes invites guests from the party to cook with him. Some may choose to savor the dishes without much conversation with the chef, but the cooking process remains a focal point of the evening. The chef’s table “is more about dining as theater than just eating,” Carbone says.
“It’s like watching Food Network,” says Brian Lewis (above, with fans), chef/owner of Elm (elmrestaurant.com), in New Canaan, which opened in March. Lewis designed the restaurant to incorporate both a 12-person chef’s table and a chef’s tasting counter. “Our guests can elbow up to the counter and watch the action in the kitchen while they have aperitifs and hors d’oeuvres.”
Lewis calls the chef’s table “a stage for our food and our farmers.” The walnut table, handmade by a local artisan and set in a semiprivate room with a sliding glass door, has a clear view of the open kitchen. The layout allows guests “to be right in the action but away from the proverbial heat of the kitchen,” the chef says.
Lewis made the chef’s table and tasting counter an integral part of his restaurant when the plans were on the drawing board. “I designed the restaurant to accommodate the chef’s table,” he says. “I wanted the demonstration kitchen to work even while the rest of the [dining room] is in service.”
The multicourse menus often are full of surprises. “With a tasting menu, you can do 10, 12, 15 courses of small bites,” Carbone says. “In that format, guests get to try a lot more.” The chef also feels that he can take a no-holds-barred attitude, creating dishes and tastes that he normally wouldn’t feature on the regular menu.
Interaction plays an important role at a chef’s table. The chef presents each course and the sommelier each wine while describing their characteristics. “We take you on a tour of your food,” Carbone says. “We explain each dish and how one course works with another.”
Guests at the table receive the chef’s undivided attention. “You own me for the night,” Lewis says of those who sign up for the chef’s table. “I’m cooking specifically for you while my kitchen is jamming for the restaurant.”
Other Connecticut restaurants that feature chef’s tables are The Whelk in Westport (thewhelkwestport.com), Millwright’s in Simsbury (millwrightsrestaurant.com) and Barcelona in New Haven (barcelonawinebar.com).