By Krystal Hauserman, Foodable Contributor
Did you know we are in the midst of a food Renaissance, people? The bar has been raised! Diners are looking for much more than a “good meal.” They are looking for a memorable culinary adventure. They want to chat with the cooks about sourcing local ingredients, feel the heat of the open flame on their skin, and taste incredible, creative food. In this day and age, the restaurants and chefs that offer such experiences will no doubt find themselves with a cult following and a house full of adventurous eaters.
A Seat at the Chef’s Table
Open, “exhibition-style” kitchens have been around for decades, and as diners have become increasingly interested in where ingredients come from and the techniques used to transform them, a seat at the “chef’s counter” has become highly coveted. Sitting face-to-face with your favorite chef typically commands a premium price, but offers a more bespoke experience – something the savvy sushi counter aficionado has known for years. The best spot in the house is often at the counter, elbow-to-elbow with a handful of other engaged patrons oohing and aahing over the parade of dishes. The menus are a bit edgier. The laughter a little more raucous. And it’s unlikely you will get the stink eye for snapping a photo or two.
Ticket and Counter-Only Concepts
The ticket system makes sense, from both a business and marketing perspective. Since tickets are generally nonrefundable (just like with a concert or sporting event) and a set menu is served, the restaurateur can better control costs, thus offering the diner a premium experience for much less than it would cost otherwise. Take one part culinary talent – like Trois Mec in Los Angeles or Beast in Portland – and add one part “scarcity of supply,” and you will get the kind of frenzied, “must-go” buzz chefs dream of. A market-driven menu that is constantly changing (Beast posts a new menu every Tuesday) will help build a loyal following of repeat customers anxious to try the chef’s spin on the season’s best produce.
Taking the chef’s counter concept to its limit are the micro-sized fine dining restaurants that don’t even offer tables. The venerable and recently revamped momofuku ko in New York City has been “counter-only” since 2008 with wild success, receiving two Michelin stars in the process. Those lucky enough (or fast enough) to score a seat via the online reservation system – you’ll feel like Charlie Bucket with the Golden Ticket – will enjoy an unforgettable multi-course tasting menu at the counter just an arm’s length from the hardworking team.
What’s next? A growing trend of luring guests out of the restaurant and into immersive culinary adventures with their favorite chefs. Famed chef Eric Ripert hosts the annual “Cayman Cookout,” a food and wine-centric weekend at The Ritz-Carlton on Grand Cayman Island. Sit around the paella fire with José Andrés, and swap stories with Anthony Bourdain and Marcus Samuelsson while they man the sizzling beach grill.
For $100 Go Fish LA! arranges a day of sailing and fishing with a who’s who of Los Angeles chefs (Michael Cimarusti, Josiah Citrin, and more), who each bring treats like lobster rolls, heirloom tomato salad with lemon ricotta, and dark and stormy cocktails to share with all those aboard. Participants return home with the fresh catch of the day.
At “BBQ Bootcamp” at The Alisal Guest Ranch in Santa Ynez, guests learn to grill with legendary grill master Frank Ostini (owner of Hitching Post II, featured in the indie classic Sideways). The two-day escape covers all things barbecue, from grilling methods to equipment to spice blending, taught by Frank and other local chefs, with curated libations from local winemakers.