This is What It’s Really Like Cooking Behind the Chef’s Counter in an Open Kitchen
Diners love the drama of open kitchens. We asked chef Robynne Mai‘i of Fête to dish on what it’s like on the other side of the counter.
Chef Mai‘i with her restaurant crew.
Photo: David Croxford
When my husband, Chuck Bussler, and I began planning Fête, Chuck insisted we have a chef’s counter and an open kitchen, mainly so people could come by and say hello. I agreed, but reluctantly.
I hadn’t cooked in a kitchen for more than a decade. Would I want to expose our dishes’ inner workings and be on display like a caged zoo animal?
Open kitchens have been trendy for 20 years or more. I remember my first meal at 3660 on the Rise. We sat next to the glass window near the pass where Russell Siu expedited. I could feel the intensity and speed as servers rushed in, grabbed hot plates with folded napkins, and bee-lined their way back to the guests. It was thrilling to watch.
Dell’Anima in New York’s City’s West Village and the original Momofuku in the East Village were the first places I remember eating at a counter just a few feet from the stoves and inches from the food. I could hear the cooks’ conversations—often full of expletives—as the team cooked over open flames and gave dishes final flourishes before presenting them to guests.
Ugh! I thought. This is going to be rough! I fretted over the details. Would we be organized enough? Would we be clean enough? What if something went wrong? Inevitable, right?
As we raced toward Fête’s opening, I stopped worrying about the open kitchen. We were dealing with too many other details.
And then, after we opened, the chef’s counter began to garner a loyal following.
There were friends stopping by to say hi, yes, but also regulars who specially requested the counter. As fascinating it is for guests to witness the kitchen action, it’s equally fascinating for us to see how captivated people are. Many guests have commented on how organized everything seems. Ha! During a busy service, there are three cooks, each working garde manger, sauté and the grill, plus one expeditor to lead the flow. When the rail is full of tickets and the only thing I hear is the prattle of more tickets being printed, my mind races to absorb new orders while keeping track of everything already in the works. We work quickly, hearts racing, the thump of the low-boy refrigerator doors closing. One action leads to multiple actions until a dish is finished and placed in the pass. We work with urgency and time passes differently when cooking.
Sometimes, I’ll be on the guest side of the counter and, from there, even on the busiest of nights, the kitchen looks calm and efficient. The cooks look focused and easily interact with the guests, greeting them as they settle in their seats, answering questions about the menu items or catching up with a regular.
One of our main goals when opening Fête was elevating the perception of what it means to be a cook. When I attended culinary school, many of my classmates said they chose culinary arts because they had no idea what they wanted to do—sort of a default major.
Now, 20 years later, probably a quarter of us are still cooking. It’s a tough gig—grueling hours, stressful scenarios, minimal pay and poor benefits.
Our guests see only the action—the beautiful, sometimes inelegant dance of cooking a delicious dish. They watch in awe and appreciation and, in turn, I see the effort and pride in how the cooks work: professionals doing what they do best.
One short year after opening Fête, I’ve realized having an open kitchen was one of the best decisions we’ve made.