The burners are firing, the sauces are bubbling and the sous chef is plating up at lightning speed. It’s a typical scene in a busy restaurant kitchen, but one that most diners never get to see. Unless you know where to look… and book. These days there are many restaurants around the UK where you can have a seat right at the heart of the action, at the chef’s table. You’ll now find chef’s tables everywhere from a hot dog joint to temples of haute cuisine. But did you know that this ‘trend’ has actually been going on for over 30 years… with one Peak District hotel claiming to have started it way back in 1979.
Kitchen table or ‘chef’s table’ dining gives you a chance for a behind-the-scenes look at top chefs at work. They tend to fall into two types – private dining in a room adjacent to the kitchen, with a glass window so you can see – and hear – the action. Or tables which are literally in the kitchen, where you can eat and drink while the chefs rush around you.
Ask most restaurant observers when the trend really got going and they’d say the noughties. Pre-recession London was packed with chef’s tables. They were especially popular at fine dining restaurants like those run by Gordon Ramsay. “It was Ramsay and his alumni that really went for it in a big way,” says Guardian restaurant critic Marina O’Loughlin. Despite the growing popularity of casual dining in the capital, the chef’s table trend is still alive and well and you’ll find them at many of the capital’s top restaurants, like Petrus and the Savoy Grill (both Ramsay establishments), Michelin-starred Indian restaurant Benares, and Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. But as you might expect, with their various perks like kitchen tours, champagne and exclusive tasting menus, a seat at the chef’s table doesn’t come cheap. Still, for many foodies raised on a TV diet of Masterchef, Hell’s Kitchen and Great British Menu, it’s worth paying for a ringside seat.
What some diners might not realise is that kitchen table dining has been going on in restaurants since a young Gordon Ramsay was just learning to swear. According to Mike Thompson, head chef at the Cavendish Hotel in Derbyshire, the Cavendish has had a chef’s table since 1979. This may well make it the first one in Britain, and also predates what many believe was the start of the trend in 1988, when the late chef Charlie Trotter installed a kitchen table in his legendary Chicago restaurant, sparking a host of imitations.
“Our kitchen table was put in by the head chef at the time, Nick Buckingham. He was very innovative,” says Thompson. The late 1970s were a less health and safety conscious time: “We’ve got pictures of him in his chef’s hat serving customers right next to the stove,” says Thompson. “It was moved into a corner of the kitchen on the other side of the pass about 10 years later so it was away from the ovens, but the move meant that diners actually got a better view of the action,” he adds.
The kitchen table is a much loved feature of the Cavendish, and last year had a facelift. It can now seat four or “five at a squeeze” instead of two, which is better for creating a special atmosphere says Thompson. Lucky diners who are organised enough to book the table 2-3 months in advance will be treated to a personalised menu from Mike and his team, taking into account their likes, dislikes and any dietary requirements: “We create off-the-cuff, seasonal menus.”
It’s easy to see the appeal of kitchen table dining to punters, but what about for the chefs? “It helps me to stay creative, and it’s great to get feedback on new dishes,” says Thompson. “As a chef working in the kitchen, it’s great to see guests relaxed and enjoying the dishes,” says Atul Kochhar, chef-owner of Benares. Thompson says it also keeps his team on their toes and on top of their game: “You don’t want to get ‘in the weeds’ with people watching.”
These days you’ll find kitchen tables at all sorts of restaurants, not just fine dining ones. Brooklyn Fare in New York has a chef’s table hidden in a grocery store. There’s also one at Polpetto, the relaxed Italian restaurant in London helmed by rising star Florence Knight. You’ll even find a chef’s table at the back of Bubbledogs, the capital’s hugely popular hot dogs and champagne bar (yes, really). Don’t expect wieners though, as kitchen table is a chance for Bubbledogs’ chef James Knappett to showcase his skills with a 12-course tasting menu.
A word of caution though – don’t book a kitchen table if you like a serene dining experience or blanch at bad language. A ringside seat means you really do get to see the kitchen action, for better or worse. Top food blogger Chris Pople was put off his tasting menu at one London establishment after the chef lost his temper and launched a tirade of swearing at his nervous staff. Having a chef’s table “certainly does not ensure chefs are on best behaviour,” says Pople. Although, full-on outbursts aside, it seems for many diners, the odd four-letter-word is all part of the appeal. “If a few swear words slip the net we apologise. But people laugh and say ‘that’s what we’re here for’!” says Mike Thompson. “They want to see the action.”
Katy Salter is our food and travel writer. She contributes to most of the UK’s major food titles, The Guardian and The Telegraph. In 2012, Stylist named Katy one of its ‘Top 20 Food Heroines,’ alongside Mary Berry, Lorraine Pascale and Delia Smith.