Eliesa Johnson
Restaurant Alma morphed from a traditional one-kitchen model to three kitchens.

The Big and Small of Restaurant Kitchens

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By Connie Gentry February 2017 Blog

Waitressing my way through college, I spent some time in a restaurant kitchen, but when FSR launched in 2012, I had my first official kitchen tour. The Angus Barn in Raleigh, North Carolina, offered an impressive introduction into the inner workings of a multi-million-dollar operation. (Last year, Angus Barn’s sales reportedly topped $17.3 million, making it one of the highest performing restaurants in the U.S.)

I was awestruck by the volume of service; the number of people prepping, cooking, plating, and cleaning; and the logistical efficiencies and consistent execution of steak after steak—all without drama or excessive stress. On that particular night, Angus Barn was also hosting a private event for a couple hundred guests in its Pavilion banquet facility, which meant the expansive kitchen inside the restaurant was augmented by a pop-up cooking area outside. 

Since then, I’ve had a number of unforgettable kitchen visits—like talking with Chef José Andrés in his intimate minibar in Washington, D.C., where the open and extremely efficient kitchen faces the Chef’s Counter. Think opposite end of the spectrum from the evening service at Angus Barn, as minibar relies on a kitchen with a smaller footprint, where I watched the cooking team busily prepping at 10 in the morning for the dinner service.

Open kitchens have become more norm than novelty in upscale settings, and of course they present all manner of challenges for chefs and operators. The story of Restaurant Alma’s recent reinvention from a traditional one-kitchen model to three kitchens, including one that opens to the café dining area, is fascinating. 

Another shift in kitchen operations that is becoming more prevalent is an expansion of the productivity. Increasingly, chefs and restaurants are using their kitchens for extended hours to seize a number of opportunities—like bringing more scratch baking in-house, supporting catered events, adding dayparts to the service model, or producing signature foods for retail. At Alma, Chef Alex Roberts says his kitchen is running at least 15 hours a day.   

And that is true for restaurants across all segments. While in Minneapolis last fall, I also visited with Chef Heidi Marsh and toured the kitchen at Hi-Lo Diner, which opened in March to rave reviews—not only for its authentic take on a 1950s diner and its revitalization of a stressed neighborhood, but also for its elevated menu (especially the scratch-made pies). It was single-file only in the galley-style kitchen, where those amazing pies and homemade doughnuts are crafted in a pastry station that has barely a corner of the room. My laptop and monitor occupy a bigger workspace—and I promise nothing I write is as sweet as those treats!