Faux Pas: The Chef Was Texting

Dear Helena,
The other day I went to a restaurant with an open kitchen. I was psyched because I got what I consider to be prime seating, at the counter where I could watch the chefs at work. But they ignored me, not even bothering with a smile or nod. At one point, I even noticed one of them sending a text. If chefs aren't going to acknowledge customers or put on a show, they might as well be behind closed doors. What's the etiquette for staff behavior in an open kitchen?
—At Least Put on Clean Whites

Dear At Least Put on Clean Whites,
Contrary to what you seem to think, sitting at the counter of an open kitchen is not equivalent to being an audience member in an episode of Molto Mario. You shouldn't expect the cooks to banter with you or guide you through their mise en place. This is because, unlike TV chefs, they have actual cooking to do, and a lot of it.

So don't lean over and say, "What is the brown stuff in the squeeze bottle?" or "I'd like to add that fried-shrimp thing to my order." This is annoying and distracting. Nonetheless, diners do it all the time, says Richie Nakano, a chef who has worked almost exclusively in open kitchens. "Pretty much every single night a guest would try to talk to you or sometimes order food or drinks from you. ... You learn to smile, nod, and break eye contact and go back to what you were doing."

But you should expect an open kitchen to be cleaner than a restaurant kitchen typically is. Nobody should double-dip a tasting spoon in front of you (even though it's common practice behind closed doors). When Nakano worked at Va de Vi in Walnut Creek, California, there were strict rules about hygiene, he says. "As soon as your coat got dirty, you had to put on a new one or fold it over to the other side." It's also good hygiene for cooks to refrain from using their phones, not to mention good manners. You don't want to feel like the chef is so disengaged he's already making his afterwork booty call.

An open kitchen should also be relatively quiet, without the usual ribald remarks and pan-clanging. At Va de Vi, says Nakano, the chef didn't even allow talking during service. But it's unnatural for chefs to be unceasingly quiet and polite, and sometimes they revert to business as usual. At Va de Vi, the chef would lose his temper when an underling messed up, says Nakano. "He would let loose on the kitchen with a guest sitting right there. ... It was like watching Gordon Ramsay happen for real." Nakano says guests may have enjoyed it, but one woman complained. Personally I think that while everyone enjoys watching a chef eviscerate someone on TV, only a sadist could take pleasure in watching this in real life.

The problem is that many restaurateurs include an open kitchen in their design merely because it is trendy—though much less trendy than it was a few years ago—or because it saves space. (Eliminating the dividing wall between the dining room and the kitchen opens up space for extra seating.) The open kitchen is a default design element that they haven't put much thought into.

Thankfully, nowadays many restaurateurs are starting to realize that expecting chefs to be quiet and polite is like expecting the lions at the zoo to put on dinner jackets. As a result, says Cass Calder Smith, an architect who designs restaurants, clients are requesting open kitchens that are entirely enclosed in glass. That way if the chef has an outburst, it doesn't reverberate around the entire room.

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