Why Chef's Tables Are Growing in Popularity

Small groups looking to have meals with a big impact are booking seats at increasingly popular chef’s tables.

By Adele Chapin January 5, 2015, 7:00 AM EST

Hearthstone Kitchen & Cellar in Las Vegas

Photo: Courtesy of Hearthstone

There aren’t traditional menus at Thoroughbred Food & Drink’s chef’s table. Instead, the Toronto restaurant offers what general manager Robin Kemp likes to think of as parties at the kitchen table. Planners who book the “Ain’t No Party Like an East Coast Party” can expect buckets of fresh seafood such as lobsters, clams, and mussels emptied right onto the 10-seat table, located adjacent to the kitchen on the restaurant’s second floor. Hard punches are served in huge four-liter Mason jars, so guests can pour their own drinks.

“Everything is family-style,” Kemp says. “Everyone indulges and has a good time.”

The chef’s-table approach for business entertaining is resonating with corporate groups from advertising and public relations agencies and companies in Toronto’s financial and fashion districts. “Corporate groups choose us because we’re a little more cutting-edge,” Kemp says of the option, which runs from $45 to $65 a person, with a $500 minimum spend requirement. “The idea is more of an experience, a little less staid.”

Choosing a chef’s table for a corporate event is one way to guarantee a more memorable and interactive meal, and more venues across North America are offering it as a social alternative to private dining rooms. After all, guests can’t help but talk to one another when they’re passing dishes around a communal table. That’s the case at Commonwealth Restaurant in Boston, a farm-to-table venue that seats as many as 14 at a chef’s table located between the restaurant’s open kitchen and its market area.

“Our venue encourages family-style dining, so passing side dishes down the table, you’re more likely to interact with people than you would if you’re each just getting your own individual plate,” says Hilary Neville, private events and catering director for Commonwealth. Guests gather for dishes like scalloped potatoes and crispy risotto cakes at the table, which is made out of wood from a bowling alley and machinery from a Ford plant in Detroit. Neville estimates that about 75 percent of the groups that book ahead for the chef’s table are corporate groups.

The menu at the chef’s table depends on which ingredients are in season and the whim of chef Steve “Nookie” Postal. “It’s a great chance for the chef to shine and show what’s really seasonal. They literally send out what’s fresh and what they feel like cooking at that moment,” Neville says. “It’s really taking New England food and making it shine. You’re purchasing from local farmers and eating what’s being grown in our area.” The menu is priced from $65 to $75 a person.

The Elm in Brooklyn is another restaurant that offers a seasonally driven, constantly changing chef’s table tasting menu. At the Williamsburg restaurant’s eight-seat chef’s counter, dubbed Little Elm, executive chef Arnie Marcella creates an eight-course tasting menu that differs from the main restaurant offerings. “It’s kind of a surprise,” says Little Elm’s Arleene Oconitrillo. “When we book your reservation through our reservation line, we ask about allergies and dietary [restrictions], and then the chef creates a menu around those if you happen to have any.”

The $135 menu is unique to the chef’s counter, which faces the kitchen so guests can see the chef and team in action.

A restaurant doesn’t have to be a white-tablecloth, haute cuisine destination with a celebrity chef to offer a chef’s table. At Buca di Beppo Florida Mall in Orlando, guests dine right in the kitchen at a table that seats eight guests. Diners begin their meal with Buca di Beppo’s signature half-pound meatballs and experience the bustle of the kitchen. “The cooks in the kitchen interact with [with guests]; they make it an experience for them,” says chef partner Holt Cappleman. The restaurant is located near a hotel that frequently hosts conventions, so corporate groups often book the table. “We have a lot of people who will come once, and they’ll come back year after year just because of the good experience they have at the table,” Cappleman says.

Restaurants also offer chef’s tables away from the kitchen. Chef Brian Massie is planning a chef’s tasting menu in the private enoteca at Hearthstone Kitchen & Cellar, an American restaurant that opened this fall at the Red Rock Resort Casino Resort & Spa in Las Vegas.

“It has this exclusivity about it, being in the room with all the wine. It just becomes more of an intimate experience,” says Shane Monaco, director of restaurant development at the Light Group. The rustic-style wine racks are made to look like wooden pallets with wine barrels lining the wall. And even though it’s not in the kitchen, there’s still a view. The wine room faces the casino floor on one side and, on the other, Hearthstone’s bustling counter dining space with an exhibition-style wood-burning oven.

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