Soundtracks to kitchens in even the finest dining establishments can be a cacophony of controlled chaos: pots clanging onto the range, meat sizzling in oil, flames shooting up around the edges of pans, shouts of “Yes, chef!” as orders are placed. But instead of keeping the scene hidden behind closed doors, a number of restaurants around the city invite guests to dine mere feet away from the action. For those celebrating a special occasion, the chef’s table is now an option to rival the quiet candlelit corner, and while custom touches can range from menu personalization to tabletop decor, what really helps diners stand the heat in the kitchen is the personal attention from the chefs themselves.
Take Outlook Kitchen and Bar executive chef Tatiana Rosana, who embarked on a special field trip when a guest booked the chef’s table for his wife’s birthday, aiming to accommodate her food preferences and strict religious diet.
“In order to make the experience as enjoyable for her as possible, I actually went with them to the farmers market before their dinner,” Rosana recalls. “She handpicked the ingredients she liked. She taught me about her religious restrictions, and we tailored her menu before she even stepped foot in the restaurant.”
The couple then dined at the two seats located at the end of the chef’s pass between the dining room and the open French kitchen, watching Rosana plate dishes with the precision and artistry one would expect from a chef with a background in both art and biomedical science.
“All the dishes get plated for the entire dining room right in front of our guests,” she explains. “Tickets are called, dishes are fired, food is seasoned and tasted, and they get to experience it all. I get to interact with our guests face-to-face throughout the night.”
And though the table doesn’t cost more than any other Outlook reservation for two, it also comes with personalized attention from the bar staff, who help guests pair cocktails or wine with each course.
“So few moments in our industry allow for us to get as intimate with our guests and our food as our chef’s table does,” Rosana says. “I want them to feel the soul of the menu, the pulse of the kitchen.”
In return, restaurant staff get to witness some pretty special moments themselves. Bar Boulud’s Samantha Harrison, who manages private dining reservations, recalls an evening when a couple got engaged while enjoying the seven-course chef’s tasting menu in the 10-seat private room overlooking the kitchen. “The gentleman proposed after the main course, and the woman was so surprised and excited, she began crying,” Harrison says. “We actually had to hold the next course until she could regain her composure.”
Also located in a private room off the kitchen, the chef’s table at Menton has a prime view of the cooking via a glass partition that also lets the culinary staff witness celebrations of all kinds. Seating up to 14, the space has been the site of many a proposal, as well as events like a 13-year-old’s birthday party (complete with a magician and balloons), an opera performance, a cancer survivor’s thank-you dinner for supportive friends and family and even a quiet evening for new parents who booked the table so they could have a night out with their 6-month-old without disturbing anyone.
“We want our guests to feel like they’re enjoying dinner in our home,” says Menton chef de cuisine Scott Jones. “I make sure to interact with every group, hear their story, share a few and usually have a glass of wine with them.”
The entire kitchen gets in on the fun, singing “Happy Birthday” and plating dishes with candles. “Sometimes guests want the kitchen to greet them with a certain phrase or take photos with the kitchen staff in the middle of service,” Jones says. “While they see how serious we are and how intense the kitchen can be, they also get to see how much fun we have.”
Then, of course, there’s the gourmet meal, which often starts with flutes of Champagne, followed by a six- or eight-course tasting menu, each with the option to add wine pairings, caviar and cheese courses, oysters and white alba truffles when they’re in season. Guests can even plan their own goodie bags, taking home treats like macarons or chocolate truffles. Menus can be personalized with anniversary wishes or a company’s logo, and each element of the decor is customizable as well, down to the flowers on the table. The restaurant’s own florist regularly works within each guest’s budget to create arrangements based on favorite flowers or color preferences.
“We help guests customize all the time,” says Menton’s Maura Lacy, who’s fielded requests such as finding the bottle of Champagne a couple drank at their wedding and creating signature cocktails for an occasion. “The sky’s the limit. We really try to accommodate anything we possibly can given the resources that we have.”
Custom flower arrangements, personalized menus and caviar courses are also popular options at L’Espalier, where beverage director Lauren Daddona creates pairings for each of the 12 courses served at the chef’s table. But she had to get creative with a special request from one group of diners who wanted to avoid wine altogether: “It was a challenge to figure out 12 different beverages to match the courses from the kitchen, but it allowed us to be super creative and it was very fun for all.”
The L’Espalier team draws upon that creativity each night as they transform a pastry prep area in the middle of the kitchen into the chef’s table. Light fixtures are swapped to provide a more gentle glow, an elevated table top is moved in to cover the counter, linens are ironed, and the table is set with plates used exclusively at the chef’s table, which seats up to four. The team even brings in a portable air conditioner to keep guests comfortable, since they sit close enough to the chefs to feel the heat.
“You are right in the action. You couldn’t be closer to the action,” says L’Espalier maître d’ and fromager Louis Risoli. “People are really impressed watching the coordination that goes on in the kitchen. The kitchen is almost balletic.”
And while he calls the kitchen’s atmosphere “fairly calm,” guests may also be privy to a rare boisterous or tense moment—not that Risoli thinks they mind. “Because everyone’s seen that on TV, I think a lot of people are secretly hoping that’ll happen,” he says. “It’s a show no matter what.”
That’s likely part of the reason the table is booked nearly every night. Some guests come back time and time again; one couple has dined at the table more than 20 times. “They celebrate their birthdays and their anniversaries there, and they bring in friends. Someone’s visiting them, that’s where they go,” Risoli says. “It’s wonderful because we become friends.” Chef/proprietor Frank McClelland recalls one group of diners who were so friendly, they asked to help clean up afterward. Ever the hospitable hosts, the L’Espalier team obliged.
Though his chef’s tables are set just outside his open kitchens, chef/owner Michael Scelfo of Alden & Harlow and Waypoint aims to get to know guests on that same personal level. “I want people to feel like part of our family,” he says, noting they have a prime view of food as it leaves the adjacent chef’s pass. “I often talk to the chef’s table guests about the food as it goes out, even if it’s not theirs.” As for their meals, diners at Alden & Harlow’s six-top and Waypoint’s four-top can order from the menu or let the kitchen whip up something off-menu based on their preferences. “We love to have fun with the menus,” Scelfo says. “Recently, we made one of our chef’s table guests a birthday dessert of crispy pork belly with a candle in it.”
Not that you need to be marking a milestone to pull up a front-row seat. “We see engagements happen pretty frequently,” Scelfo says, “but overall we love the idea of celebrating every day—no occasion necessary.”