Grand Opening

The chef is an actor and all the kitchen a stage in many of today's restaurants.

November 12, 2003|By Joanna Daemmrich | Joanna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Inside the Annapolis storefront, everything is ready for the Saturday-night opening. Tiny candles are lighted, glasses are polished and chairs are pushed in place. The artist in the green bandanna picks up her saucepan. It's show time.

Alison Chase knows her cue. Gracefully, she turns up a burner to sear a duck breast. An admiring couple looks over as she slides their lobster sushi roll on the sleek granite counter at the restaurant Aqua Terra.

So it goes as more and more places serve not just flavorful food but a taste of drama.

Chefs no longer are blue-collar workers who toil in the back; they're now celebrities who perform in front of the dining room. Waiters are mixing guacamole table side and flaming retro desserts. And kitchens have become a central attraction, artfully designed, sometimes lined with bar stools to let curious customers sit even closer to the cooking.

"You get this adrenaline going," says Chase, 32, whisking tempura batter on a busy night earlier this month. "If I sense there's not enough energy in the restaurant yet, I'll squirt some oil on the grill to get flames going. I have fun with it, absolutely."

Dining out has always been about entertainment. Sitting next to a crowded and noisy restaurant kitchen, though, used to be considered not stylish but unpleasant.

What happened over the past two decades, according to restaurateurs and kitchen designers, is that eating in the kitchen became commonplace, even chic, made popular by televised cooking shows and "great rooms" in modern homes.

These days, open kitchens can be found in all kinds of restaurants, from the national chain Romano's Macaroni Grill to Baltimore's elegant Charleston. At some of the hottest restaurants around town, the best seats are by the burners.

The tables closest to the kitchen at the Bicycle in South Baltimore are always claimed first. And customers line up for the coveted stools at Linwood's in Owings Mills and Roy's at the Inner Harbor East.

Other places are turning heads with table-side displays. Beverly Hills' Spago, an open-kitchen pioneer in 1982, is unstacking cookie towers table side and piping apple filling into individual pie crusts. In Baltimore, Joy America Cafe is rolling out avocado-laden carts for customized guacamole, and the Milton Inn in Sparks is flaming bananas foster.

Chef Peter J. Kelly, an instructor at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., calls it "the supersensory experience."

"We used to just like a little ambience," he says. "Now, we not only have to be e-mailing someone, but talking to someone and watching someone cook at the same time."

Display cooking has both humble and sophisticated origins, Kelly says. One is American populist fare: cheap eats carts and late-night diners that served burgers off the grill. The opposite is French fine dining: classically trained waiters who carved duck at the table. Equally important lately has been the influence of the Japanese sushi bar.

Restaurateurs are drawing on these disparate traditions to create a contemporary style. At Aqua Terra, owners Ken and Alison Chase transformed an old lunch grill three years ago with mirrors and blue hanging lamps. Their cuisine has an Asian flavor (wasabi mashed potatoes). And the creme brulee is dramatically finished with a propane torch.

Not many restaurants have the room for carts or the staff trained for European-style service. The table-side treats that are turning up on menus nowadays are simpler but still showy: salsa, guacamole, peach cobbler. At Joy America Cafe, waiters bring out stone bowls to mash avocados, lime, garlic and cilantro while the customers watch.

"One table will order it, and before you know it, everyone's dipping," says Ian Stanford, chef at Joy America, where the best-selling appetizer is the guacamole. "It gives people something to talk about while they're staring at each other. It's fun."

Even a small bistro can make food preparation a focus. That's helped drive the upturn in the number of open kitchens locally in the past few years, chefs and designers say.

"The trend's there because it's a great atmosphere," says Barry Rumsey, chef and owner of the Bicycle, where a bright kitchen beckons beyond the front door. "When customers come in, you can see them pointing at the food. People like to see what's going on."

Rumsey did more than introduce a hip new menu in 2000. He also changed the way he worked. For the first time, he had to pay attention to his appearance and cooking style, after having spent 16 years behind the closed doors of a conventional Marriott kitchen.

Not every chef is instantly comfortable in front of an audience. Rumsey found it more enjoyable than he expected; yet he and other restaurateurs have tales of line cooks who felt too pressured and retreated to the privacy of food prep.

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