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Up close and personal
FORGET dining at Michelin-starred restaurants, getting your name on year-long reservations lists or forking out money for an omakase menu. The latest trend in restaurant dining is all about location, location, location - at the chef's table, to be exact.
A growing number of restaurants are offering diners those coveted seats, where diners get front row access to the cooking action.
Technically speaking, a chef's table is a table located in the kitchen of a restaurant, reserved for special guests, and served by the head chef.
But in space-constrained restaurants in Singapore, where it is more profitable to allocate space to the dining room than to the kitchen, most chef's tables are usually located right outside the cooking area.
One of the exceptions is at the newly opened Odette at the National Gallery Singapore, where chef/owner Julien Royer has his chef's table for four in his kitchen. The table is laid out in the same white tablecloth and with the same chairs as those in the dining room.
For now, chef Royer is saving that table for close friends, but in time, the public will be able to make reservations for that dining in the kitchen experience.
A year after its opening, European restaurant Zott's True Alps at Amoy Street has reconfigured its space to include a chef's table, directly in front of the kitchen, which can seat four.
Zott's business development manager Claudia Hayes says that the idea for a chef's table was already in the minds of executive chef Lorenz-Maria Griesser and restaurant owner Christian Zott when they were planning the restaurant some two and a half years ago.
"After a year of running the restaurant, we decided the time was right to have a chef's table," says Ms Hayes. "The main idea behind the chef's table is to let guests explore the technique of the Alpine way of cooking. At times, chef Griesser will give away a few secrets behind some of his recipes, and we have also had diners cooking a dish with the chef together in the kitchen."
Diners at the chef's table can opt for a four, six or eight-course menu, which includes pickled trout, beef tartar and sous vide venison.
Ms Hayes says that dining at the chef's table has been a popular gift, and "we are expecting an increased demand for it over the gifting period".
Over at the recently opened Cure at Keong Saik Road, chef/owner Andrew Walsh admits that he has had to sacrifice some kitchen space to create his chef's table, but he says it is worth it. This chef's table, which can seat six to eight, is housed in an enclosed booth right next to the kitchen. Diners get to interact with him and his chefs. "You can even smell the food as it is being cooked," he says. So far, that table has been popular with big groups who are out to celebrate birthdays or other occasions.
Contemporary grill restaurant 5th Quarter at Syed Alwi Road has not one but three chef's tables within its space - two tables for four diners each, while the other can seat eight.
"We wanted a space where I could personally interact with guests," says executive chef Drew Nocente. He does go around the restaurant to greet guests, but with a chef's table, "service is more personal and interactive, and guests are treated to a kitchen tour right after the meal which they seem to appreciate".
He adds that as the restaurant does not have the luxury of an open kitchen where he can directly interact with guests, the chef's tables are the next best thing that the restaurant can offer to include a greater personal touch for diners.
The two smaller chef's tables are right in front of the kitchen pass, where diners can watch the chefs in action. The bigger table for eight is in the middle of the restaurant. "Even though the bigger table is in the middle of the restaurant, I can still pay attention and give that group of diners the personalised service, but they still get their privacy," he says.
Diners at the chef's tables can either opt to order from the regular menu, or if they let chef know in advance, a tasting menu can be specially tailored to them.
And when you name your restaurant Chef's Table, it is only natural that you would have such a table in your restaurant. Chef/owner Stephan Zoisl has a 12-seater chef's table in front of his open kitchen, and diners have clear, unobstructed views of the chefs at work and are within conversational distance of them.
He says that he likes the interaction that he gets with his customers, and even encourages them to walk into the kitchen when the restaurant is less busy to see how things are done.
One chef who has turned his whole restaurant into a chef's table dining experience is Ivan Brehm. His restaurant Bacchanalia, at its new location at Hong Kong Street, has no walls between the multiple kitchen counters and dining tables, reducing the distinction between guests, servers and chefs.
Guests walk through the kitchen before being seated for their meal, helping to create informality and allowing them to actively engage with the chefs and the cooking.
"The size of the Masonic Hall on Coleman Street and distance between kitchen and dining room affected our ability to directly interact with guests," says chef Brehm. "The new Bacchanalia is a living room, dining room and kitchen all in one. It closes the gap between guests and the kitchen, people and food, making the experience more akin to a dinner party in your own house and more aligned with our belief that great restaurants should be about connected and shared experiences."
Chef Brehm says that those who sat at the chef's table at the old Bacchanalia had a "different kind of engagement with their food". He explains that "they perceived flavours better, that they understood dishes and their origins with greater ease. But also that negative feedback, on its rarest occasion, was always portrayed constructively".
He adds that chef's tables are usually sold at a premium, and this creates different levels of appreciation, which are contrary to his beliefs about food and its true power and relevance.
"We aimed at literally showing what a fine dining restaurant would become if it allowed itself to remove the smokescreen of the chandelier, the crazy price tag and chichi vibe associated with good eating," he says. "With Bacchanalia, we managed to achieve that with a chef's restaurant, not just chef's tables."
According to him, his customers love the new space.
Chef's tables are not just limited to restaurants serving Western cuisine. Japanese restaurant Hide Yamamoto at Marina Bay Sands also has a chef's table - at the robatayaki section.
The chef's table dining experience is a monthly affair, where chef Yamamoto will serve up an eight or nine-course seasonal menu. These dishes are not found on the a la carte menu, such as the grilled matsutake mushrooms. "The seasonality of ingredients is what inspires my creations for the chef's table and allows me to surprise and excite my customers," says chef Yamamoto.
Available to a maximum of 12 guests at any one seating, diners get to enjoy close interaction with chef Yamamoto as he shares with them about the ingredients used, the background of the dishes, and the culinary techniques used. This not only heightens the enjoyment of each dish, it makes the overall dining experience more intimate and personable.
The restaurant has been offering its chef's table dining experience since March, and each session is always fully booked. Dates for each monthly session are released one month ahead, month by month.
Often, dining at the chef's table means you get to see all that's going on in the kitchen, but it also means putting up with smells. If leaving the restaurant smelling like your dinner is not your thing, the chef's table at Les Amis would be ideal.
Its private room on the first level is the chef's table that offers up to six diners a view of the kitchen through a glass window. According to a spokesman, "guests get a glimpse of the action that goes on behind the scenes while retaining their privacy".
French restaurant Bar-A-Thym doesn't have a chef's table but a chef's counter instead, right in front of the plancha. The counter can seat four persons, and chef/owner Francois Mermilliod says "you will be 20cm away from the cooking".
He says that the chef's counter is not the place for a romantic dinner, "as I will be constantly interrupting your dinner, but it is good for those who are into their food, and love cooking".
He likens the experience to being in a cooking class, where diners can watch how ingredients are prepped, how dishes are cooked and plated. "And if I drop a fish on the floor, you would see it too," quips chef Mermilliod. "This spot is good for those who want to be part of the kitchen, you get to see everything that goes on in a kitchen."
Where to go for chef's table dining
97 Amoy Street Tel: 6223-0913
The chef's table is in front of the kitchen and can accommodate four guests. Diners pick from a four, six or eight course menu.
21 Keong Saik Road Tel: 6221-2189
The chef's table is housed in an enclosed booth, and can seat six to eight guests. Diners have the option of ordering the set menu, or have a customised menu designed for them.
39 Syed Alwi Road Tel: 6291-1936
Three chef's tables are available here. Two smaller one are in front of the kitchen pass, and can seat four. A bigger table for eight is in the middle of the restaurant. Guests at these three tables get to tour the kitchen after the meal. Diners select from the regular menu, or a customised menu is available, with a minimum spend of S$108++ per person.
61 Tras Street Tel: 6224-4188
Chef's table for 12 in the middle of the restaurant. Guests are also allowed to walk into the kitchen when the restaurant is less busy. Guests at this table will get a special menu, ranging from three to 12 courses.
39 Hong Kong Street
Chef Ivan Brehm says the entire restaurant is made up of chef's tables. Guests walk through the kitchen before being seated. There are no walls separating the dining room and the kitchen. Guests select from a five or seven course menu.
Marina Bay Sands Casino, #02-05 Tel: 6688-7098
The restaurant offers a one-night only chef's table dining experience for a maximum of 12 people, each month at its robatayaki section. This is an eight or nine-course menu, priced at S$350++ per person. Dates for each chef's table session is released a month ahead, month by month.
Les Amis Restaurant
Shaw Centre, #01-16 Tel: 6733-2225
The chef's table is housed in one of the private rooms. It can seat six and diners can watch the action in the kitchen through a glass window. Diners pick from the restaurant's regular menus. There is a charge of S$5,000 for lunch, and S$10,000 for dinner for the private room.
18 Gemmill Lane Tel: 6557-2224
The French restaurant offers chef's counter seating for three to four people in front of its plancha. The restaurant offers omakase meals.