Is the open kitchen trend over?

Penelope Walsh looks at how far kitchen design and equipment choices are affected by dining trends

A trend in kitchen layout in recent years has been the increased use of open kitchens, allowing restaurant guests to see the chefs at work.
A trend in kitchen layout in recent years has been the increased use of open kitchens, allowing restaurant guests to see the chefs at work.
Tina Norden.
Tina Norden.
Ryan Gazder with the team at HCTS International Hospitality & Foodservice Consultants.
Ryan Gazder with the team at HCTS International Hospitality & Foodservice Consultants.
Ben Bishop.
Ben Bishop.
Daniel During.
Daniel During.

Much attention and debate is given to the arrival and eventual decline of culinary trends, in regards to menus, concepts, and front of house design. Yet the design of the kitchens and choice of equipment is almost equally affected by changes in consumer taste.

While there most certainly is such a thing as back-of-house design trends, they are also largely intrinsically linked to the trends consumers can see from their point of view in the dining room.

One of the most obvious trends in kitchen layout in recent years has been the increased use of open kitchens and similar design devices (if not fully open) that allow restaurant guests to see the chefs at work.

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Chef opinions differ wildly on the trend, some considering it an invaluable exercise in interaction with guests, others considering it an unwelcome intrusion.

Designers who have worked in the Middle East also differ in opinion as to how far this trend has already run its course.

Speaking to Caterer Middle East ahead of Rüya’s launch, Tina Norden, designer and project director at Conran and Partners, who was tasked with the design of the new Anatolian restaurant at Grosvenor House Dubai, told us that from her perception, the open kitchen trend “has not yet reached its peak”.

“Restaurants, particularly upmarket restaurants, used to be quite harsh — white table clothes, quiet, an elegant, upmarket atmosphere. I think people are beyond that, they find it boring, and quite stifling,” Norden shared.

“Obviously, the minute you have an open kitchen — with that level of noise and energy — immediately it gives that liveliness to the space. I think it is due to people being interested in where their food is coming from, and wanting to see it being cooked. Chefs are superstars these days. All of that means people love open kitchens,” she added.

In contrast, Ryan Gazder, director of HCTS International Hospitality & Foodservice Consultants, told Caterer he is inclined to disagree: “There’s way too many of them. These days everyone thinks its de rigeur, but an open kitchen may not necessarily be the best solution for all restaurants.”

“Theatrics, interactivity and showmanship definitely do work in certain types of restaurant and cannot work in others. This is where a good concept creator and a good chef need to work hand-in-hand with stakeholders to ensure that the outlet delivers on their promise and vision, while ensuring that the brand identity and service concept are not affected by the live cooking (or the lack of it),” Gazder continued.

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Yet, looking internationally, Norden highlighted that one current trend in restaurant design is a more intimate form of open kitchen: “What I see a lot in the Far East, in Hong Kong, Tokyo, and London, are a lot of smaller scale restaurants, which focus on the kitchen. Places which literally have a kitchen, with people sitting around it. I have been to a place in Berlin recently, basically a kitchen, with a big counter around it.

"There are a number of places in London and Hong Kong where it is all about the chef. It is often young guys, coming out of a famous kitchen and maybe they are starting on their own. People like Jason Atherton, who really supports young chefs and gives them the remit to run their own kitchen.

"The focus on the chef means that everyone wants to see them and everyone wants to engage with them. So you can sit at the counter, and the chefs can chat to you, and say, try this, have a taste of that,” Norden revealed.

To some extent, progression in the open kitchen trend has also been noted by Paul Bishop, managing partner of Bishop Design, who told Caterer: “There is a current trend to have a completely bespoke walk-in or open kitchen where the actual equipment and customised stations used are beautifully crafted and form an integral part of the design aesthetics.”

While Norden’s work on Rüya includes an open kitchen, the team did not decide to go as far as this “dining at the counter” concept she describes from London, Tokyo and Berlin.

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“At Rüya, we discussed a lot, whether people should sit at the kitchen. Obviously Rüya is quite a large restaurant. We had a lot of conversations with Colin Clague [executive chef of Rüya] about this. If we had people sitting at the counter, serving out would have been quite challenging,”
Norden explained.

Interestingly what the GCC region (if not cities such as Beirut in the wider Middle East) largely lack is this level of independent restaurant scene that Norden describes in Berlin and London. As such, this level of kitchen and dining area integration is perhaps still a long way off from reaching the region.

In fact, according to Thomas Klein International principal & managing director Daniel During, who spoke recently at The Hotel Show Dubai’s Vision Conference series, if anything, kitchens in Dubai, are getting bigger.

This is within, as During termed it, Dubai’s “independent” dining scene. “There is a trend towards bigger kitchens in independent restaurants in Dubai. I think people are realising that if you want to produce a Mercedes, the factory is bigger than the show room,” During told the forum.

Even so, keeping Norden’s analysis in mind, and taking the open kitchen trend out of the equation, what is growing in the region is a blurring of the boundaries between what is traditionally back-of-house space, and front-of-house space. It is something evident in the design of Rüya, where back-of-house equipment has been brought into the dining space as a focal feature.

“We have the open kitchen, but it is not in the middle of the room. On one side [of the dining room] we’ve got a bread oven, and on the other side is an open grill,” Norden said.

“The idea is, when you are walking in from either of the entrances, you immediately see food being prepared. For Urmut Ozkanca [founder and creator of Rüya], the restaurant is really all about the food, and engaging people with the food. At one point we were actually going to have a number of stations in the restaurant, where food is being prepared, but we then decided that keeping it all together works better. The chefs prefer it, and otherwise it becomes a bit buffet-like,” she told us.

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Despite this, Norden went on to reveal that gourmet buffet dining is in fact an emerging trend in Asia, particularly in Hong Kong and key Chinese cities such as Shanghai and Beijing. “If you go to Asia, where I think a lot of food trends are coming from, buffet restaurants are really hip, people love going to them, and it is really high quality of food.”

“We actually designed one not so long ago in a hotel in China. People love it. It is completely booked out all the time. It is really high quality, and I think that this idea will start to trickle through a little bit to Europe,”
Norden continued.

For Gazder, one emerging trend (or rather a development) in kitchen design in the region is the increased interest in energy-saving design.

“Energy is the second highest expense in any establishment after payroll. We have observed a heavy emphasis from clients towards their architects, lead consultants and MEP consultants mandating sustainability criteria and green building standards,”
Gazder began.

“A combination of such practices can help in reducing utility consumption, increasing recycling of waste, recycling of water, using more energy efficient lighting and HVAC sub-systems. An example is demand control ventilation systems and variable flow dampers in kitchens.

"When deployed in an optimal configuration this can contribute to making the F&B unit more profitable. Just a simple one-time investment in the ventilation system can reduce more than 80% of wastage of conditioned air leading to savings of millions for a typical hotel,” he continued.

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To some extent, kitchen equipment is also subject to trends, largely dictated of course by menu trends. In recent years, examples have included the focus on sous vide. Norden, however, argued this is no longer the hot toy it once was.

When asked if the fascination with sous vide was now over, she replied: “I think so. I think chefs are using sous vide in a different way now. It used to be a case of, sous vide is the big thing. Now, chefs use it for specific things. If you have a new toy, you want to do everything with that new toy. But eventually you sort of calm down. Sous vide will never go away, but chefs are now more specific about how they are using it.”

Still the hot ticket du jour, however, our designers agreed is the Josper oven. “Josper or Beechwood ovens are the big thing. All the chefs want them,” Norden said.

“Those trends don’t go away, because they just produce good food. We see a lot more kitchens where it is more about grills, and fast cooking of meat and fish,” Norden said.

Bishop was inclined to agree, and commented: “Jospers are always a winner although robata grills are becoming increasingly more popular due to the current trend seen in Peruvian and Asian offerings.” Bishop also highlighted a new possible trend for the use of 3D food printing technology, which is in fact due to debut in Dubai with the arrival of the Shoreditch-born pop-up Food Ink.

Bishop added: “Experimentation in 3D food printing is something very current and could evolve further.”

Nevertheless, both During and Norden issued a warning on the subject of trends. “Obviously, we look at trends all the time,” Norden told us. “But if you are designing a restaurant, it normally takes about a year. If you look at the trends that are starting to happen when you start to design it, in a year’s time, are they still trends? No.”

During stated at the Vision Conference, Dubai follows, rather than leads, F&B trends. His advice to clients, he added, is often: “Look at the trigger that makes trends happen, rather than the trends.”

Norden concluded: “The important thing is that it fits within the concept. You are not designing a restaurant for next week, but for next year, and actually if you want to give value to your client, the next five years at least.”

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