Blog: Is this the end of the open kitchen?

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Tim Smallwood FFCSI ponders if the Covid-19 pandemic will change the dining experience and affect the close proximity of diners to an open kitchen

Over a number of years creating the meal, the origins of the ingredients, the chef’s skills and the finished meal presentation has gradually changed from being secreted behind closed doors to becoming a direct part of the overall customer experience.

The origins of this move may have come from the operator looking for a point of difference by adding to the overall customer dining experience by removing the secrecy behind the creation of the meal with the added advantage that the kitchen, with a direct visual contact with the dining area is able to respond to demand pressures more quickly. A further benefit has been the reduction in the overall size of the kitchen through not having to include space for wait staff within the kitchen area.

This has all came at a cost because now the kitchen is on show it has become part of the overall interior design and the equipment and fit-out of the kitchen now has to project a style and quality that enhances the overall. Equipment manufacturers have responded by considering appearance and not just the utilitarian and functional aspect of their designs to attract their suitability for the open kitchen.

Overall benefits to the operation

Designers and operators also have to consider the visual and audible aspects of the running of the kitchen. New uniforms; no more loud voices; continuous maintenance and cleaning all add to how the operation is seen by the customer. These may add to the operating cost but can also be to the overall benefit of the kitchen operation.

Once the customers experience included the process of the creation of their meal it became almost inevitable that it would also add an awareness of the ingredients that were going into their meals. The ingredient’s provenance and freshness has become yet another touch point for the business, moving the kitchen closer to the customer. The farm, the grower, food miles and sustainability now all had to be demonstrated as part of the customer experience.

But suddenly, now this proximity has become a liability. The dining experience has changed to ensure a safe separation not only from other diners but from the actual kitchen. Diners are no longer in the proximity to each other that adds to the overall experience. Operators now have to minimise the risk of cross infection. No longer do the customers anticipate being almost able to be part of the process of the delivery of their meal experience. They now prefer to eat outside in the clean fresh air.

The separation

The provenance and freshness of the ingredients remain important but no longer is being able to see, or even involved in the process, necessary. The separation of the kitchen from the dining is now complete.

The show kitchen may survive behind glass to be seen but not experienced, but the investment in the kitchen as part of the overall design of the interior will no longer be of any value. The kitchen will revert to its traditional location secreted behind a door and the new investment will be in ventilation systems and contamination avoidance as well as imagining new ways of enabling separate but intimate dining spaces where the meal experience returns to the table and the plate. Even the personal touch of experienced wait staff will be minimised if not completely eliminated and replaced by technology driven meal ordering and delivery systems.

The difference to the customer between eating-out and eating-in will be of convenience. The inevitability of the dark or ghost kitchen as a machine for the delivery of the meal experience is complete; either on site or in a remote location.

Tim Smallwood FFCSI