The vogue for open kitchens in restaurants raises an array of design issues, says Miriam Cadji

Restaurants were once places you visited when you wanted to escape the kitchen, but it seems diners are now clamouring to be part of the action. Feeding our apparently insatiable appetite for food and design, kitchens are no longer hidden away in dingy basements, but have found their way out on to the restaurant floor where they are taking centre stage.

The trend for open, or ‘theatre’, kitchens dates back to the late 1980s/ early 1990s, with high-profile London restaurants such as The River Café, Belgo, Harvey Nichols, and Quag-lino’s among the first to allow prying eyes into the chef’s domain. A perfect sign of our times, the theatre kitchen reassures the paranoid diner who quakes at the thought of another food scare and is suspicious of restaurant hygiene.

Opening up the kitchen is a good way for a restaurateur to inject atmosphere and buzz into their premises, but it poses challenges for the designers involved. Health and safety concerns, fire regulations and acoustic problems are all issues that have to be addressed.

Architect Andrew Waugh, whose practice Waugh Thistleton has designed more than its fair share of restaurants, says the critical rule to an open kitchen is that some things should remain concealed. ‘Always hide the pot washer, who is generally poorly paid and swamped with filthy dishes,’ he says. The chemical, dry and cold stores should also be tucked away, while the grill or anything with an open flame must go up front for maximum impact. ‘This can create a hassle in terms of fire regulations,’ Waugh admits. ‘But as long as the kitchen is furthest from the fire escape you’re basically OK.’

Ventilation is perhaps the number one bête noire of all commercial kitchens, and particularly the open kitchen. Air movement has to be carefully controlled to avoid draughts cooling the food down in the kitchen area, while also keeping cooking smells from overpowering diners in the eating area. When chef Anthony Worrall Thompson recently altered the menu for his restaurant Notting Grill, from serving tapas to grilled food, the motor in the extraction system had to be upgraded to cope with the extra smoke. He says, though, that the obsession with ventilation can go too far. ‘[Anton] Mossiman’s kitchen has such good extraction that there is simply no heat. It is very Swiss – it feels efficient, but soulless’, Worrall Thompson says.

A way to sidestep the problems associated with ventilation is to install a window between the kitchen and the main floor. This popular alternative to the open kitchen eliminates cooking smells while maintaining a visual connection between the two areas. Interior designer and Neutral Design director Phillip Skerrit used this tactic to screen diners from the open charcoal grill at Raks, a new Turkish restaurant, giving the interior a rather more sophisticated bent than the average local kebab house.

He discovered, however, that this solution is not without its own problems: despite denting the budget by £3000, the fire-rated sheet of glass still managed to fail. ‘The night before opening, we fired up the grill and watched the window slowly crack,’ Skerritt recalls. ‘Although we didn’t know if the problem was due to the heat or an installation fault, we swapped it for a sheet of glass that is used in wood-burning stoves. It was a bit of a compromise because the glass is yellow tinged and it distorts the view slightly, but we decided at such short notice that it was acceptable.’

Whether open or hidden, commercial kitchens are functioning workplaces where people have to operate in a moderately dangerous, highly charged and stressful environment. At a time when rents are sky high, the kitchen remains the primary non-revenue-earning space in a restaurant and designers are faced with balancing the equation between maximising cooking efficiency versus more bums on seats.

The recommended ratio between eating and cooking space is generally 60:40, but in most cases, the kitchen is cut back much further. One exception is the kitchen at the Eyre Brothers’ restaurant, designed by Waugh Thistleton and owned by brothers Robert and David Eyre. The former runs the front of house, and the latter is the chef. David Eyre, who trained as a mechanical engineer, was involved in the design of his kitchen from the outset. The result is a 50:50 split, almost unheard of, but he defends the decision wholeheartedly. ‘Architects have no knowledge of how much space refuse and laundry take up,’ Eyre says. ‘If you want to buy olive oil by the palette, where do you store it?’

He despairs of the traditional way most restaurants evolve, where the front of the house is designed first by an interior designer or architect, the kitchen by a kitchen designer, then the menu by the chef, with no connection between the three. ‘Let’s face it, most kitchen designers have never shaken a frying pan in anger. Chefs should be consulted from day one,’ Eyre adds.

According to Waugh, the menu and the spend per head should always inform the finished design. ‘One of the first things you have to do is go through a menu,’ he says. ‘The style of a restaurant should fit the food, and the cost of a meal will affect the scale of the kitchen,’ he explains. ‘The difference between an £8 main course and a £15 main course is massive, and the size of the kitchen must reflect this.’

Regardless of a kitchen’s size, the same simple design rules should apply. Primarily, there should be no crossovers: the perfect model is to have raw goods delivered in one door, and preparation areas, cooking sections and finished plated food out the other. There should be a link between the servery and the wash up, and a link between cooking and pot washing.

‘Flow is paramount because chefs hate walking,’ confesses Eyre. ‘If you are carrying a hot pan from the cooker and you need to turn around and take three steps to plate the food up, that’s a health and safety issue. We insisted on three pot washers, which saves an awful lot of money: it minimises the number of times and the distance you need to travel with dirty crockery, and therefore minimises breakages.’

James Lee, from kitchen design group Hansen, puts it simply. ‘Good kitchen design is down to ergonomics. You should be able to draw a metre circle and give a chef a station in the middle, from which everything should be in reach.’ He believes the most efficient design is a linear kitchen where all the cooking equipment runs in a straight line. Good storage and space planning are vital, and adequate provision must be made to accommodate all members of the team: a commercial chef may spend all day preparing and chopping vegetables, but if their worksurface is either too high or too low they are guaranteed to suffer a bad back.

For obvious reasons, ease of maintenance is crucial, and to ensure cleanliness all surface junctions have to be completely sealed. All heavy equipment should be on wheels and castors so it can easily be pushed aside and the space behind kept spotless. The floor in a commercial kitchen should ideally rise up to meet the walls, so it can be properly cleaned. It should be non-slip and preferably seamless with a gulley for drainage.

With design decisions driven by practical necessity, aesthetics have traditionally been a secondary consideration. Since commercial kitchens have been opened up, however, the way the cooking area looks has become increasingly important.

Worrall Thompson agrees open kitchens have to look attractive, but says this does not have to be an expensive exercise. ‘A lot can be achieved by simply hanging up a row of dried chillies,’ he says. While hidden kitchens are often a ramshackle mix of laminate surfaces and second-hand equipment, theatre kitchens generally display acres of shiny stainless steel.

This industrial aesthetic has now become desirable in its own right, and the look has slowly spread to the domestic kitchen. Oversized stainless steel chimney hoods are now de rigueur in every contemporary interior, even where their inhabitants have no interest in cooking.

But has this trend gone too far? While kitchen manufacturers have been quick to cash in on the cachet of industrial chic, home owners should beware. Professional chefs may swear by stainless steel for their kitchens at work, but it can be less easy to live with at home, as it shows up dirt and grease mercilessly.

‘The first thing you learn about “stainless” steel is that it isn’t,’ Eyre says ruefully. ‘It can only be kept clean by an army of wash-ups.’

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