Oct 262012

We have all had unexpectedly good meals in unlikely places. My best coq au vin ever was in the buffet of Poitiers railway station, with plastic chairs and paper tablecloth; I remember an outstanding lunch seated in a narrow passage in the overcrowded Michelin-starred Restaurant Europa, Pamplona, during the Sanfermines; other customers were sitting on the stairs. An additional lasting memory is fresh seafood rice cooked on a Mallorca fishing boat by the captain, with which, for some reason I have forgotten, we drank Krug 1998.

But I have yet to eat at the supposedly privileged chef’s table.

Now that we pay homage to successful cooks as if they were celebrities, they apparently need new ways to make an impression. So here comes the kitchen show, with selected customers as the audience.

The typical chef’s table seats eight people, and putting up with the noise and heat of the kitchen is usually a given, although in some cases this has been carefully reduced to a minimum. There is often a dedicated waiter and a tasting menu – all at a premium price and certainly more than you would pay for the same meal outside the kitchen. Every so often, between twirling pots and pans and sipping sauces, the celebrity chef will come over and have a chat, although never taking his eyes off the minions beavering away in the background or otherwise relaxing for a second.

The odd thing is that while in most countries from Singapore to the USA there is a waiting list for this ‘privilege’, here in Spain we appear not to care less. The important thing to a Spanish restaurant customer is first good company and second good food and wine. The idea of sitting as a spectator is unfamiliar and wholly unappealing. What do you do when the meal is finished? Applaud? Call for an encore?

Initially the chef’s table was an open secret, available to the best clients and the passing famous person, but now it is open to all and sundry. In Madrid, Astrid & Gastón, and Sergi Arola-Gastro, offer chef’s tables. At Doscielos, in Barcelona’s Hotel Meliá, where the Torres twins welcome every diner at the kitchen door (you have to go through the kitchen to get to the dining area), the table is actually just outside the kitchen looking in.

In the USA, where the silly practice has taken on a life of its own, there are chef’s tables in restaurants where no-one outside the immediate neighbourhood has ever heard of the cook.

In London there are always waiting lists for Gordon Ramsay in Claridge’s, which claims to have been the first, and at Marcus Wareing in The Berkeley.

Andrew Linn

(Originally published in Diario Sur in Spanish 29 Sept 12)

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