Chef’s Tables Take Diners Behind the Scenes

Posted May 11, 2005 at 5:51pm

Washington’s VIPs are accustomed to special treatment when dining out — preferential seating, a schmooze visit with the owner or a few complimentary glasses of bubbly. But dining at a chef’s table makes a VIP out of anyone with a reservation and the willingness to splurge on a special meal.

Often set right in the kitchen — a comfortable distance from flashing knives and steaming pots — chef’s tables take diners behind the scenes where they are treated to a custom-designed menu and personal attention from the chef. Not for the budget conscious, dinner at a chef’s table can run from around $65 to $275 per person for a menu paired with wine.

Several of Washington’s biggest-name chefs and best restaurants offer such tables, including Citronelle, Ristorante Tosca and Galileo. And then there’s Minibar at Café Atlantico and IndeBleu — two spots that take the traditional notion of a chef’s table and toy with it.

Whether you’re looking to celebrate or simply indulge at one of the city’s chef’s tables, securing what may be the best seat in the house requires advance planning. The Laboratorio del Galileo and Tosca, for example, book up a few months in advance for weekend reservations. Availability also depends on the chef’s often-busy schedule, so flexibility is key when choosing a date.

At the time a reservation is made, likes, dislikes and allergies are usually discussed. With that information, the chef customizes a multi-course meal with the freshest ingredients available in the kitchen. Diners can expect a procession of scaled-down courses, often more than 10, that exhibits the chef’s talents and cooking style.

Besides being fed extraordinarily well, interacting with the chef and watching dishes come together add an element of entertainment to the meal. And in the relatively new world of chef as celebrity, getting to watch a favorite chef cook and perhaps even personally wait on you can be a real treat.

At Citronelle, for example, six to eight guests are seated at a grill-side table where they can watch celebrated Chef Michel Richard personally prepare a decadent meal of about 14 courses.

And Chef Roberta Donna, who recently appeared on Food Network’s “Iron Chef America,” holds court several times a week in his gleaming exhibition kitchen, or “laboratorio,” within his restaurant Galileo. Expanding the chef’s table concept into an entire room, Donna is able to entertain more than 30 guests at eight tables.

But diners aren’t the only ones having fun. From a chef’s perspective, the concept presents an opportunity to customize entire menus and show off a little.

Donna said he loves cooking in the lab because it allows him to introduce diners to dishes he wants them to try. “It permits me to create a scale of flavor and texture that only can be done in a tasting menu designed by the cook,” he said via e-mail from a cooking event in Arizona. “Plus I cook all the food myself, something few chefs can really do.”

At Tosca, guests reserving the chef’s table are invited into the kitchen where Tosca’s executive chef and co-owner Cesare Lanfranconi prepares an eight- to 12-course menu. “It is not just a great experience for the customer, it is a wonderful opportunity for me as well,” he said. “It is a more direct and interactive way of dining and celebrating life through food.”

Co-owner Paolo Sacco often personally waits on the table and spends time chatting with diners, and Lanfranconi, a gracious host whose passion is contagious, happily answers questions about Italian food and culture. “I love to share my passion for food with our guests at Tosca, and the chef’s table gives me the chance to do so,” he said.

One chef’s passion for sharing and playing with food brought Washington one of its most sought-after dining experiences. Combining the functionality of a sushi bar with the experimentation of a mad scientist, José Andrés’ Minibar within Café Atlantico is more food laboratory than chef’s table. But with a diner-to-chef ratio of 2-to-1, it’s the most interactive table in the city.

Three specially trained chefs, often overseen by Executive Chef Katsuya Fukushima, work diligently behind the bar, assembling intricate courses one by one. Guests get an up-close view of the process and can engage the chefs in conversation as they work.

As the chef’s hand each of the 35 or so small courses over the bar, they explain what the dish is and how it should be eaten. For example, a deconstructed Caesar salad arrives as two rolls of romaine lettuce and anchovies bound by jicama, one topped with a quail egg yolk, the other with a mound of fluffy parmesan. Diners are instructed to pop one, then the other in their mouths, chew and … voila, Caesar salad.

IndeBleu also adds a dose of playfulness to the chef’s table concept. A round booth with a tall spiraling back sits just outside the main dining room and, like a secret passage way, the table can be rotated into the kitchen for a view of the action. Have the server turn the shiny steering wheel, and the table returns to the dining room.

IndeBleu is just now starting to take reservations for its chef’s table, where guests can order off the regular menu or have Chef Vikram Garg compose a tasting menu. Guests will also have the opportunity to visit with the chef and learn about the kitchen and its special equipment.

From the traditional to the off-the-wall, the city’s chef’s tables offer diners an experience that can’t be found in the dining room. These personalized meals act as a backstage pass to the restaurant, where you get to meet the star and maybe even learn a few tricks of the trade.