When did cooking become a spectator sport? I can just remember the days when chefs had reputations for being sweary, pot-swivelling hot-heads who were best kept behind the closed doors of the kitchen. In my youth, I had ventured beyond those doors into my dad’s restaurant kitchens a few times… they were hot, sweaty, generally loud, and usually frenetically paced. To the uninitiated, they were chaotic, but my dad assured me that there was always a rhythm in amongst the noise. Times have changed since those days. I’m sure that many chefs are still as hot-headed but the doors have been flung open and not only do people want to taste their food, people want to see the chefs cooking it too. How many restaurants have we all been to where the kitchens are visible from the dining room? How many times have you not so subtly rejoiced in that discovery?
Perhaps not as many times as me but admit it, you enjoy being a beady-eyed kitchen watcher as much as the next person because the inner workings of a professional kitchen can be fascinating. More and more restaurants are being designed with these ringside kitchen seats in mind, while others are choosing to let a select few be up close and personal at the chef’s tables they put inside their kitchens. Then there are restaurants like Kitchen Table who really take it to the extreme – one kitchen, one u-shaped bar wrapped around it, twenty chairs – that’s it. It doesn’t sound like much, but there is a bum on every seat, every night the restaurant is open and diners willing to pay a not so insignificant amount for the pleasure of sitting there, especially when you throw caution to the wind and opt for the wine pairing too.
Are people like me mad to do so? We love these experiences for the show as much as the food and wine; like any good dramatic production there’s a certain rise and fall, tension and release, and Kitchen Table delivered this like no other we have been to before. Their service is staggered into two sittings; we took the earlier shift and were warmly welcomed into an industrial fortress of calm hidden at the back of the casual hot dog restaurant Bubbledogs. But as we started to relax with our glasses of champagne, the chefs started to warm up – they had fifteen (seventeen for us greedy guts) individual dishes to cook, plate, serve and introduce. And all the while, we would be watching every slice, every turn, every deliberate lift and drop of the tweezers.
Everyone gobbled up the first flurry of small bites at a speed which can only be described as breakneck when compared with the time it took to actually create them, and that’s before taking into account all the prep work before service. I sometimes wonder if chefs ever feel a little disheartened by how quickly all their hard work just disappears… but then again, their egos are probably better massaged seeing it happily down the hatch than left untouched on the plate. There would never be a chance of us leaving behind any of the raw Orkney Island scallops or crispy chicken skin with bacon jam, but even the seemingly simple cracker topped with smoked turbot roe or potato puff covered in thinly sliced radishes left us sufficiently tantalised.
Kitchen Table served their parkerhouse rolls as a course on their own, and rightly so too. These feather-light rolls with their shiny tops deserved some time in the limelight, particularly when slathered with smoked beef fat onion butter and black truffle. The perfect oxymoron of simplicity and extravagance in one mouthful! From here, the style and finesse remained high but the substance and tensions began to gather momentum. I never knew I could get so excited about peas, but it seems when they’re freshly shelled and not from a bag in my freezer, I can be quite enamoured. Seatrout and turbot will always get me giddy though; the former lightly blowtorched and bundled up into my mouth in kohlrabi and nori, the latter served alongside salsify and asparagus and drenched in a seaweed hollandaise.
We got a taste of our own medicine as the other diners watched us devour our extra lobster course, but any slight discomfort was worth it for the pleasure of eating such a luxurious dish. I aspire to make bisque as unctuous and vibrant as this, but do I have the hours of effort to spare? Maybe for those extra special occasions, but in the meantime, my simple bastardised versions will suffice. A Keralan-style curry transformed a humble slice of sweet potato into something classy, but while tasty enough, I’ll still never understand the allure of this vegetable. I just hoped that eating it faster would mean we could move on the duck sooner. This was arguably the climax of the whole meal; a beautifully golden skinned duck which we watched Chef Knappett methodically but lovingly tend to throughout the evening.
Dried for four days, seared, roasted, rested, then finally meticulously carved off the crown and plated alongside a rich mole and sweet cherries; this dish was a joy to savour. When we diners see this skant array of ingredients on the plate, we don’t necessarily think about all the steps that have got it there… all the timing, all the technique, all the skilled execution. Witnessing this all unfold is one of the reasons why we love experiences like this, it inspires us. I encourage all those people who wince at the price tag, and complain about the portion sizes when it comes to fine dining to take a seat at one of these tables one day – seeing the sheer effort and precision behind these dishes might change their mind or at least soften their distain.
We were on the gentle slide down towards the end of our meal, but with the other sitting in full swing, the kitchen was moving at full throttle and the intensity was palpable. While light refreshing courses of burrata, beetroot, and our extra course of sliced strawberry on the most subtle charred black pepper meringue graced our side of the kitchen, the other was getting their first lot of courses. It was so calm when the kitchen was only producing one dish, but with two, more juggling and multitasking was required. This sort of operation is a team effort, and sometimes when there’s a weak link, whether it be an off night or a lack of experience, it shows. It may not necessarily be obvious from the plate, the true tell is in the way the chefs’ interact and respond to each other, the camaraderie is momentarily lost and every move feels a little strained. It must happen regularly behind those closed kitchen doors, but out in the open, I can assure you it was painful to witness.
But the chefs know better than anyone that the show must go on, and our fervent debates about the appropriate running of a kitchen soon dissipated when we got caught up in the cooling calm of the sweet BBQ peaches paired so simply with mascarpone and honey, and the delicious novelty that was a caramel ice cream sandwich. I was delighted to be presented with a canele as our final bite at Kitchen Table; these Bordeaux specialities are one of my favourites and while these didn’t hold a candle to the ones from the city itself, they were still divine.
Every dish was near perfect, some actually were, and despite the rather over-the-top number of them, the meal itself still felt whole. I didn’t have to suffer the same fate of wondering when the canapes would be over and the main event would actually begin; there was the right beginning, middle and end to this production. Yes, the food is elegant, interesting and most importantly, very pleasant to eat – Kitchen Table doesn’t hold a Michelin star for nothing, but I cannot deny that it’s sitting at the kitchen table itself which really makes this experience like no other. A bit of comedy, a moment of tragedy but plenty of suspense and drama… come here to sit back, relax and watch it all unfold right before your very eyes!
Do you like seats with a view of the kitchen?
Have you been to Kitchen Table at Bubbledogs, was your meal delivered with a side of drama?
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