Kitchens on the Front Burner

The open kitchen is as much an emblem of the ‘New American Cuisine’ as goat-cheese pizzas or mesquite-grilled fish. And though the mere installation of an open kitchen does not guarantee an establishment’s success, it is a fact that a good many of the most successful restaurants in town do possess them. At Ma Maison, customers can look down into the kitchen from the bar. Other restaurants provide wide-open views from the dining room--among them Spago, Chinois on Main, Citrus, Angeli and Trattoria Angeli, Morton’s, Locanda Veneta, Rebecca’s, Kate Mantilini, DC 3, the Pregos in both Beverly Hills and Irvine, the Parkway Grill, the Crocodile Cafe, and Chianti Cucina (which doesn’t just have an open kitchen--it is one).

The kitchens at the last eight of these restaurants are the work of the K.I.A. That’s the Kitchen Intelligence Agency run by Paul Bisno and Larry Wirth. (“We’ve probably worked on kitchens--open and otherwise--for something like 200 restaurants in all,” estimates Bisno.)

Because it’s their business, Bisno and Wirth have kept a track of the recent genealogy of the open kitchen:

“In the sixties,” Bisno says, “about the only open kitchens around here were at the Chuck’s Steak Houses. They, in turn, had gotten the idea from Buzz Schneider, who has restaurants all over Hawaii--and he used to say that he had gotten the idea from cafeterias, which were sort of open kitchens by definition. “


“Another real pioneer,” adds Wirth, “was David Alderman, who put open kitchens in all his places--Moonshadows, Orville & Wilbur’s, Nantucket Light, and Carlos & Pepe’s.

For whatever reasons, Bisno and Wirth note, open kitchens went out of fashion for the most part in the mid-1970s, with the serious new restaurants that had started opening around the country mostly keeping their kitchens out of sight. Then came the exhibition kitchen Alice Waters installed in her Cafe at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, followed closely by Spectrum Foods’ original San Francisco Prego (where even the fresh pasta was made out in the open) and the kitchen-as-stage-set that Barbara Lazaroff designed for Wolfgang Puck at Spago. Suddenly open kitchens were in--or, rather, “out"--again.

“Part of that,” says Wirth, “was probably because the equipment people had started cooking with brick pizza ovens, rotisseries, and so on--just looked too good. You didn’t want to hide it away.”

Bisno suggests another factor: “Restaurants in general changed--formal was out, fun was in. Open kitchens automatically give restaurants a certain informality, and that became what people were looking for. It’s the difference between a Ma Maison and a Spago.”

He adds that one of his favorite local restaurant kitchens was at the late La Couronne in Pasadena (the work of designer Ed Sovich of Laschover and Sovich in South Pasadena), which was an exhibition kitchen in the sense that it displayed itself through a bay window onto an adjacent courtyard. But was concealed from the dining room. “It was one of the greatest kitchens I’ve ever seen,” says Bisno, “and I think it was wasted.

But Wirth admits that open kitchens do present problems. “To begin with,” he explains, “once you get past the brick ovens and rotisseries, not everything in a kitchen is good-looking, so you’ve got line-of-sight problems to deal with, and you automatically have to go to the best fabricators for sheet metal and so on--which of course jacks up the price of things. Then, heat and smoke can cause real problems--especially if you’ve got wood-burning ovens or mesquite grills. And you’ve got to worry about lighting, because kitchens are usually fluorescent-lit and very bright, while dining rooms tend to be incandescent-lit and softer.”

Bisno adds that noise can be a problem, too. “If you just open a rule-book and design an exhaust system according to the specs and put it in an open kitchen,” he says, “you’ll probably end up drowning out everybody in the dining room.”

One way to help solve the problems posed by kitchen heat, smoke, and noise is to glass the kitchen off--a solution Bisno and Wirth have employed at DC 3. The kitchen is still “open” in the sense of being visible from the dining room, but the emanations from it are considerably reduced. Citrus and the new Victor Hugo in Beverly Hills are two other high-profile restaurants with glassed-in kitchens. Is this, then, a new trend--the next step after kitchens that are completely open? “I don’t think so,” Bisno replies. “You’ll definitely be seeing more kitchens behind glass, but they take up more space than plain open ones, and you generally have to arrange the traffic patterns differently. They don’t always work.”