Eating at a chef’s counter brings with it some genre-specific dining peculiarities. Here is a chef, cooking a seemingly intimate dinner for strangers seated just within arm’s reach, yet as the chef plates and describes each menu item, the dynamic at play is far from that of an actually intimate family meal. Diners may find the whole experience awkward and confusing. It turns out chefs do too.
Flynn McGarry, the 18-year-old chef of Eureka, a traveling tasting menu pop-up, is very familiar with counter service dining and understands its downsides. On a recent episode of the Eater Upsell, he offered his own take on how to navigate social etiquette to make the most of a tasting counter experience:
- Small talk isn’t for everyone, but if you’re eating at a counter, you should probably make an effort. McGarry has noticed that when eating at a chef’s counter, diners seem hesitant to speak up. “It’s like they're kind of afraid to bother us,” he says. The fear is unnecessary. McGarry, at least, is completely comfortable talking while plating.
- That said, the patter at a tasting counter is just that. McGarry admits he makes the same jokes at every dinner service and that the practice has made him “really good at schmoozing.” At times, it can feel like he’s a performer, not just a chef. McGarry says, “It's a show, but I'm also cooking your food and you're seeing the real aspect of it.”
- If dinner and a show isn’t what you’re after, it’s okay to skip the counter — some chefs actually prefer that. McGarry says, “I would rather have someone sitting at a table three feet away, where you can leave them alone and they can be in their own world, as opposed to someone literally right in front of you, watching every single thing you do like a hawk.”
- The real secret to connecting with the chef serving you, though, is expressing interest. McGarry counts diners’ fascination with the cooking process as one of the few upsides to chef’s counter dining and appreciates the questions he gets from diners who really want to know how those precisely composed small plates come together. That and, “any time that we blow torch something, people freak out,” he says.
Hear the complete interview with Flynn McGarry below, as he discusses his ideal restaurant atmosphere, figuring out the perfect fine-dining model for New York City, and why he’s “so done” with pop-ups. Subscribe to the Eater Upsell on iTunes, or listen on Soundcloud. You can also get the entire archive of episodes right here on Eater.