There are plenty of professions that involve being watched. Acting is an obvious one. Being a flight attendant is another — think of the emotional labor required to smile and appear chipper while some guy inevitably takes off his shoes on the plane. Or consider the construction worker, jackhammering away while children beg their parents to stay and look at the big machines. Even taking a Zoom meeting at a cafe means everyone around you now knows what you’re like in meetings.
Traditionally, a chef in a fine dining establishment didn’t have to worry about being watched. While cooks at lunch counters and street stalls whipped up meals in full view of paying customers, at finer establishments the work was obscured. Perhaps a customer could glimpse the line through a swinging kitchen door, but the peace and civility of the dining room was sacrosanct.
The opening of Spago in 1982 changed all that: Its open kitchen concept, which displayed chef Wolfgang Puck and his team grilling fresh tuna or sauteing crimini mushrooms, was half of the reason you went. Since then, the trend has infiltrated the restaurant industry at all levels: Not only have fine dining restaurants come to embrace the open kitchen, but fast-casual eating is all but defined by the act of watching your Chipotle burrito or Cava bowl being made to your specifications. No matter where you are, you can watch the kitchen action, which changes everything from how a line cook must approach their job to how designers create restaurant spaces. And most importantly, how all of us wind up approaching how we eat.
“People credit me with inventing the open kitchen, but what about the American diner?” Barbara Lazaroff, Wolfgang Puck’s ex-wife and the co-founder of the Wolfgang Puck brand, told the LA Times in 2001. As it did in many a diner, the open kitchen line at Spago spanned a back wall, with the full dining room in front of it — anyone could get a view of the chefs in action, along with any celebrities seated at the VIP tables in the middle. “The difference,” Lazaroff continued, “is we were creating food of a certain level, right where everyone could see it.”
It’s true that open kitchens were hardly a new concept. Sushi had long been served at countertops and street stalls in full view of customers, even before the term “omakase” gained popularity. Diners, which originated as lunch carts in the 1870s, initially had grills in the open, and many still do. And at fast-food restaurants it’s long been standard to watch workers assemble a meal, or at least have a view into the kitchen from the register, one often provided in an attempt to assure customers that the ingredients are fresh and hygienic standards are being met.
But while at an omakase counter the experience is centered on the sushi master, and at a diner an open griddle is usually the result of a space constraint, the open kitchen in modern, upscale restaurants has more to do with drama and vibes than anything practical or traditional.
Spago was the first restaurant Lazaroff designed; her background was in theater and lighting. “I had done theater sets. I thought, Cooking is a show! It was theater and he was the star,” she says in the 2021 documentary Wolfgang. The goal was not to ensure that diners could see their food hadn’t been contaminated but to showcase the skills and personality of Puck and his cooks while allowing diners to converse and socialize at their tables. “Wolfgang was just such a huge personality, and mostly because of that open kitchen. There was no other restaurant like that,” Jannis Swerman, who ran the dining room at Spago, says in the documentary.
The popularity of the open kitchen quickly spread, spurring what some referred to as the Spagoization of the restaurant scene. Places like Batons and the Tomato Palace embraced the trend in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but the mid-2000s and early 2010s also saw another boom in open kitchens, with places like Lazy Bear, Prune, Bestia, and Rotisserie Georgette all adopting the design.
According to Dennis Askins, design director at AvroKO, a firm that has designed restaurants with open kitchens like Oiji Mi and Somerset, the popularity of the open kitchen represented shifting attitudes toward dining culture itself. “If you went to a French restaurant, which was the epitome of haute cuisine until the ’80s, it was just this magical thing that happened away from you,” he says. “And then someone would come out with this cart, and you pull off the cloche, and there was this fancy meal there.” But the rise of celebrity chefs and cooking TV have not only made the average diner more interested in what’s going on in the kitchen, but they’ve also given them the language to understand what they see. For instance, at Mara in Minneapolis, Askins says chef Gavid Kaysen asked for a specific niche where diners could see the seasonal ingredients the kitchen was working with that day. That wouldn’t be valuable unless they had some sense of the importance of seasonality.
“It’s just become a symbol of quality,” says Askins. He spells out the underlying logic: “‘I’m seeing them make this, and not only is it exciting, but look at the quality of the food, look that they’re careful, they’re paying attention.’”
The rise of the open kitchen hasn’t just changed how diners experience their meals; it’s influenced the way chefs have to approach their work. Now there is an expectation of performance involved, whether that means cleaning an apron stain that otherwise could have waited or trying to politely turn away drunk customers who want to talk while you’re in the middle of dicing peppers.
“In a kitchen that was closed off, usually I can have my music blasting,” says chef and food writer Amethyst Ganaway. “Not that we’re not going to have more fun, but there’s a lot more opportunity just to be more relaxed.” But music aside, Ganaway prefers to work in an open kitchen, as she did at both Frenchish in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Steel Magnolias in Valdosta, Georgia. “You have to maintain a certain level of standard, whether that’s cleanliness, whether that’s the way that you and your team are working together, the way that you prepare the food,” she says. It sets a professional, collaborative tone, since you can’t be yelling across the room, whether in anger or in jest. “As a cook and as a chef, all your fun essentially gets had before service, and then as soon as service comes it’s like a switch clicks on… it’s like, okay, it’s go time now.”
For AuCo Lai, the chef at Red Hog Artisan Meat & Restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky, working in an open kitchen emphasizes the importance of appearing professional. “You learn to work cleaner, more organized, and you learn to be more mindful of your teammates and their cues so that your timing is aligned because the expeditor can’t really shout the cues to you,” she says. Being visibly upset isn’t really an option.
One might think open kitchens, then, would be a bulwark against a culture of abuse, but in Ganaway’s experience, it mostly just changes how and when that abuse is expressed. “If you’re a shitty chef, you’re going to be that way regardless,” she says. “I’ve had chefs who will literally come and stand right beside you on the line, and they’re saying the same shit that they would say in a closed kitchen.” A scene in The Bear reflects this dynamic; an executive chef in a quiet, high-end kitchen leans in close to rattle off insults only Carmy, his subordinate, can hear. The show makes it clear it’s as bad as getting screamed at in front of all your coworkers.
An open kitchen does require some emotional labor from the chefs, whether that’s smiling at onlookers or answering the occasional question. “Guests are able to watch us, and we get to watch them too. There’s an expectation of connection and engagement,” says Lai. Sometimes that expectation is built into the restaurant, whether it’s the performance at the griddle at Benihana or a display of fresh produce in Mara’s ingredient niche—of course that’s meant to be asked about. But sometimes guests push that too far. “So often you get a lot of those customers that do want to engage with the cooks as they’re cooking,” says Ganaway. “I think there’s some customers who do understand it’s okay to ask a question here and there, but then you always have those customers that want to have a full-on conversation with you while you’re trying to cook or who get mad at you when you can’t have a conversation with them.”
With a closed kitchen, the idea was that diners could trust the experts to do what they do best — they needn’t be involved. Now, however, diners have more expertise than ever, and for many of them, flaunting it is the point of eating out. And often, the whole idea of performance goes both ways: As the chefs perform their work, diners make a point of showing their interest and appreciation, ensuring that their knowledge is seen.
So now you get to look into the kitchen and identify how they’re making the sauce, and the chef maybe cranks the flames up a bit higher because it makes for a good show. On either side you’re watching and being watched. For diners, that means being catered to not just on the plate but with a slight performance. For cooks, that means being aware of every movement, knowing you have an audience. It’s entertaining and it keeps things mostly professional, seemingly a net good for everyone involved. But now every chef has the potential to be a celebrity, even just for the evening, with a rapt audience around them.
Then again, being a chef and being a public figure now go hand in hand. Call it the Spagoization of the industry.
Derek Abella is a Cuban American illustrator based in Brooklyn whose work aims to make the everyday seem dream-like.