Front row for foodies

Cooking is theater at the chef's table

A table by the kitchen used to be an insult. Today, front-row access to the guy with stains on his apron is the best seat in the house.

“It’s the perfect place,” says Cristina Mancini. As 20th Century Fox Television Distribution’s VP of marketing, publicity and promotions, she loves to use the in-kitchen table at Norman’s on Sunset to entertain key business clients. “It’s private, but still fun. The more activity going on, the better.”

With their exhibition kitchens, fine chefs used to be like well-behaved children — seen, but not heard. Today, with the Food Network and cooking reality shows providing access to restaurants’ inner workings, the chance to eat in a live kitchen is a little like getting a backstage pass.

“You can smell the food, hear the commotion,” says Norman’s chef de cuisine Michael Bryant. “You want everything to be perfect because you’re on stage.”

However, that’s the difference between restaurants and TV studios: When you’re preparing dinners for 150 people a night, no one gets to call “cut.”

“Sometimes we get so knee-deep in the weeds,” Bryant says. “I’ve nailed a veal chop at a line cook in front of guests.”

Meson G executive chef Josef Centeno describes himself as shy, but he provided some drama of his own one night. “We were in the middle of the big rush,” says server Adam Murray. “Josef went to stab the ticket and the stake went right through his hand.”

The Meson G chef’s table — a counter that faces the open kitchen — didn’t complain. “No one noticed,” Murray says. “He wrapped up (his hand), did a few shots of tequila and finished up.”

Centeno says he learned to cope with the chef’s table by turning to an actor’s art: Stage whispering.

“We don’t have that protection of a closed kitchen when all the chaos is going on,” he says. “I have to quietly threaten my cooks’ lives.”

And not all chef’s tables are created equal. At Providence, it’s enclosed within thick glass walls that evoke the isolation booths of early TV quiz shows; on a recent night at Patina, chef’s table guests were treated to an impromptu Bach concerto by L.A. Philharmonic cellist Daniel Rothmuller, who happened to be sitting at the bar with his 1711 Stradivarius.

Such access doesn’t come cheaply. Hotel Bel-Air’s Table One requires a $1,000 minimum and a month’s notice to secure a spot. However, cost is no hedge against disaster; one night, a kitchen fire forced the restaurant to serve dessert on the hotel’s front lawn.

Sometimes, it’s the chef who pays the price. Bel-Air chef de cuisine Bruno Lopez took media training classes, in part to overcome his anxiety over cooking in front of strangers.

Now, he says, he doesn’t even notice that he’s being watched. “I enjoy talking with the people,” he says. “They’re my main focus. I tell them, ‘It’s your kitchen tonight.’ ”

However, that can also mean that diners are sharing more than they realize. At Meson G one Valentine’s Day, Murray watched a diner hit on the hostess every time his date left the chef’s table.

“We see it all” he says. “It works both ways.”

Taking heat in the kitchen

8570 Sunset Blvd.
(310) 657-2400
Chef’s table: At the far end of a glass-encased kitchen, it’s the quintessential experience.
How close to the action: Couldn’t be closer: Chef de cuisine Michael Bryant talks with diners throughout the meal.
How much: $125, five courses; wine pairings, $55. Tables hold 2-14. On slow nights, diners can order a la carte.
What you get: Signature dishes like crispy conch chowder in coconut broth and pork tenderloin with plantain crema.
And: Peter Birmingham. “He’s a sommelier’s sommelier,” says regular Norin Grancell.

5955 Melrose Ave.
(323) 460-4170
Chef’s table: An aquarium-like, glassed-in corner booth at the far end of the kitchen.
How close to the action: You can look but not touch, hear or smell. Most cooking is done at the other end of the kitchen.
How Much: $95, seven courses; wine pairings, $35. Table holds 6; 4 minimum. On slow weeknights, you can push for 2.
What you get: Kumamoto oysters with vodka gelee, lobster bisque and striped bass with pea tendrils.
And: Tucked behind a doorway, you’re invisible to the rest of the restaurant.

141 S. Grand Ave.
(213) 972-3331
Chef’s table: A private dining room with an 8-foot picture window into the kitchen.
How close to the action: More audience than cast, but executive chef Tao Schoenegger offers kitchen tours.
How much: $120, six courses; wine pairings, $60. $1,000 minimum, 10 people max.
What you get: Signature dish: hand-rolled spaghetti alla chitarra, with sauces to suit the season.
And: Chef shops at the farmer’s market to suit diners’ tastes.

701 Stone Canyon Rd.
(310) 472-1211
Chef’s table: An airy, glassed-in dining room in the kitchen.
How close to the action: Guests and chefs mingle in the kitchen; diners are privy to the sounds and smells.
How much: $150, seven courses; wine pairings, $75. $1,000 minimum, 8 people max.
What you get: Lobster, shrimp, oysters, clams and caviar in the kitchen with the chef before dinner
And: For an extra fee, guests cook with the chef and choose wines with the sommelier, then shower and change in a hotel suite before joining their own guests.

6703 Melrose Ave.
(323) 525-1415
Chef’s table: Like a sushi bar; the chef’s counter faces an open kitchen, inches from the flames.
How close to the action: An evening with chefs, servers and snugly seated guests; in our case, Julie Newmar.
How much: No required menu or minimum.
What you get: Order a tasting menu and the chef will throw in a few extra dishes.
And: Executive chef Josef Centano’s nickname, per one Meson G manager: “Chick magnet.”

1023 Abbot Kinney Blvd.
(310) 399-5811
Chef’s table: Props for authenticity; it’s a two-seater where chef Joe Miller does paperwork.
How close to the action: Spitting distance from the line, and down the hall from the bathroom.
How much: No required menu or minimum.
What you get: A close-up view of Miller, who looks vaguely like Kevin Costner.
And: Twist his arm and he might send out a bite-sized watermelon ice for dessert.

— Reported by Rachel Dowd, Dana Harris and Deborah Vankin
Tasting menus are required for chefs’ tables unless noted. All prices are per person.