I had the rare pleasure to have dinner at Luke Dale Robert’s Test Kitchen last week. It answered a question which has been bugging me for some time; what does a self-organising professional kitchen look like.
It’s important to understand that our model for a professional kitchen was invented by Auguste Escoffier, who in turn copied it from the Prussian Army. This can be seen in the name for the unit of a professional kitchen, the kitchen brigade.
This is a strict division of skills and silos which operate under their various hierarchical positions, traditionally named from the French terminology and ultimately reporting through their various leaders until you got to the dictator at the head of the brigade, The Executive Chef. Traditionally also easy to identify in the kitchen as he has the tallest hat or “toque”.
Since Luke’s restaurant is structured unlike a traditional restaurant, all this is eminently visible, especially if like we were, you are seated at the bar which puts you within arm’s reach of the chefs and expeditors.
What struck me about the restaurant is that it has been designed as a system. The system serves a vision and a set of constraints. In particular, the main elements of the vision are: a constrained number of seats. I’ve been waiting some six months to get a seat in this restaurant: it seats about 30 people when full. The other major constraint is that the kitchen is visible, indeed inside, the restaurant.
These two constraints have had some very interesting ripple effects on the product as a result. The amount of actual cooking which happens while the restaurant is in full swing is actually quite small. The main proteins are not deep fried or baked. Instead most of them are subjected to a quick sear. In addition this happens over induction burners. All of this means that the kitchen is not as hot as a gas fed kitchen, or as noisy from the air conditioning and extraction that would be needed.
This in turn has meant that the style of food is mostly small plates with diners offered a choice of 3, 5 and 11 courses, with the portion size allowed to vary as required. These two outcomes (small plates, mostly cold serving) has resulted in a unique style of food where there is significant emphasis on the composition of the final plate. This is not the usual meat and two veg sort of approach but rather a series of bento-box like constructed dishes.
What struck me about the kitchen was how quiet it was. Not monastery quiet, but rather, no need for raised voices. The other is the fluidity.
I worked in a few professional kitchens a few years ago. What I saw was that it was really hard to help someone once they got into the weeds. The kitchen is a finally tuned complex adaptive system. All the agents within the system know with a dreadful certainty when one of their number is doing the “dans de le merde” (as Anthony Bourdain puts it). You can feel it the way a race car driver can feel a finely tuned engine suddenly throw a piston. It is usually best in those circumstances to keep your own mise in its place. The danger here is that the weeds can spread quickly to the rest of the kitchen (hence the name).
And make no mistake the inevitability of variability and queuing will mean that sooner or later everyone will find themselves in this lonely place.
There were two things I noted instantly when I arrived at the Test Kitchen. The chef was not expediting. In fact, the chef was actually experimenting with a new dish (some kind of salmon brushed with squid ink) while the kitchen slowly spun up, serving welcoming snacks and the first few starters. It’s hard to see what the deal is here, but on inspection he is providing slack in the system. Later as things got faster paced he was able to step in and assist with plating and expediting, and then step back.
There were a number of chefs who over the course of the evening were able to move from station to station as needed. And when the presentation was not up to the Chef’s standard he fixed it himself rather than send it back.
Which brings me to the front of house staff. Rarely for such a high end restaurant, the staff happily float from table to table as needed. The system for recording orders was consistent (I know this because I could see all their tickets) and so when the expeditor had a dish ready, the next available server was able to send the dish to the correct patron without error by consulting the ticket. The other item of interest was their collection of metrics. The time of first order and the subsequent delivery of each dish was recorded (all using the same time code). I noticed that the cycle time for courses was a fairly consistent 20 minutes varying by no more than 2 minutes or so on each side.
The only moment of tension I observed the whole night was a mistake made in the recording of an order by a waitress. What was specified was four duck, when in fact the table had ordered two duck and two pork. This was caught as the dishes were about to be plated. This was the longest delay I noted as the two completed duck dishes were quickly disassembled to wait for the two minutes while the pork was fired. Again, here the design of the dishes (fast cooking, significant mise en place, composed by the expeditor) worked to the advantage of the experience as a whole, as the kitchen was quick to recover with minimal impact on other orders.
It is tempting no doubt as chef to attempt the local optimization of the kitchen in order to deliver food. What was the learning for me was how the vision and optimization of the whole was able to create a benchmark experience for me. What I saw at dinner was a well-oiled machine built on trust, respect and specializing generalists under the leadership of a visionary. Needless to say, if you are in Cape Town I recommend checking them out.