On recent repeat visits to a new restaurant, I noticed one constant: The chef-owner's presence in the dining room, whether welcoming customers from the host's station or milling about the tables. The well-respected and hardworking chef -- he owns more than one restaurant -- was dressed in a crisp white chef's coat and wore a sincere, disarming smile. Unfortunately, this was to the detriment of the food.
Is it permissible for a chef-owner to be absent from the kitchen? I put the question to Janice Provost, co-owner and co-chef of delightful, postage-stamp Parigi, for perspective.
She said there are numerous variables. "If the chef has a well-trained staff, then he or she can afford to leave the kitchen and jump in where needed." The size of restaurant and staff are equally important. "If the restaurant is understaffed, the chef-owner should fill in where needed," Provost said. "If I need to wash dishes, I'll wash dishes. If the front of house needs support, I'll help."
Some bold-name, chef-owned restaurants, like Stephan Pyles, have executive chefs who fill the role of kitchen captain. That frees up the proprietor to work the house, not the line. Those establishments often have sommeliers. They can afford large staffs with clearly defined roles for each member.
A step further removed is the corporate restaurant. Andre Natera, executive chef of Pyramid Restaurant & Bar at the Fairmont Hotel Dallas, isn't an owner, but he works tirelessly in the kitchen, tends to the kitchen's 3,000-square-foot rooftop garden and works with his team to devise classically influenced though unpretentious seasonal menus. In other words, Natera owns his reputation "When the kitchen is in sync, you can play classical music and it's a beautiful thing to watch," Natera says. "That's when I'll step out briefly. Otherwise, I'm in there cooking."
Natera juggles many responsibilities without compromising the quality of the food produced by the Pyramid's kitchen. He works the line, pulls weeds, creates menus and makes sure guests are kept happy.
But he knows no chef wants to be spread so thin that his/her pride -- the food -- suffers. However, unless you're a culinary heavyweight like Mario Batali (pun intended) with the financial means to attach your brand to a restaurant while having little required of you at the burner, soiling your coat is integral to quality control -- and success. As Natera put it, "If the food is suffering, get your butt back into the kitchen."