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When at the Chef's Table, You Never Know What You're Going to Get;
Chef's Table Varies from Restaurant to Restaurant
By Susan Houston, The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.McClatchy-Tribune Business News

Sep. 6, 2006 - For one evening, I had the complete attention of the chef of a 3 1/2-star restaurant. He considerately asked if there were any foods I wouldn't eat and then proceeded to create a five-course, off-the-menu meal just for me, right before my eyes.

As he personally presented each dish, he explained the techniques he used, revealed ingredients that combined to create the wonderful flavors, suggested wines that would further enhance each course.

It was a foodie's dream come true. And, although that's how many people think a food editor spends every night (it's not, trust me), I wasn't getting special treatment because of my job title. This is the way chef-owner Sam Poley treats anyone who plunks down the $50 to sit at the chef's table, open since July at Restaurant Starlu in Durham. (Wine costs extra.)

"When you're at the chef's table, you never know what you're going to get," says Stanley Robboy, vice chairman of the pathology department at Duke University Medical Center and a Starlu's regular. He and his wife, Marion, have made two trips to the counter Poley has set up next to his open kitchen and designated as the chef's table. Last week, the Chapel Hill couple sat on the custom-made, green-cushioned barstools and enjoyed a made-to-order dinner featuring scallops, crab, grouper and even something they usually both detest -- okra.

"When Sam cooked it, it turned something that was objectionable into something quite delightful," Stanley says.

"To see Sam working is like watching a ballet," adds Marion, who is active in the Triangle arts and cultural community. "It's like watching an artist put together a piece of art."

The chef's table varies slightly from restaurant to restaurant, but the general idea is to provide extra attention and off-the-menu items to customers who sit at a table inside the restaurant kitchen. The big-city concept has caught on in the Triangle, where the Angus Barn, Second Empire and P.F. Chang's China Bistro, all in Raleigh, also offer chef's tables.

While the idea of inviting special guests into the kitchen for the choicest dishes and extra attention from the cook may date back to medieval times, the current interest in chef's tables probably owes more to the celebrity chef culture created by the Food Network and other outlets that glorify men and women in toques.

The Royal treatment

Executive chef Walter Royal sat at his first chef's table a few years ago in Chicago at Charlie Trotter's, where he got the royal treatment for a change.

"It was a great experience, and the food was divine," Royal recalls. Angus Barn owner Van Eure liked the concept so much that she wanted to bring it to Raleigh, and the first customers sat at a table for two in the Barn's busy kitchen on Valentine's Day this year.

Since then, the Angus Barn's chef's table has been booked about three times a week, says general manager Jim McGovern. For $75 per person, customers enjoy a four-course meal (and sorbet) with a glass of wine paired with each course. Most of the entrees come from the restaurant's special Wine Cellar menu, but Royal and his fellow chefs can also get creative with ingredients, based on customers' likes and dislikes.

"At the Angus Barn, we'll do anything as long as it isn't illegal, indecent or immoral," Royal says. "In general, you're at the chef's mercy."

A new Wine Cellar kitchen is under construction now, which will give the restaurant a new chef's table seating four to six diners. Construction should be complete "midwinter," according to Royal.

Second Empire Restaurant and Tavern has had a chef's table for the past four years, says Lauren Connell, the restaurant's special events coordinator. The popular spot, which seats up to eight diners inside the kitchen, is constantly booked when it is offered, Monday through Thursday. Some dates in December have already been claimed.

For $110 per person, executive chef Daniel Schurr will create an off-the-menu, four-course dinner with wine pairings for each course. When they reserve a spot at the chef's table, customers fill out a form with their likes and dislikes that the chef uses to make his selections. The restaurant needs at least 24 hours' notice for a chef's table reservation and prefers to schedule the dinner a week in advance.

"It's a great experience" for food and wine lovers, Connell says. "They get up and walk around, and the cooks show them the line."

Variations

At P.F. Chang's China Bistro, the chef's table is called the captain's table, says Phil DeBrosse, operating partner of the Raleigh restaurant.

"In Chinese culture, the closer you are to the kitchen, the higher you are in esteem," DeBrosse explains.

This Asian restaurant chain has 138 locations, but fewer than a dozen have captain's tables. The Durham P.F. Chang's does not.

The Raleigh location has offered a captain's table since it opened more than seven years ago. At the captain's table, which seats up to 16 people, diners can either order off the menu or discuss their preferences with a manager and let the manager or chef choose items for them.

"That's what we call our 'limo ride,' " DeBrosse says. Many customers book the captain's table for special occasions such as bridal showers and birthday parties. They often order several different dishes to share and receive a visit from the chef during dinner. "It's atypical of most dining experiences, especially here in Raleigh."

Although Herons restaurant in the upscale Umstead hotel being built in Cary won't open until January, chef Phil Evans already plans to offer his own chef's table, says public relations specialist Jennifer Noble Kelly. The private dining area (not in the kitchen) will seat 12 and will have its own daily chef's tasting menu. The tentative price is $85 for six courses.

However, "for guests interested in culinary adventure, Phil will meet with them and plan a menu on the fly," Noble Kelly says. "He's really comfortable with that kind of impromptu situation. For a chef, that's what it's all about."

Up close and personal

The chance to get creative and try out new dishes was certainly part of the attraction of a chef's table for Poley at Starlu.

"The rules are that there are no rules," Poley says. "So people who are adventurous eaters are really going to enjoy it."

An outgoing, low-key chef whose summertime uniform includes shorts but no toque, Poley loves the chance to talk directly with customers and teach them about his art. The night I was there, he explains that the papery thin, garnet-colored garnish on my marinated grape tomato shot appetizer is actually a thin sliver of fried tomato skin.

"When you fry it, all its tomato-y goodness comes to the forefront," he says.

Later in the evening, he explains why he chose to pair the hanger steak entree with asparagus slaw, which I had just seen him tossing from the saute pan up into the air. (Chefs love to do this, don't they?)

"The beef is very tender, so it's good to contrast it with the crispy asparagus," he says.

Dinner at a chef's table is a combination of hobnobbing with the chef, personal cooking lesson and delicious meal. If you just want a steak and baked potato and don't care who fixes it, then the chef's table experience isn't for you.

But if you're open-minded and curious about your food, then it's an experience you won't forget.

"We all loved it," says Robbie Hardy, a Chapel Hill consultant who sat at the Starlu counter the first night the chef's table was offered. "We all travel, and we're all sort of foodies."

And to think that customers used to be insulted to be seated near the kitchen. Now they're lining up to get inside.

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Copyright (c) 2006, The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.

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