SPECIAL REPORT: 20 top tips to guarantee open kitchen success

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The trend for open kitchens is now so prevalent and established that you could argue it’s not even a trend these days. But that doesn’t mean operators can afford to be complacent when planning the design of such spaces. FEJ tapped into some of the leading kitchen design minds in the country to construct a list of the top 20 things you might want to bear in mind when planning an open kitchen.

1. Get the line of sight right

Open kitchens are all about letting the customer see in, so it’s no good clouding their view with a stainless steel-clad wall, service pass or an area with minimal activity. Equally, punters probably don’t want to have their meal disturbed by the sound of mixers, blenders or dishwashers in action.

“The reason for an open kitchen is to show the customers that the kitchen is clean, well-maintained and that the food is prepared on site,” says Stephen Ryan, business development manager at ABDA Creative Design & Build. “People don’t really want to see into a wash-up area or store; this defeats the point. Ensure that either a good prep space or cooking area is visible from not only just the front-of-house area but also where the customers will actually be sat or standing.”

Additionally, unsightly elements need to be carefully positioned or separated so they do not detract from the visual appearance, advises Kevin Slatter, managing director of KCCJ. “If this is not possible, normally due to space restrictions, then it is possible to camouflage them with the aid of shelving or partitions and clever placement.”

2. Explore all aspects of the aesthetics

It goes without saying that equipment needs to look good in an open kitchen and that also extends to keeping it clean and presentable. Edge-to-edge suiting of units eliminates gaps between equipment for grease and debris to build up. There are finishing touches available that may not be necessary in back-of-house equipment but which enhance the cookline perfectly and make it even more pleasing on the eye, including kick strips and hob rails.

“With the kitchen in view they are likely to need to invest in better quality fabrication with profiles that match the cooking suite, along with more cupboard or drawer bases for storage,” says Clive Groom, managing director of CNG Foodservice Equipment.

3. Shape is as important as size

Open kitchen planning doesn’t just hinge on size. Shape also has a huge bearing on the specification of equipment and the location of appliances. “Often the shape of the space will determine whether to use a central island suite, back to back or a linear line cookline,” explains Darryl Pannell, commercial director at Bedfordshire-based Advance Group. “Adopting the right approach in the space will have immediate implications to the kitchen’s ability to drive the business model’s desired volume, menu and quality from the small space.”

4. Make life comfortable for customers

Maximise the area of kitchen visible to the customer, including the width and height of the opening. “If the hatch is too small — almost like a ‘letterbox’ opening — then this detracts from the effect of an open kitchen,” warns John Clarke, project and design manager at Crosbys Catering Equipment. “Kitchen finishes should be selected with customers in mind as well as hygiene and practicality, for example alternative wall tiles, pattern bands or colour Whiterock cladding.”

One of the biggest changes in recent years has been how installers get gas, electricity and water supplies into, and around, the kitchen. Steve Hobbs, managing director of supplier Grande Cuisine, comments: “In days gone by it did not matter whether pipework was visible, what it looked like or what it was made from. Nowadays clients put a great deal of emphasis on having services hidden or, if they have to be on show, as tidy looking as possible — even down to the colour of the cabling — and this means a lot more time and effort needs to be put into this aspect of installation.”

5. Build in sufficient prep space

Consideration needs to be made right the way through the design when maximising the value from the space, from delivery of product, to prep, in-service storage, the cooking, pass, dirties in and so on. This will impact the flow and ergonomics of the kitchen, which should be continually scrutinised and challenged throughout the design process, suggests Darryl Pannell at Advance Group.

“For example, critically, how much service refrigeration do we need to keep replenishment minimal at peak service times? Then, how much back-of-house refrigeration do we need and, if very limited, can we have multiple deliveries in the week or day to cope?”

Investigate equipment options that actively save space in the wash area, too, advises Paul Anderson, managing director of Meiko. “Dishwashing with heat recovery eliminates the need for overhead canopies and means the dishwasher can be sited in an area with low ceiling height, usually impractical with conventional machines,” he points out.

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6. Go with the flow

Don’t let the visual or theatrical aspects of the kitchen get in the way of flow or it could cause an operational headache. Give thought to set-down space or plate rails near equipment, such as fryers, combis and ranges where product needs to be immediately put down, stored or brought off the heat. “Make sure that the whole set-up will function efficiently to ensure guests still receive the best experience,” says Stephen Ryan at ABDA.

7. Avoid over-specifying appliances

It can be easy for operators to fall into the trap of specifying appliances that are larger than the requirement for the business when creating an open plan kitchen. “Aside from taking up much-needed space, appliances that are too large will often be under-filled or, worse, not in use at all,” says Steve Morris, sales director at Jestic. “Take the example of a Rotisol rotisserie, a fascinating piece of equipment for dining customers when in use; it can often have the opposite effect if it is left empty or waiting to be cleaned after use, especially while diners continue to be served in the restaurant.”

8. Multifunctional equipment might be the answer

Space can be tight in open kitchens so think about appliances that are not limited to cooking just a single menu item, but offer the capacity and capability to produce a number of different dishes to the same, high quality. “Equipment such as the SpaceCombi from MKN maximises production without taking the amount of space traditional alternatives would have required,” notes Peter Walker, marketing manager at Airedale Group. “We will trial different equipment and different configurations of the equipment to help our clients achieve this. There is even less margin for error in an open kitchen than a traditional one.”

Richard Toye, director at GastroNorth, says that combi ovens or devices such as the Frima VarioCooking Center have additional benefits beyond allowing chefs to switch cooking methods while using one product. “These conveniently designed appliances don’t just save on footprint, they also save on energy and cleaning as well as staff training,” he says.

9. Work out how much theatre you want

How much of a statement do you want to make when planning an open kitchen? Is it important for customers to see that you’re cooking quickly and efficiently, in which case induction and plancha cooking might be the preferred methods, or are you more interested in flames and fire?

Chargrills are still the preferred technique among operators that Restaurant Design Associates (RDA) works with. “This is because they can create a true sense of theatre with constant chef attention that offers a view of the food being prepared,” says director Alex Bradley. “This in turn assures customers of fresh and safe cooking techniques, with the odd burst of flame every now and again adding to the entertaining ‘performance’ aspect.”

10. Keep flexibility at the forefront

Adaptability is important. Some operators can try to produce too many menu items or cram an area with equipment that removes the theatre or show element of the open kitchen. “Flexibility and mobility should be taken into consideration,” says Mark Sharland, director at Willis Jenkins. “With compact and modern modular equipment, it can be easy to rearrange the kitchen dependant on the season or if the menu changes on a regular basis.”

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11. Blending is best

The best open kitchens are the ones that become an extension of the restaurant to the point where the kitchen and its staff blend into the restaurant space, according to Kevin Slatter at KCCJ. “When creating this link between the kitchen and the restaurant, elements such as lighting and finishes need to be carefully considered. Kitchens are working environments that need cleanable surfaces and strong lighting which, if not considered properly, will give a clinical, stark white appearance, breaking the smooth link between front and back-of-house,” he says.

12. Plan refrigeration carefully…

With a large amount of popular ingredients requiring refrigeration, it’s vital to design an open kitchen with the cabinets’ placement in mind, counsels Steve Loughton, director of UK & Ireland at Hoshizaki. He suggests examining which products are used most often, how much space is required to store them and what obstructions larger units might cause. “In a busy kitchen catering to hundreds of customers in a day, correct placement of refrigeration units results in easy access to ingredients, which will ease the rush in preparation time and enable caterers to streamline their cooking processes — key to running an efficient and successful kitchen.”

13. …And then maintain it!

You’ll often see upright fridges or freezers placed against outside walls in open plan kitchens but this can contribute to breakdowns if adequate natural ventilation is lacking. “Open plan kitchens, especially those using lots of flour and frying oil can also sometimes find that the compressor filters on their refrigeration become blocked as the oil traps dust and builds up, cutting airflow to the compressor,” notes Graham Skinner, sales and marketing director at Serviceline. “Unless operators can clean the compressor themselves, the only way around this is by specifying a different type of refrigeration unit or having the compressor cleaned more regularly.”

14. Take ventilation seriously

Ventilation needs to be correctly designed and specified to allow it to work in harmony with front-of-house ventilation. It’s one of the most important considerations as far as open kitchen design is concerned, says Leigh Howard, managing director of Lakes Catering Maintenance. “Poorly designed systems leave the customer subject to an unpleasant environment in the restaurant area, including smoke, food odours and fatty build-ups, which also make the open kitchen harder to clean,” he says. “Planning the right ventilation in your kitchen can be complex and involves planning duct work to the outside and a sufficient air make-up system to replace the air vented out. It’s key to protecting the diners’ experience.”

15. Get a handle on air movement

Air handling equipment has to be correctly specified to ensure that heat, steam and gases are correctly removed from the kitchen and customer crossover point.

“The air movement in the restaurant needs to take into consideration the likely occurrence of cooking smells emanating into that area,” advises John Eaton, director at Willis Jenkins. “Positive and negative air pressures need to be considered to ensure that the right balance of air flow is directed away from the seating area. There will be noise and the odd pan dropped and this will draw attention to the kitchen, particularly in a closed environment. The kitchen must show off its best aspects at all times, there is no point in putting a fish filleting or butchery area on display, as most clients are not ready for that yet.”

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16. Planning for disaster

Nobody wants to think about worst-case scenarios when planning an open kitchen, but you can’t get the build process underway without putting adequate safety provisions in place. One of those is most definitely fire suppression. If the kitchen area is designed to be a fire compartment, then forming a big hole in it is obviously going to cause a few issues, says Alex Bradley at RDA. “Early liaison with the fire officer is a must, to ensure fire suppression and fire compartmentation rules are adhered to, as while the open kitchen is a great concept, it needs to be a safe one.”

17. Secure your storage

Storage requirements must be established from the outset. “With the kitchen likely to be in view of the paying public it’s important to consider storage of everything from utensils to crockery, condiments to cooking liquors and, of course, waste — customers don’t want to see a load of mess,” says Clive Groom, managing director of CNG Foodservice Equipment.

18. Reverse staging is in vogue

Preparation, food production and service areas all need to be carefully designed to ensure the entire process looks aesthetically pleasing for the customers, but the set-up also needs to be functional for the chef and kitchen staff. “This could be making a compromise in how much is on display in the open kitchen, for example the dishes would be created back-of-house and then finished off front-of-house on display for guests,” suggests Richard Toye at GastroNorth.

Steve Morris at Jestic agrees. He says that operators are increasingly applying the ‘reverse staging’ process when cooking. This means that chefs use a back-of-house kitchen for the preparation of ingredients and the initial cook stage, taking ingredients to 90% of their final cook before using hot-holding technology to hold food at the optimum temperature and humidity conditions to prevent overcooking or the food drying out.

“Not only does this help to significantly improve the speed of service, but it also helps to maintain efficiency in a compact open kitchen. This trend in reverse staging is something that we’ve seen growth from in the UK following a more common application of the process in the US,” he says.

19. Be firm about your offering

Equipment specified for open, theatre-style kitchens needs to be reliable and easy to maintain, ideally with self-diagnostics so there are no hiccups in service. “It should also be compact, offer fast cooking and be energy efficient,” says Simon Lohse, managing director of Rational UK. “You need to be confident in both your food offering and your chefs, as theatre cooking will expose potential flaws in your operation,” he adds.

20. And remember, it isn’t just the equipment on show

Don’t forget that catering equipment and cookware aren’t the only thing that customers will see when they dine in your open kitchen restaurant — staff are in full view, too. All members of the team need to be presentable, professional-looking and on point throughout their shift. “Noise levels should also be carefully considered. Nobody’s going to enjoy a meal that’s constantly interrupted by banging pots and pans, or the sound of staff shouting across the kitchen,” comments Alex Bradley at RDA.

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