With the recent news of American Express acquiring Resy, the reservation platform that connects restaurants and diners in 160 cities in 10 countries, the restaurant world continues to evolve. One notable trend sees the old divide between chefs and diners crumbling more than ever. Perhaps it started at the sushi bars, perhaps at kitchen counters or perhaps it happened because once chefs got out of the kitchen (thank you Paul Bocuse), we couldn’t stop talking to them, but today, chefs and entrepreneurs are finding innovative ways to keep those conversations going.
“We didn’t have a separate incubator kitchen,” said Chef Charlie Palmer who is rolling out the Workshop Series at his restaurants around the country. “We used to invite regulars to taste new dishes and then we realized we were on to something,” he said.
Today’s guests love to feel like insiders. They crave innovation and jump at the opportunity to assess new recipes, so Mr. Palmer widened the concept. At Charlie Palmer Steak in New York, Executive Chef Timothy Meyers now offers a $70 four-course menu every Tuesday and Wednesday night. Guests sit at the 12-seat counter munching and commenting on new dishes.
On a recent evening, Mr. Meyers explained how earlier in the year, he preserved puntarelle shoots (an early spring ingredient) so he could continue to pair them with a luscious stracciatella cloud. Instead of the classic creamed spinach with his perfectly seared dry-aged strip steak, he featured braised baby gem lettuce in a light bechamel, a more modern, seasonal accompaniment.
In Las Vegas, Master Sommelier Lindsey Geddes invites guests to tastings so they can participate in her selection process. And at Aureole, Chef Chris Engel is inviting guests to the “pre-shift” meetings during which he introduces new dishes to the front of the house team.
Personal interaction between cooks and diners is the norm at Ko bar, David Chang’s ‘ante room’ to the Michelin-starred Momofuku Ko. Both at the counter and at the tables, dialogue is encouraged.
“Nice to see you,” said Executive Chef Sean Gray, reaching out above the counter to shake the hands of regulars. Here, the menu is handwritten in small notebooks and changes every day. The dialogue, in fact, starts in the kitchen.
“No one decides what we are going to cook,” said Mr. Gray. “We discuss it collectively. Right now, we have sardines we’re trying to find a home for.” The cooks drop the dishes in front of the diners for immediate feedback.
“Instead of building another bar or a simple eatery, the team voted for what amounts to a test kitchen,” said General Manager Su Wong Ruiz. “This is our playground where we don’t have to take ourselves too seriously.” Sometimes, ideas even generate with the guests, as in the case of a skate katsu that became an instant hit.
For three nights a month at one of the fast casual Junzi Kitchens, Chef Lucas Sin, who grew up in Hong Kong, and became famous at Yale for the dorm pop-ups that often brought 200 hungry students to his room, offers a five to seven-course tasting menu. The event is called Chef’s Table and curated around historic or cultural themes as a way to converse with diners.
“We’ve explored the connection between Chinese food and the Dominican Republic where the Chinese migration was tremendous,” he said. The chef also presented a meal based on the influence of Chinese vinegar and he is looking to replicate the iconic 1972 dinner Richard Nixon shared with Premier Zhou Enlai in China. (The chef worked on a similar event at the Museum of Food and Drink this past April).
Resy continues to bring restaurants and guests together in creative ways. One of them is the new Off Menu Week series where chefs at iconic eateries and favorite joints (selected by Resy) offer week-long creative dinners based on updated classics, brand new dishes or seasonal debuts.
Feeling the hunger of its clientele for human interaction and unique culinary experiences, Resy now offers this program in six cities around the country.
“Diners used to ask where their food was coming from,” said Resy co-founder and CEO Ben Leventhal. “Today, they want to know where the chef is coming from.”
Off Menu Weeks showcase dishes that can pertain to a chef’s culinary upbringing or past culinary journey. A bit similar is The Making of Birdie G’s, a dinner series Resy is launching to celebrate Chef Jeremy Fox’s upcoming restaurant in Santa Monica. The three events will feature a chef’s collaborative and will focus on American regional cooking and nostalgia.
“It’s a truly exciting time to be a diner, and a chef too!” said Mr. Leventhal.