As Asian cities battle spatial challenges, kitchens are opening up to showcase designer appliances, gadgets and chefs hard at work. Rebecca Lo takes a closer look.

Upon entering a restaurant in Asia, a common request was to be seated as far away from the kitchen as possible. Tandoori chicken, Peking duck and Korean barbecue are all delicacies typically prepared in a hot mess, and smelling like a greasy diner is not what anyone wants to get out of a dining experience. Yet a perfect storm of factors is blurring the boundaries between kitchens and dining rooms. As Asian cities explode in population, astronomical real estate prices have led to shrinking commercial kitchens.

Chefs are becoming celebrities through YouTube videos, reality TV shows and food fairs, transforming the cooking process into theatre. Kitchen equipment is scaling down as people experiment and entertain with food at home, demanding efficient, residential scale gadgets to do so.

In Hong Kong, for example, the number of restaurants has almost doubled and commercial real estate prices have quadrupled in the past two decades, though the city’s population has remained relatively consistent. This means that good F&B staff is in high demand, with the highest shortage of people. Asian restaurateurs are rethinking how they can save labour costs through better equipment and kitchen design. Industry leaders are getting ahead of the curve with smartly designed establishments, investments in equipment that does double duty, and streamlined menus for consistently great dishes.

Hipster Hotspots

Christopher Mark is a transplanted chef from Toronto who has lived in Hong Kong since the 1990s. He founded Black Sheep Restaurants in 2012 with Syed Asim Hussain, and has carved a niche for the group through svelte and singular eateries. Whether it is the Neapolitan pizzas of Motorino, the steak frites of La Vache or the grilled bites of recently open izakaya Fukuro, there is a Black Sheep outlet for everyone. “Open kitchens allow chefs to be more connected with their guests,” believes Mark. “For restaurants with a specific offering, an open kitchen is most suitable. And good ventilation is key.”

Along with developing concepts and menus, Mark collaborates with designers such as Hong Kong based American Sean Dix on the layout and direction of his outlets’ aesthetic. “Stefano Ferrara made our pizza oven in Motorino; they are the Stradivarius of pizza ovens,” Mark reveals, noting that it is visible near the rear of the restaurant. “With its conduction and radiation functions, it allows us to cook a pizza in 90 seconds.” He believes in providing great tools for chefs so that they can make the best use of limited space. Mark feels that J&R Grills are the best in the world due to their thick grill base for even heat conduction. “They are like using cast iron pans,” he states. For delicate smoky aromas and tastes, he vouches for Josper Grills from Spain and X-Oven from Italy. “Charcoal is part of the flavour in southeast Asian cooking,” Mark insists.

Maximising Real Estate

Mark is constantly on the look out for real estate; a two storey space on Elgin Street eventually became Ho Lee Fook, a fusion Chinese eatery styled by GOD’s Douglas Young and designed by Dix. “It was a difficult space to work with,” Mark admits. In the end, the open kitchen became the life and soul of the entry while attracting passers-by from the street, and the larger space downstairs was transformed into an intimate dining room. Similarly for La Vache, Mark had to completely revamp the basement interiors, adding proper ventilation and air conditioning for the windowless space. “It has a grungy Bohemian vibe that French diners like,” Mark notes.

“High quality knives are more and more a kind of status symbol for the chef,” notes Hans-Joachim Giesser, owner and descendent of Johannes Giesser who founded Geisser Knives in 1776. “They are proud to show and use the latest models. With our new knife series PREMIUM CUT, all chefs working in an open kitchen or barbecue station have the perfect tools to impress guests. The latest design along with modern colours and handle materials are combined with the best technologies and skills. Magnetic bars and stainless steel knife blocks or boxes are still the best solutions for safe and hygienic storage for knives. While automised food preparation may decrease the use of cheap kitchen knives, this trend is equalised by the use of better and more costly knives. As chefs realise that work can be done more easily, safely and comfortably with a high quality knife, quality, design and outstanding cutting performance become increasingly important.”

Trimming Menus

Chilean architect Hernan Zanghellini, a decades-long veteran in the Hong Kong hospitality scene, has designed restaurants including all day dining buffets for Shangri-La in the Philippines, Chinese restaurants for Maxim’s across greater China, the uber popular Bakehouse and outlets for Mark including Buenos Aires Polo Club. Zangellini has also dabbled in F&B as co-founder of established steakhouse Wooloomooloo and its sister brand The Chop House. “When kitchens shrink, restaurateurs have to be more intelligent with the menu,” Zanghellini advises. “Smaller kitchens cannot have too many chefs behind every dish. Ingredients have to be pre-prepared. Ovens that used to take up two metres are smaller now with four functions: steam, bake, microwave and convection.”

Zanghellini feels that showing the commercial kitchen is a worldwide trend resulting from chefs becoming celebrities. “Before, the kitchen was dirty and had to be hidden,” he states. “Now, the kitchen is out in front. Restaurateurs have to aware that open kitchens sometimes take up more space. You lose wall storage. Food has to be stored in nice looking containers. And multitasking equipment can be expensive. In China’s third tiered cities, operators tend to go for cheaper and bigger equipment as they can afford the space. In general, too, Chinese kitchens tend to be bigger. A wok takes up nearly a square metre of space and often there needs to be a row of them. Peking duck, barbecue ovens and dim sum steamers are big and tall.”

Dinner Theatre

Despite the need to keep open kitchens spic and span, both Mark and Zanghellini feel that they are here to stay. “They provide an authentic dining experience,” Zanghellini argues. “In some, like Argentine restaurants, the experience is all about the drama of the food preparation. As kitchens open, they force designers to work harder to make them look good.” Case in point is Sydney based Landini Associates’ recent design for McDonald’s at Sydney Airport. The open kitchen is stacked on top of the order counter behind a yellow film, and every aspect of a Big Mac’s preparation can be seen including as it slides down a conveyor belt to the customer. Mark advises for chefs to be more open minded when it comes to a kitchen’s layout. “They may be great chefs, but they don’t always think conceptually,” he notices. “Chefs should start thinking of equipment is an ingredient. And when there is a handsome chef behind the grill, like the one we had at Chôm Chôm, an open kitchen is a great way to go.”