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Chefs' Counter Culture

At diners the man at the griddle is usually a short-order cook. But today the person with the spatula might be a chef creating ambitious meals for serious restaurant-goers. Andrew Todhunter hops on a stool to watch.

As I duck into San Francisco's Canteen, the first thing I notice is the counter, a band of luminous green—an icon of the American diner. Behind it, in a space that would be tight on a U-boat, 36-year-old chef Dennis Leary and his assistant, Luis "Borre" Contreras, are working at a fevered but controlled pace while a row of customers sitting an arm's length away watch the action from their stools. Leary appears happy to be cooking—not a leisured happiness but the happiness of rock climbers and chess players, the happiness of challenge and absorption—as he prepares a series of brilliant dishes: halibut gravlax with cucumber sorbet; mussel soup with green garlic and pureed artichoke; sweetbreads with poached rabbit over frisée salad; spring-lamb stew with asparagus and leeks; mild fennel-seed cake with whipped cream.

"I liked the idea of doing haute cuisine in a diner," Leary tells me later, over a beer, explaining why he left a position as executive chef at Rubicon, a San Francisco landmark, to open a place with 20 seats, a 60-year-old pancake griddle and a staff of five (including the dishwasher). There are no investors: When Leary opened Canteen in 2005, he funded it himself. He shops, cooks, preps. This is entirely his show. "I wanted to do something personable, something I could control, that could be a little eccentric," he says. "I wanted it to be minimalist, with absolutely no pretense at all—to have a small place, with everything at my fingertips. Something authentic."

Yes, it's true: One of the best chefs in San Francisco runs a diner. And he's not alone. In a growing trend, other top chefs, including celebrities like Washington, DC's José Andrés, are opening restaurants around the country where the only separation between cook and customer is a counter. These places bring the cooks into the dining room and the customers into the kitchen. To hear both parties tell, it's hard to say who's happier with the arrangement, which doesn't surprise me at all.

In 1999, I spent a period apprenticing in the kitchens of Taillevent, the Parisian bastion of classic cuisine. As a cook, it's hard to find a more prestigious venue, but chef Philippe Legendre and his crew complained bitterly about never seeing their customers—about working, as Legendre put it, "in a vacuum." Later, I spent some time in the open kitchen at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. In contrast to Taillevent, where the cooks are all but barricaded in the kitchen, the cooks at Chez Panisse can see how the customers react to each dish, and customers often approach them to offer thanks. This may help explain why the staff at Chez Panisse seemed vastly happier than their cloistered counterparts at Taillevent. Canteen and other restaurants like it knock down the last bricks in the wall between guest and chef.

Canteen's equivalent on the East Coast might be Casa Mono in Manhattan. Andy Nusser, formerly the chef de cuisine at New York City's bustling Babbo, opened the ambitious but miniature Spanish-style restaurant in November 2003 with partners Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich. Nusser and his two assistants work in a cooking area almost exactly the same size as Canteen's, with seven seats at the kitchen counter. "As a chef, being right across the counter gives you instant feedback, and you can steer the customers toward things they haven't had before, like tripe or cocks' combs," Nusser says. "The customers get to see everything as it's prepared, and their anticipation makes the food taste better."

Leary plays on this back-and-forth with customers too. At Canteen, one regular loves squab; if Leary knows she's coming in, he'll order a few birds and serve them as a special. He recently prepared a bourride (a Mediterranean fish soup similar to bouillabaisse) for a diner he knows is a Francophile. And like Nusser, he gently encourages his customers to try the unfamiliar—like his subtly sweet blancmange (a kind of cooked pudding) inspired by a recipe from the 1669 cookbook The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened, or bitter greens with chicory, toasted hazelnuts, pecorino cheese and a fig dressing, drawn from medieval cookery. "I want my customers to live a little dangerously," Leary says.

The night I'm at Canteen, Leary is hosting a prix-fixe dinner, a monthly event aimed at his regulars that's a remarkable bargain at $50. I'm sitting near a graphic designer named George McCalman, who lives in the neighborhood and fell upon Canteen by chance; he now eats here two to three times a week. "I spent 20 years in New York City and never found a place with this kind of atmosphere," he says. "Dennis is really a genius at pulling together disparate flavors and textures. He'll throw these very different ingredients together, and you'll eat it, and it will rock your world."

Generally, when Leary isn't doing something like deftly pan-frying veal scallopine dipped in crispy panko or garnishing his tomato-buttermilk soup with a spoonful of diced heirloom tomatoes, he's moving along the counter, chatting amicably with his customers, most of whom he knows by name. That night, one woman waves from the door. "How was everything?" Leary calls. "Wonderful," she says. "I think you're the best chef in San Francisco." Leary grins and thanks her with what seems to be a mixture of pleasure and embarrassment. If all the attention has gone to his head, you can't see it.

With the heat and the pace and the intense demand for concentration, cooking in a professional kitchen is extraordinarily draining. For all but a select few, the pay is negligible; you'd make more money pounding nails. As the majority of chefs will tell you, cooking is about giving other people pleasure. For a born chef like Dennis Leary, it must be nice to pour your talent into a meal, and then to see, up close, a customer's appreciation.

Andrew Todhunter is the author of A Meal Observed, winner of the 2005 PEN Center USA Literary Award for Creative Nonfiction and featured in Best Food Writing 2004.

Published July 2006
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