The concept of a chef's table may seem like a relatively new one. But it actually originated in America back in the 19th century, imported from Europe. The original manifestation was quite simple: The chef invited guests for a relaxing meal, often with his family. Apprentices prepared the food, using the opportunity to show off their talent and creativity. Then, as now, members of the staff wanted the top chef's approval. The other diners, we can imagine, were of little account.
Theater is implicit in the world of celebrity chefs, and that's the primary difference between the traditional chef's table and today's. A chef's table in this era is not always in the kitchen, but it affords a view of the drama and artistry of a well-regarded restaurant. Group reservations are a must, as seating is limited.
Among New York restaurants offering chef's tables are Le Cirque, the storied French fine-dining creation of Sirio Maccioni, host to an elite clientele for more than 40 years. Today, Le Cirque's kitchen is under the direction of Massimo Bebber, who did his culinary training in his native Italy and has worked at a trio of well-regarded Italian restaurants in New York: Cipriani, Caravaggio, and Sirio.
Will this mean more Italian selections on the menu? Maybe. "There is French food, there is Italian food, and then there is Le Cirque food, which transcends national boundaries," says Carlo Mantica, co-CEO of Le Cirque International, Inc. Chef Bebber's seasonal tasting menu is an ideal way for chef's table guests to enjoy a leisurely gastronomic experience mere steps away from the stainless steel prep counters and the professional cooking equipment where wave after wave of classic dishes are meticulously prepared. The chef's table seats 10.
Aldea is smooth and sleek, but feels welcoming. The entire restaurant seats 70, but in three spaces, including a mezzanine and The Wine Room, which can work well for groups of up to 13. Up to 12 guests can be seated in what is called the chef's area -- a counter, actually, that separates the kitchen from the dining room.
The Portuguese-Spanish menu created by Chef George Mendes, who opened the restaurant in 2009 and won a Michelin star two years later, changes seasonally. A first-generation American with roots in Portugal, Chef Mendes trained at Bouley in New York, and in France with chefs Alain Passard, Roger Verge, and Alain Ducasse. The Basque Chef Martin Berasategui, whose restaurant in San Sebastian, Spain, has three Michelin stars, was also influential, freeing Mendes to add his own personal flair to dishes born of Iberian tradition. A signature dish is the arroz de pato, where duck cracklings, duck confit, chorizo, and black olives all flavor the rice.
Daniel Boulud's prestigious French restaurant Daniel provides its most exclusive experience for up to four guests in a location perched above the kitchen. This chef's table, the Skybox, is like a chef's inner sanctum. Fronted with glass, furnished with a single table and two facing, plush banquettes, it provides a bird's-eye view of the activity as some 40 chefs prepare dozens of orders of the suckling pig chop or grilled rainbow trout, with multiple accompaniments, sauces, and garnishes.
Boulud worked for Sirio Maccioni as executive chef at Le Cirque 30 years ago, and created some of his signature dishes there. But it was in 1993 when he opened Daniel that he gained celebrity-chef status. Since 1998, Daniel has occupied premises that are a former home of Le Cirque, with Venetian Renaissance pillars, arches, and high ceilings creating a theatrical setting for diners. The restaurant was awarded three Michelin stars in 2010 but lost one star in 2015 (lack of consistency was cited). In 2016, Daniel remains a two-star establishment.
These days, Chef Boulud runs a restaurant empire stretching from Las Vegas to London to Singapore; in the kitchen here at Daniel are Executive Chef Jean-Francois Bruel and Chef de Cuisine Eddy Leroux, both of whom are happy to describe the dishes and their preparation in detail.