At Osteria Pronto in the JW Marriott Austin in Texas, every guest—even when lingering in the lobby—snags a front-row seat to the back-of-house process, thanks to an open kitchen concept that blends efficiency with all-important guest interaction. Open since February 2015, the restaurant revolved around this design, a hallmark of its affable Italian atmosphere, from day one.
“Instead of making it so the guest sees only the cooks’ backs, we aligned it with the dining room to ensure all guests are in plain view of all cooks,” explains F&B Director Mehdi Spadavecchia. “When meeting with the architect years ago, we asked, ‘Why have an open kitchen if the cook isn’t facing the guest?’”
Back to Front
The kitchen design streamlines the flow of production. Every plate starts at the back of the 1,250-square-foot kitchen and moves forward. The cooking equipment creates an island in the center. The pasta station lies at the farthest part (north side) of the kitchen, followed by the sauté station for topping with sauce or other ingredients, after which the chef ensures the dish is ready to serve. On the opposite line, proteins are prepared on the grill (like the pasta station, positioned toward the back), then accompanied with starch or vegetables, topped with sauce, and approved by the chef.
“Plates don’t go back and forth; they start on one end and finish on the other,” Spadavecchia notes. “The dining room is on the south side, so there’s no criss-crossing of plates; everything is very linear.”
This prevents employees from bumping into each other during busy periods and nixes unnecessary steps around the kitchen. “The layout allows everything to flow toward the front, even as plates are flying to multiple tables, or though dishes may be coming from multiple stations at the same time,” adds Chad Blunston, executive chef. “The design and flow improves efficiency; everything goes one way, ending at the chef.”
A pizza oven and prep station are positioned behind the wine bar, adjacent to the kitchen. Support equipment, such as the pasta machine, gelato maker, and mixer, remain in the back, hidden from guest view. Meanwhile, a cold station for appetizers, salads, and desserts is incorporated into the front area, so staff on those tasks also face guests.
“The two main elements in this kitchen are the cooking suite and how it’s arranged, and the pizza oven,” Spadavecchia says. “These are the visuals guests want to see.”
Room service is handled on the back (north) side, in an area hidden from inhouse guests—an intrinsic part of the original kitchen design. Only breakfast room service for the hotel is prepared in the Osteria Pronto kitchen, comprising up to 25% of the restaurant’s production during this daypart. Cooks simply move to the back window to deposit finished plates, and room service attendants whisk them away.
GM Scott Blalock finds the open kitchen setup more engaging for both guests and the staff members on hand—five to seven, depending on volume. Cooks and chefs can see everything in the room, including guests enjoying their food.
“With the design, form, and function of the elements, the open kitchen and the countertop encapsulate the entire concept,” Blunston explains. “In an Italian kitchen, you want that familiarity; my house is your house, and the guest has the opportunity to engage with the chef.” During the more casual, relaxed breakfast daypart, staff members display foods at the counter under heat lamps (without evoking the standard breakfast buffet), but the setup is versatile, easily adapting to a la carte lunch and dinner service.
Osteria Pronto averages 75 to 100 covers during breakfast, 60 at lunch, and 100 to 150 for dinner (often more than 200 on weekends). Breakfast serves mostly hotel guests, locals flock in for lunch, and there’s a 50-50 split for dinner.
On the other hand, another restaurant on the property, Corner, offers a less exposed kitchen; its primary focus during design revolved around beverages and bar service, so the kitchen takes a back seat.
“We wanted the high-energy bar to be seen from the lobby, so the kitchen is a little more tucked away,” Spadavecchia notes. “For Osteria Pronto, we wanted it more convivial, where you feel like you’re in the kitchen with family. Guests who come for breakfast can go to the line and talk to a cook about ordering an omelet see the chef working the line and see the steps involved with making the dishes. We’ve had great feedback overall.”
Blunston believes that people want to be able to peek behind the scenes, receiving the full sensory experience, both tactile and visual—the pots and pans, animated conversation, and rising steam—which creates the overall experience of an Italian kitchen.
“It’s really rewarding as a chef when the guest comes up to us and tells us his meal was fantastic,” Blunston says. “The cooks hear it live from the guests themselves, and that validates all of the hard work and training they’ve put into not only their career and the restaurant, but each dish—it really breaks down that barrier.”
The Osteria Pronto staff has also noted positive reviews on social media, as guests comment on the “cool open kitchen” or enthuse about watching their dinner being prepared. Children, too, find themselves mesmerized by the interactive experience; they order a pizza and love to watch the pie being topped and going into the oven. Staff members can have fun conversations with them, too: “Would you like more cheese? Or more broccoli?” (The latter question usually evokes a vigorous head shake.) “It’s an engaging moment for the cooks and the guests,” Blunston says.
Best of all for making a good impression, guests can also witness that everything is prepared fresh—an especially critical component during the breakfast buffet. “I don’t know why more restaurants don’t take this approach; even European-style outlets have the cooks’ backs facing guests,” Spadavecchia observes. “I just think most people aren’t raising the question.”
Tracy Morin is a freelance writer and editor based in Oxford, Mississippi.