Make-Over: The Kitchen of Your Dreams

Chefs, more than most, know how to make the best of a bad situation. Fryer on the fritz? Serve calamari seviche. Scallops still at sea? Just adapt the dish to halibut. Necessity is the mother sauce of invention.

The "make do" habit is hard to kick, even when it's high time for a kitchen makeover. "My biggest fear in changing was losing that certain soul in the kitchen, especially that workhorse old range," says Todd English, chef/owner of Olives in Charlestown, Massachusetts, and numerous "Figs" in the Boston area. "No matter what you put in, it seemed like good food always came out."

During the past nine years that they've both owned their own restaurants, English and his Boston compatriot across the Charles River, chef/owner Lydia Shire of Biba and Pignoli, have gained fame, won James Beard awards, and watched numerous proteges spread their wings. This year alone, Biba co-chef Susan Regis won the James Beard "Best Chef of the Northeast" award, and Olives chef Victor LaPlaca was recruited to man the Olives stove in Las Vegas, scheduled to open October 15 in the Bellagio. (Shire herself won "Best Chef of the Northeast" in 1992; English won it in 1994, as well as "Rising Star Chef" in 1991). But it was only during the past year that English and Shire reassessed the state of their respective flagship kitchens. Consequently, they've filled them with new equipment and made cosmetic changes, too. Both their experiences provide a fascinating glimpse of the seasoned chef's dream kitchen.

BIBA -- Boston, Massachusetts

Chef/Owner: Lydia Shire
Chef: Susan Regis
Pastry Chef: Kilian Weigand
Sous Chefs: Monte Casino, Simon Restrepo

Ranges, oven & cooktop: Vulcan-Hart
Walk-In Cooler/Freezer: Kolpak
Workstation: Craig Manufacturing
Charbroiler: Magikitch'n
Convection Oven: Blodgett
Wok Range: Town Food Service & Equipment
Pork Oven: Seidman Bros.
Deep Fryer: Pitco Frialator
Pasta Cooker: Pitco Frialator
Heat Lamp: Hatco

"I was just standing in the kitchen one night doing prep and I looked around and said, 'This is ridiculous, '" says Shire of her renovation epiphany. Closed for only six holidays annually, with some staff working in it round the clock, Biba's kitchen, after eight and a half years of continuous operation, was beat up. "A lot of equipment was half broken down, " Shire says. "Some of the walls were caving in. The light fixtures were a mess."

So in the summer of 1997 she added an aluminum ceiling, re-tiled the walls, bought new equipment, and replaced fluorescent lights on the line with overhead halogen spotlights. "I did it for the cooks -- I mean this wholeheartedly. So many restauranteurs put all the money out front and forget about the people working in the kitchen every day." Colored tiles in the kitchen every day." Colored tiles in red, blue, yellow, acid green, and purple liven up the pastry station and entrance walls. Pounded-brass animal-themed sculptures are tacked up in full view of the staff at every station. A state-of-the-art heat lamp system replaced free-hanging ones that were ugly and not as efficient. A new pasta cooker and wok have also made their impression on the staff -- and on the menu.

"Its' unbelievably valuable," says co-chef Regis of the Pitco Frialator pasta cooker. "It's small and gives you constantly boiling water, which you can also use to blanch off vegetables in a hurry or thin sauces. We used to have a pot on the stove as well as a backup so we wouldn't get caught with starchy water. The Frialator is a lifesaver, and has freed up burner space." The cooker -- electric, which is why it's not under the hood -- sits opposite a new freezer so that frozen pasta made on the premises can be quickly tossed into the bubbling water.

Regis is equally thrilled with the wok range. "The first thing we did in it was a sweet-and-sour seared beef tenderloin dish that sold like crazy," she says. "We also use it a lot for specials. Giant scallops are great in the wok. Now we're doing wok-charred char coated with taro root slices served with a scallion and taro root cake."

That taro root cake, which is panko-breaded and deep fried, emerges crispy golden from the new Pitco Frialator. The small but heavy-duty floor model replaces a previous portable fryer that sat propped on a table and was continually breaking down from heavy use. "It fits right in the same space, "Regis says. "And it's a dual one, so if one gets dirty, you can change it during service." New Vulcan stoves -- a four-burner and a six-burner -- replace the stoves Shire originally installed. "My cooks were unhappy with that other stove," says Shire. "They were kicking it and everything."

For the past nine years, the kitchen at Biba has been a shining example of successful team cohabitation. The large granite-topped center island where chefs, line and prep cooks, and waitstaff interact seems more like boardroom furniture than kitchen decor. The circular configuration eliminates the barriers and confrontation between cooks and waitstaff. And this year, it's even better, with a new green granite top and added special features.

"We didn't used to have anything in there for little steam tables or pans where you can put your prep for the night, " says Regis. "We had to arrange containers to hold it -- and lost valuable burner space to the bain-maries." So without changing its size or shape, Shire had bain-marie inserts built right in, for storing hot and cold prep items and for keeping sauces warm. "It's way more efficient," says Regis. "And the cooks don't have to turn around as much."

In fact, Biba's kitchen is "one of the most efficient around," says kitchen designer Jerry Hyman of TriMark United East Foodservice Supply. "For the volume and complexity of the food, Biba's kitchen is one of the smallest we've done."

At right, the innovative island at Biba in Boston isn't new, but its granite top, built-in steamer inserts, and heat lamp are, as well as the cooking line equipment in the background, the pasta cooker opposite the island on the right, and the beautiful colored tile of the pastry station in the back corner. Biba's waitstaff stands on logo-inscribed tiles while retrieving plated food.

The renovation, which totaled $200,000, was not without its hitches. The first was the new walk-in cooler/freezer. "When they took out the old walk-in, I noticed that there was some extra space behind it that had never been used," says Shire. "I literally flipped out, with tears coming down my face, thinking about the 1-by-10-foot area of unused space on the wall." Shire requested that the new walk-in be returned for a larger one -- delaying the schedule an extra week. "It was a nightmare," she says. "But when you live in a kitchen, space is everything."

In the pastry area, however, Shire lost valuable space. "When we took out the handsink from the island (to make room for the steamers), we moved it against the wall," she says. "Everybody was 10 steps from it, but the health inspector still forced us to spend $4,000 to put a handsink over where my pastry chef's standing mixer and shelves were. Now the mixer sits right in his way." An angry expression shows her distress at not being able to put this one thing right. "It makes the work environment for the pastry chef a bad one. It's absolutely wrong. It's terrible. And no one uses this sink. They use the other one. It's an absolute shame that bureaucracy in America is able to come in and take valuable space away from you for no reason."

Despite the strong feelings she still harbors on this subject, Shire still is thrilled that her kitchen's a "happier place to be" than ever before. She points out proudly that the garde-manger station needed absolutely no change, since its totally independent cooking capability was the perfect idea the first time around. She also mentions the new Seidman pork oven, waiting to be installed, which everyone's eager to roast ducks in (as Chinese restaurants do). And as she looks out into the dining room, she finds the words to sum it all up: "Given that it was designed some nine years ago, I think this restaurant is aging really well."

To which pastry chef Kilian Weigand adds, "Much like the help."

OLIVES -- Charlestown, Massachusetts

Chef/Owner: Todd English
Co-Owner/Designer: Olivia English
Executive Sous Chef: Joseph Brenner
Sous Chef: Adrian Hoffman
Pastry Chef: Paige Retus
General Manager: Peter Smith
Manager: Darren Wright
Design: Food & Wine Research, Boston
Equipment purchased through:

Ranges, oven & cooktop: Vulcan-Hart
Workstation: Carbone
Open Burners: Rankin-Delux
Drawer Warmer: Alto-Shaam
Deep Fryer: Vulcan-Hart
Electric Induction Cooktop: Vulcan-Hart twin element
Exhaust Hood: Carbone
Overshelves: Carbone
Spoon Wells: Fisher Manufacturing

"It was a mess," says English of his kitchen's former layout. "To get to the back you had to walk past the oven station. We used to call it the 'Olive Pit' -- there was a lot of slam dancing going on."

English is jokey in his own suave way as he refers to the old days, before a repositioning of the ovens created a clear alley-way, but when it comes to his new equipment, he's downright thrilled. "When we opened, I bought a Vulcan Econoline, which says it all right there. It was a great little range, with firepower. But we had just beaten the holy crap out of it. Now I have the regular restaurant series Vulcan ranges, and I love them. Plus, I've got two Vulcan induction cooktops at the app station for making salt cod cakes and risotto cakes. They're really nice."

At left, the new layout of the open kitchen at Olives. The Vulcan ranges were repositioned to the center saute/roast station in order to create a clear alley to the back and to give each cook a bit more space at his or her respective station.

He's also surprised at how much he likes his new steam tables. "I always said I wouldn't use them," he recalls, "but they hold sauces and stocks at the right temperature. You get efficiency, cleanliness, and everything's more contained." The brand-new Carbone custom island that houses the steam tables also contains concealed trash bins -- an important consideration in an open kitchen.

Tucked under the rotisserie like a treasure trove is another new fave: a former wood-storage drawer that's now an Alto-Shaam holding oven. "When you try to reheat a chicken, it either gets over-cooked or dry," English explains. "But now, we take the chicken off the spit, pop it into the drawer below, and bam, it's held at 140 degrees. We do the same thing with veal roast, pork, and leg of lamb. It's amazing, like night and day."

Besides a new front wall, better lighting, new exhaust hoods, comfortable flooring, and a stainless-steel ceiling, English has given most of his cooks their own stations -- five in all. What you'll see at each post will make you look twice: little fountains with running water. "I have this pet peeve about dirty spoons," says English. "Cooks are always putting spoons back into a bucket, and on a busy night they never change the water. I built in these ice cream dipper wells at all the stations, with constantly running hot water that drains so that there's always clean water in their spoon well."

An even more intriguing feature is a removable stainless-steel overshelf above the ranges, the perfect solution when you're trying to squeeze in a camera! "My PBS series, Cooking In With Todd English, just began airing this summer," says English. "I cook and talk to the camera, and the grill is behind me. So this is basically set up for filming TV".

Seems as though English has thought of everything, including brand-new banquettes and chairs in the dining room to give the cooks an eyeful, too. Just don't ask to get the name of his contractor. "I general contracted the whole thing myself -- but I'll never do that again," he says with a chastened look on his face. "We did it in eight days. We had electricians and plumbers here working all night. We had refrigeration guys hooking up remote compressors downstairs all night. I guess I figured that it's all being made off-site so all you have to do is hook it up and go. Was I wrong!"

English admits that the hardest thing was coordinating the different trades during the slam-bang project. "It was tough. A lot of screaming, a lot of fighting, a lot of cursing." But he still takes satisfaction that his grassroots approach yielded the results that it did. "I don't have investors. This is my joint, " he says. "I did it all with my sweat and blood. So it was in line with what the restaurant is about."

From Food Arts, July/August 1998
Monica Velgos, Reporter

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