The restaurant landscape has changed dramatically in the past year: Ghost kitchens cater to to-go requests with no dedicated seating area, drive-thrus and delivery services have boomed, and patio dining is a necessity for sit-down eateries. At some establishments, a chef’s counter is an additional (or even the primary) dining option. Pushing traditional cooking guidelines, these specialized concepts involve very few people yet make a lasting impact on the diner.
Anne Marie Panoringan
Voice of OC’s food columnist — reporting on industry news, current events and trends. Panoringan’s prior work includes writing about food for eight years at the OC Weekly in which she interviewed more than 330 chefs, restauranteurs and industry professionals for her weekly “On the Line” column. She has been recognized by the Orange County Press Club and she also is a recurring guest on AM 830’s SoCal Restaurant Show.
An expression of a chef’s culinary point of view, a chef’s counter is a creative outlet for an individual to demonstrate his or her talent and skill though a predetermined, multi-course menu. This has similarities to a prix fixe, which is a separate menu available to all guests at a full service restaurant for a fixed cost. Chef’s counter reservations need to be made in advance as there are a limited number of seats available and preparation is based on the guest count for that meal. Prix fixe menus often give choices for one or more courses while chef’s counters are relatively strict about what is served, as all diners are given the same dishes.
At a typical chef’s counter, you may see more progressive cuisine served which equates to specialized ingredients and a higher price tag than an average dinner. Adventurous eaters with experienced palettes may be your dining companions. Meals are methodically paced and consist of smaller portions starting on the lighter side and working toward richer tastes, with an animal protein often served right before dessert. A supplemental starter or sweet may be offered for an additional charge. Alcoholic beverage pairings are normally optional.
Aside from the food itself, the overall intimacy of a chef’s counter is a big part of the experience. Guests are seated facing the kitchen, with an up-close view of their meal being created. The chef is seen cooking, plating and presenting each course. He or she will describe in greater detail the techniques used in creating a dish plus make time to converse and answer questions. The dishes served are not found on the restaurant’s standard menu, giving a chef the opportunity to plan and execute a customized dinner using superior quality (often seasonal) ingredients, making it more special for the diners.
Japanese Chef’s Counters Are Most Popular
Omakase is the Japanese equivalent of chef’s counter service. Guests put their trust in the sushi chef as he creates a meal. Orange County’s preference toward sushi means it is more common to find omakase than other chef’s counter cuisines. Japanese restaurants serving seafood usually have a sushi bar/counter for guests where omakase can be requested. It is so popular, Hana Re in Costa Mesa became the first local omakase to achieve a Michelin star ranking, the highest honor in the restaurant industry.
Newer to the omakase scene in Orange County is OmG: Omakase by Gino in Santa Ana. In January of 2019, sushi chef Gino Choi opened OmG with 10 seats at the counter. Currently serving under COVID conditions, the restaurant seats eight guests per service with Plexiglas partitions to place between seats. OmG is open Wednesday through Saturday for dinner, with two seatings each day.
What sets OmG’s omakase apart from others? Per Choi, “All of the dishes (outside of the sushi, which is very traditional) are my signature style, my own taste, what I like to eat. You won’t find these dishes in other places.” Like the partitions, Choi makes a lot of what he uses, including some of his soy sauces.
Between actual time in front of diners and behind-the-scenes planning, Choi works 70-80 hours a week. When not serving guests, he’s focused on cleaning fish, aging ingredients, prepping items and other tasks leading up to service. Sourcing his seafood from Toyosu Fish Market in Japan, Gino also coordinates with purveyors along California’s coastline as well as local farms. His attention to nigiri sushi is especially focused so each piece can taste the best that it can, “Every single bite is like special ops. They’re not just the regular soldiers,” Choi analogizes.
Formally trained by a Japanese chef from Tokyo, Choi began working with him 15 years ago. After that point, he has only worked in his own restaurants.
Choi reflects on his independent endeavors: “It’s been good for me, to stay creative and develop my own style.” He runs OmG with his wife and two service staff who have worked alongside him for over five years. The rising popularity of prix-fixe dining in San Francisco and Los Angeles interested Choi, who began collecting plates and silverware as far back as 2016 in preparation to open the omakase space.
Within the first couple of months, Choi’s omakase concept began selling out every month. It remained that way until March 2020. As an indoor-only dining establishment, OmG was forced to close for nine months. Left without any choice but to stay home, Choi made the most of his situation, spending time with his family and plants. After six months of paying rent with no income, he began offering takeout on the weekends. Packaging a selection that changed weekly, orders were limited to 30 a day. Although he was only fulfilling orders for Saturday and Sunday, Choi was still putting in five days of work a week preparing boxes of sushi and signature dishes to his specifications.
And his attentiveness to quality paid off. “I didn’t know until now, but a lot of our most recent dine-in guests were people who ordered takeout during the pandemic.”
Cooking different things when he was home every day inspired some of the 17 courses he’s currently serving. Now that OmG is back to in-person omakase, reservations are more challenging to acquire as he realized there was another group of diners who refused ordering takeout, wanting their first experience to be at the counter.
Choi believes a lot of chefs want to evolve from running larger dining rooms to a smaller, more high-end operation. “This will likely be the last thing I do in my chef life.”
Finding Space for Creativity
In Newport Beach, the chef’s table at Bello by Sandro Nardone is how the restaurant refers to its counter. It is a polished countertop of six place settings with dedicated, unobstructed views of the kitchen hustle. Available on Friday and Saturday evenings, reservations are accepted by email for this 10-course meal. Chef Zach Scherer handles the preparation and presentation of most items.
Differentiating between his counter and the rest of Bello, he explains, “I’m really trying to come up with an expression of what modern Italian food looks like in the context of a restaurant located in California. The top restaurants in Italy are using techniques from all over the world while honing to the Italian tradition of sourcing the best ingredients possible and respecting them.”
Nardone, an Italian native, is the executive chef at Bello. Scherer is a new addition to the culinary team. Introduced to Nardone by a mutual friend, Scherer began working at Bello in early 2021. While evaluating the restaurant space (Bello originally opened its doors toward the end of 2019), Scherer saw the potential to do something special in an underutilized seating area.
Nardone believes the counter is a great addition to Bello. While he focuses his energy on the main dining room, he’s known to contribute an occasional course to Scherer’s counter, as experienced during my visit. Scherer’s oversight of the counter allows him the freedom to explore techniques and flavor profiles that would not normally appear on Bello’s primary menu due to logistics or other constraints.
Scherer’s culinary background includes stints at George’s at the Cove in La Jolla, Big Canyon in Newport Beach and Playground in Santa Ana. He kept busy during the original shelter-in-place order, occupying his non-working hours with food research. Contracting COVID while working a previous job, Scherer’s time spent recuperating was a revelation that helped put things into perspective, eventually motivating him to pivot and focus on his beliefs as a chef.
Drafting the upcoming week’s lineup begins as early as Sunday, with Scherer placing his farmer’s market orders on Monday. Behind-the-scenes preparation for the chef’s table is shared between him and sous chef Andrew Adams. Per Scherer: “Drew plays a big part in our desserts and works as a sounding board as I write the menus and conceptualize dishes.” Between booking reservations and kitchen prep, Scherer also makes the two-hour trek on Thursdays to Rancho Santa Fe from his home in Orange to pick up additional ingredients from The Vegetable Shop at Chino Farm.
I rode along with Scherer on his weekly shopping trip to Chino Farm, giving us the opportunity to talk about how he develops each week’s menu. He likes to begin with quality proteins, vegetables and fruits, pointing out that, “Going from very good to the best makes a huge difference.” He sources heirloom pork, sweet corn from Chino Farms and plums from Andy’s Orchard up north in Morgan Hill. Although it isn’t referred to as a vegetable-forward meal, the chef’s table at Bello makes a point of incorporating fresh elements throughout, whether that means umami-rich porcini mushrooms in the beef course or strawberries mingling with foie gras in an amuse bouche.
When it comes time to prepare ingredients for recipes, Scherer takes as long as needed to do so – easily spending an hour cleaning a dozen baby artichokes. It’s not so much a labor of love as it is a commitment to his craft, working toward a status that meets his intense standards.
His creative process includes experimenting with single ingredients and reimagining them in different forms. Recently he spent a half-day repurposing fig leaves – encasing nectarines with them before roasting to impart flavor, drying to incorporate into an aromatic salt and exploring desserts with a whipped semifreddo that took on a balsamic quality.
Scherer also focuses on discovering new flavor profiles based on familiar tastes. For example, caramel is produced when heat is applied to sugar. Taking the recipe a creative leap further, Scherer substitutes burnt farro as the main ingredient, resulting in a nutty taste.
After he’s developed desired techniques and flavors, the final step is to coordinate these into a cohesive experience. His approach to using fewer ingredients in alternative cooking methods and having an informal conversation about the process (as he darts between roles as sommelier, chef and server) is how Scherer envisions a successful service.
“It may be something you have never tried before or a familiar ingredient served in a way you have never heard of before, but every bite should be delicious and make you appreciate and think about the ingredient in a new way,” Scherer says.
Minimally staffed and serving a defined guest count, chef’s counters are an opportunity for guests to experience dining beyond an everyday meal. For these concepts, the onus of a few tending to smaller audiences dictates a counter’s success and provides a fresh perspective on known cuisines.
Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at email@example.com.