WHEN YOU turn out 100 dinners a night from a 170-square-foot kitchen, every inch counts. Chris Ono, chef de cuisine at Esters Wine Shop & Bar in Santa Monica, Calif., keeps his knives on a tray that just fits in the space between the top of a small bar refrigerator and the bar itself.
Mr. Ono came to Esters from Eleven Madison Park in New York, which has a palatial kitchen far larger than many apartments in that city. But he likes his downsized workspace; he considers it not an obstacle but an opportunity. “Most people might run away from it,” he said, “but for me it was part of the challenge, to work smarter.”
The small restaurant kitchen— sometimes a necessity, sometimes a choice—makes efficiency “a puzzle,” Mr. Ono said. And in a flat restaurant economy, it holds practical appeal: A smaller kitchen means more room for tables, and more profit potential.
Esters opened with a focus on wine, a limited menu of cheese and charcuterie and a short list of prepared dishes—hence the large bar and small kitchen. But Mr. Ono wanted to do more plated dishes, so he's created an expanded dinner menu and started to serve lunch and weekend brunch too. All that activity might leave a tray of oysters perched precariously on a sink, waiting for one of the cooks to attend to it, but they're safe. Mr. Ono's kitchen staff has learned an economy of motion to avoid collisions, whether with each other or the food. Executive chef Jeremy Fox oversees several restaurants in the Los Angeles-based Rustic Canyon group, which includes Esters. He created the Instagram hashtag #thelittlekitchenthatcould to celebrate Mr. Ono's choreography.
Galen Zamarra, chef-owner of Mas Farmhouse in New York's Greenwich Village, has a slightly bigger space—all of 250 square feet—that was remodeled after a fire to incorporate everything he'd learned from the original, less user-friendly design. To him, the advantage of a small kitchen is the decrease in travel time. “Everything's right here,” he said gleefully, stretching his arms in both directions. “You can reach whatever you need.”
A flat-top griddle allows Mr. Zamarra to cram more pans onto the cooking surface than he could with individual burners. He put the cold salad station next to the pastry counter because neither requires last-minute work. On a slow night, one person can work both stations.
Mr. Zamarra admits that there are things he can't do because of the limited space, like offer a big steak, which would require a big pan and occupy too much space on the flat-top. He's made his peace with it. The advantages of working small outweigh the concessions.
For “Top Chef” alum Isaac Toups, the initial appeal of a small kitchen was the autonomy that came with it. He had a choice: He could raise $100,000 to create a kitchen at Toups' Meatery in New Orleans, or spend less and not have to answer to investors. He chose the latter.
Mr. Toups managed to squeeze a convection oven and a sixburner stovetop, a grill and one fryer into the existing kitchen space of an old restaurant— though to do so he sacrificed any hope of fancy refrigeration. “We have two-door coolers in the back and one in the kitchen,” he said. “Our freezers are like the chest freezers you have in your garage. We are the original scrappy restaurateurs.”
The advantage: Everything is very fresh, in part because there's not much storage. While all of these chefs might occasionally yearn for a big walk-in refrigerator or prep area, they agree they've become sharper because they have to be. “I have a Kung Fu philosophy,” said Mr. Ono.
“You don't use as much energy if you can just grab things, if you don't have to run to everything. It forces me to be more efficient and it feels more under control.” He appreciates the logic of “sandbagging,” a common restaurant practice of assembling dishes in advance if they can survive the downtime, because it means less of a rush during service. Esters' grilled cheese works just as well if it sits, assembled, for an hour before cooking, so it does. That way the cooks can plot out sequential, not simultaneous, prep.
When Mr. Toups opened a second, larger place, he learned the hard way that sometimes excess is just that. “I would totally let the restaurant fairy build me out a humongous kitchen, let's not lie,” he said. But at the second restaurant, Toups South, he overcompensated a bit. “For the new kitchen, we thought, let's deck this place out, get an immersion circulator, a Cryovac chamber,” he said. “After a while the Cryovac broke and the restaurant didn't miss it, so we sent it back. Immersion circulator doesn't get a whole lot of use.”
Any cook has to make the calculation: Will that piece of equipment really pull its weight? Mr. Toups insisted, “We create some of the best dishes we've ever put out with six burners and a pan.”
BY KAREN STABINER