Short of leaving the line to deliver a power high-five to every diner, showing love from the kitchen is awkward business. The gratis amuse can feel perfunctory; the roaming, smiling chef thing, rehearsed. But that doesn’t mean chefs shouldn’t try. In an industry that’s revamped its commitment to hospitality, showing love from the kitchen isn’t just an optional investment in the warm-and-fuzzies. It’s a business strategy and professional philosophy that adds value to the dining experience on both ends of the equation. So we talked to a few chefs (on the angry East Coast, no less) who’ve built careers on making love, professionally speaking, to their diners.
In the restaurant industry, the giving and receiving of free food happens for many reasons: compensation for mistakes, recognition of a diner’s VIP status (“turns out that is Sting...”), and the standard "surprise! sort of!" amuse bouche. None of these, in and of themselves, constitute love from the kitchen. Just ask Brad Farmerie. Farmerie doesn’t just practice (or make) “love from the kitchen,” he coined the term. And he’s been doing it, so to speak, for eight years. Awwwww yeah.
“In our mind it wasn’t an amuse. It wasn’t a freebie. It wasn’t an obligation,” says the Public and Saxon & Parole chef. “It was love. We wanted people to feel that we were developing a relationship.” Developing that diner-kitchen relationship does include free food. But at the core, it’s not really the food that matters: “I always like the guest to know that we’re listening to what they’re saying,” says Farmerie, who tries to track what kinds of love he’s given each diner per visit. “It’s got to be something different each time.” Meaning the core of Farmerie’s professional love is also the key to romantic love: communication. (Our time is up. That’ll be $250 dollars.)
Not that Farmerie is just nodding and smiling. He and his staff listen so they can engage their guests. For instance, “if they say they’ve never tried sea urchin, or ‘I don’t think I’ll like it,’ we’ll often send them a sea urchin dish so they can try it.” Yes, it’s free food, but the real value is sharing a new experience, a kind of thoughtful culinary meddling in a diner’s personal life. “Love is good for opening people’s eyes to something they might not have ordered otherwise,” Farmerie explains. “People might not want to commit to pig's head terrine or blood sausage or eel. But if you send it out, they can walk away with something more than just an extra bite of food. It’s a dining experience.”
Chef Chris Santos, seasoned maker of love from the kitchens of Stanton Social and Beauty & Essex, found a way to systematize the things he and his staff know about their diners: the comment card. It might seem like a rather mundane way to fuel the flames of passion, but Santos takes it to the next level. “With my assistant’s help, I personally write back to every customer that leaves a card,” he told us. “I thank them for leaving feedback and work to correct anything that went wrong,” adding “nine times out of 10, it’s great.” The bonus for the diner: “once someone leaves a comment card,” says Santos, “I tell them to contact me directly for a reservation.”
In a culture of chefs-as-VIPs, it’s pretty impressive—and uncommon—for a chef like Santos, who could easily work the hands-off, VIP-chef angle, to involve himself so personally in the process. And he's not even keeping the lovin’ to himself. “If a certain server or someone is pointed out, the comment card goes up on our cork board.” The comment card system doesn’t just spread good feelings; it helps Santos and his staff stay on top of a diner’s experience. “If someone raved about the perogies, we don’t let them order them again. We send them to the table.” In an industry where diners rarely get to see the chef, let alone have a direct line of communication with him, Santos’ comment card system has something refreshingly old school about it. “We’re in the business of making people feel good,” he says. “When you do that, you gain loyalty from a guest.”
Chef Tyler Anderson of Ivoryton, Connecticut’s Pip’s at the Copper Beech Inn found another creative way to cultivate loyalty in a guest: make them love you. Anderson isn’t playing hard to get. He simply provides diners with an unheard of opportunity: show the kitchen some love, and not with a tip, but a six-pack. That’s right, listed last on the Pip's menu are the words: “6 Pack, for the kitchen … $12.”
“Some diners want to recognize the kitchen,” says Anderson. “And cooks like beer. It's sort of a no-brainer.” Anderson isn’t running a booze racket. He’s actually trying to help diners relax—to get their backward buzz on with the paradoxical magic of buying beers for someone else. The logic sounds crazy, but the reasoning is simple: “Some people have a preconceived notion that their experience here is going to be stuffy,” says Anderson. “Which leads people to believe their dinner is going to be expensive, which leads to us to becoming the dreaded ‘special occasion restaurant.’ The buy-the-kitchen-a-six-pack thing is one of the many small things we do to remain ‘non-stuffy’ without being too kitschy.”
As in any beer-related exchange, it works. Wonderfully. Not only does the Pip's kitchen regularly receive six-packs from the dining room (kindnesses returned “with some complimentary treats”), but diners really enjoy it. “Most of our diners find it funny,” says Anderson. “Either the diner purchases it, or has a laugh about it.” Either way they leave with the memory of a singular experience: bridging the (sometimes gaping) gap between dining room and back of house with a plain old six-pack, a.k.a. the nectar of our shared humanity.
Of course, this being real, expensive life, all this good feeling comes with a price. But it’s a very manageable one. “We’ll send small courses,” says Anderson. “If it’s not an amuse, we’ll normally send a small mid- or pre-dessert,” which leaves a doubly sweet last impression on the diner and works with the lower price point of the dessert course. And while Farmerie insists he doesn’t care about costs—“I really don’t”—he still plays it smart with portions. “Even if it’s something extravagant, one bite isn’t going to cost me that much.”
And they’re not just counting smiles in return. There are tangible, monetized benefits to showing diners some lovin’—not least of which is the lifeblood of the industry: repeat business. “I almost see it as going to the PR budget,” says Farmerie, who’s working to stand out in a city that’s basically an eclectic urban food court. “You can’t put a price on building community or on building the return guest.” For Anderson, who feeds “a very small demographic,” there’s no need to stand out; the trick is leaving a good impression. “It’s highly important that we embrace our guests” (not physically, HR). “By making the experience a little more personal, I hope we achieve that.”
That’s the difference. While Anderson and Farmerie might both do some of the regular food-as-love (and please never stop), their deeper motivations shine through. “More than anything I think it should start a conversation,” says Farmerie. “Educate or enlighten the guest, and get them thinking about food or wine in a different way.” At the end of the day, it’s about connecting. “It’s important for both sides to realize there are actually human beings preparing their food,” says Anderson, “and for the cooks to know that people are actually eating (and hopefully appreciating) their hard work.” That’s love from—and for—the kitchen. The polished façade of the dining experience is still there. But every once in a while, you share a wink, or a beer, with the chef.