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Fine-dining chefs come out of the kitchen, warm up to patrons

CHICAGO -- Some days Matthias Merges, chef de cuisine at Charlie Trotter's, leaves his white chef's jacket at home and comes to work in a suit. He doesn't have to worry about spilling sauce on his tie, however, because he will spend the evening in the dining room, serving customers rather than cooking.

Merges and the chefs at Trotter's famous fine-dining restaurant here take turns working the front-of-the-house. That cross training has broken down all barriers between the front- and the back-of-the-house and improved teamwork and efficiencies in the restaurant, said chef and owner Charlie Trotter.

"I'm shocked more [restaurants] don't try to do this kind of thing," Trotter said.

Cross training is a more common practice among fast-food and quick-service restaurants, where employees learn to make sandwiches or burritos and run the cash register. But while the practice is rare in fine-dining and casual restaurants, those who have been able to bring their chefs out of the kitchen and into the dining room say the benefits of such training are well worth the effort and planning it takes.

As leader of the kitchen, Merges spends the most time in Trotter's dining room, usually about three months. The sous chefs spend about a month or more, and everyone on the cooking staff is encouraged to spend a week or more assisting the servers, the sommeliers and the hosts. Servers also spend some time in the kitchen, helping cooks.

Merges, in his six years at Trotter's, said he has seen chefs gain more composure and self-discipline after working in the dining room.

"It helps the front-of-the-house, and it helps the kitchen move to a whole new level of professionalism," he said. "I don't know if some restaurants don't want to invest the time. And then some can't because they are so streamlined they cannot afford to take one person out of the back and put him in the front."

Working in the dining room, however, gives chefs a front-row seat to view how diners react to the food, Merges said. He noted that chefs in the dining room would notice if the portions on a dish are too large or too small and they can get a better handle on pairing food with wine. Meanwhile, servers working in the kitchen gain a greater understanding of what it takes to prepare dishes.

"Knowledge is power, and the more you have under your belt, the more you can provide for the guest," Merges said.

A Trotter's alumnus, Homaro Cantu, has encouraged the same practice at moto in Chicago, where he works as executive chef. The 40-seat restaurant, owned by Joseph DeVito, opened in January in the Fulton Market District. Cantu, who spent four years at Trotter's, has developed a very progressive, edgy cuisine, featuring edible menus and fish baked in opaque polymer boxes. The menu offers four-, seven- and 10-course meals.

"Who could better explain to customers the nuances of a dish and how it was prepared than chefs who have worked in the kitchen with Cantu?" general manager Matthew McCammon asked.

"Having done the prep work, they can speak very eloquently about the food," said McCammon, who described himself as the sole "civilian" in the dining room.

McCammon trains the chefs on how to wait tables. He starts them out as food runners and then moves them to positions as back waiters and front waiters. The advantage of teaching chefs is that they come with no preconceived notions or bad serving habits they've learned in other places, he said.

Moto is working out a rotation among the chefs so that those who are interested and willing to work in the front-of-the-house are able to, McCammon said.

One of the chefs, Christina Zerkis, decided she preferred the front-of-the-house and has asked to stay there.

"I was certainly apprehensive initially, but after three months I was feeling very comfortable," said Zerkis, who has worked as a chef for seven years.

Now Zerkis prefers what she feels is the less-rigorous work of a server, including the interaction with customers and more money through tips, she said.

While a chef is on the floor, his or her pay is switched to a tip credit program and tips are pooled with the front-of-the-house staff, although they are considering including the kitchen staff in the pool as well, McCammon said.

"They do make more money on the floor; it's an added incentive," he said. "But we don't want it to seem like going back to the kitchen is punishment after being on the floor."

At Trotter's, cooks remain on their full salaries while working in the dining room for a week or two.

"It's not there for them to get a little pay raise or pay cut, whatever the case may be, "Trotter said. "It's a learning opportunity; that's how they look at it."

The experience gives the cooking staff a better awareness of the ebb and flow of the dining room and more respect for what their colleagues do in the front-of-the-house, said Trotter, adding that throughout his career he has disliked the divisions between wait and cooking staffs.

"I wanted to break down the barriers," he said. "I never liked that us-versus-them attitude."

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