It's just like watching a performance in a theatre: you take your seat, wait for the show to begin and enjoy the experience. During the dinner, all the ingredients are chosen and prepared by the chef himself right then and there, in front of you. It is a leap of faith into his talent, and you expect to end up with a memorable dining experience.
Everyone who has visited an omakase restaurant knows very well how it feels: it is a tacit agreement, a vote of confidence that is made the exact moment you cross the door. Omakase is predicated on the relationship between guest and chef where complete trust is placed on the chef's faculties in interpreting what is best for the guest as well as the seasonal produce and local availability.
The term comes from the Japanese for “entrust” and means “the chef’s choice”: a tradition that has become popular in the world from menus led by Japanese masters running good restaurants focused on sushi or tempura, on a series of vegan dishes or yakitori - but probably in a meal that last several hours.
But in recent years, even non-Japanese restaurants have come to seek inspiration from this hospitality tradition. More than a style of service, omakase is a philosophy that hooked dozens of chefs, even those without any Japanese origins.
Since western chefs such as trailblazer Joël Robuchon were certainly inspired by the outstanding sushi bars where Japanese masters prepare their food in small intimate restaurants, omakase has slowly become to gain more presence in the fine dining scene: it has popped up all over the world, with more and more cooks embracing the idea of asking their clients to allow them to choose their orders following the very best and fresh ingredients they can daily have daily, and exercising their creativity in their menus.
The past decade has seen a flourishing of the omakase philosophy adapted for non-Asian restaurants in Berlin, New York, London, Melbourne, Oporto, and even Santiago — cities as diverse as the food served.
BEST FOR THE FRESHEST INGREDIENTS
In Berlin, Canadian chef Dylan Watson-Brawn runs Ernst, his farm-to-table restaurant based around relationships with farmers in the area, where he chose to serve his guests in an omakase-style counter because it is the only way, according to him, to offer the very best ingredients to his clients.
“We don’t want to be limited by what ingredients we can or cannot use and how much we can adapt the menu around the seasons,” he says. The concept allows him to be very flexible with produce and gives him and his team the most freedom possible - and also challenges his creativity as a chef. “If a small box of wild strawberries arrives all of a sudden in the restaurant in the afternoon, we can use them to serve all of our 13 guests at dinner”, Watson-Brawn adds. It would be unthinkable for a restaurant that serves more than 50 persons for service, for example.
A former cook of Noma and RyuGin, the chef, who has spent four years running a 6-seat restaurant in his own apartment, believes omakase philosophy allows him “to be very adaptive to the season and the needs of the farmer while making use of everything, even potential waste, through serving all parts of a plant or an animal”. Every day, the menu is a novelty - not only for the guests but also for the staff.
There’s no doubt that omakase works best at restaurants focused on daily fresh ingredients. In current times where the produce that comes directly from the farm is the main star in many menus, restaurants focused on ingredient-led cuisine (from fresh fish to in-season vegetables) benefit better from it.
EMBRACING A MORE INTIMATE EXPERIENCE
Another essential point to be considered by restaurants that have decided to embrace the omakase style of serving is the interaction with the guests, where chefs can serve the dishes directly to them, and still be close to the kitchen, controlling all the processes. It involves more significant social interaction with the kitchen staff.
Chef Benjamin Nast always knew that he wanted to work in front of his clients, in a closer way. In addition to tables, he built a bar that can accommodate up to 8 dinersby his kitchen at De Patio in Santiago, Chile. “I think today a chef has to be, in some way, a spokesman for what he does. In an expression kitchen like ours, the omakase bar is the most honest way to represent what we do,” he says.
The cook-diner relationship is also an essential part of the experience in a restaurant, according to him, since eating is related to everything that happens in the environment rather than simply putting something into your mouth. Nast worked in Dos Palillos, in Barcelona, where he first experienced working in front of the client, and create with him a closer and deeper relationship in every meal. For him, this interaction is very positive not only for the guest, who comes out with a much clearer perception of the restaurant but especially for the cooks.
“The bar inside the kitchen, where we serve our tasting menu in an omakase way, also requires the chef to develop other skills, not only to cook well but to be extremely neat, knowing how to serve, knowing about wines, being able to communicate well with diners… generally, some skills that you don’t achieve in restaurants with closed kitchens”, he says.
For Nast, the Japanese philosophy also allows a relationship of full honesty with the diner. “More than ever, our clients are interested in how we are manipulating the product, where does it come from, etc. The fact that they are sitting in front of the kitchen allows them to watch all the process, to ask all the questions and to interact not only with the cooks but often with diners sitting close to them", he adds.
TAKING PART ON THE SHOW
There is also an increasing desire on the part of customers to have a more active experience in the restaurant — the opposite of the main passivity that has dominated the fine dining scene. It was the quest for a more casual and interactive atmosphere that led Portuguese chef Vasco Coelho Santos, from the Euskalduna Studio, in Oporto, to transform the counter in the star of his small restaurant (where he serves ten people in the kitchen and other 10 at tables).
“I like to have contact with my guests. When I started conceiving the design of the restaurant, I was looking for a more casual fine-dining concept, so I made my mind that the counter could bring this informality”, he points out. During the meal, the guests are encouraged to have contact with the whole team, by talking and asking questions regarding the dishes. “We don’t have room service: we count with a sommelier, and it's us, cooks, who are doing the service. This interaction creates an extraordinary experience for the clients since it earns them more attention from the chef, who explains every dish,”, he explains.
For Santos, the feeling of being cared for has also made the diners themselves look more and more for restaurants that offer this interaction that omakase proposes and translates so well. "The guest feels they have more attention, and this makes the experience more exclusive. He can follow the whole proces, even if indirectly, from the assembly to the platting. Something that puts them in another position, ", he concludes. For him, by sitting at an omakase bar, we are no longer mere "clients" to become part of the performance. It is a good point of view - in this case, literally.