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Sunday, May 31, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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John Hinterberger's Table

Open Up -- An Open Kitchen Provides A Taste Of Theater

Many restaurants show part of their kitchen activities. The 13 Coins, for example, gained much of its original popularity in the 1960s by having its fry cooks work in full public view. It was part of the entertainment; copious splashes of wine, great flares of intermittent flambees, had the counter crowds alternately gawking with pleasure and ducking behind menus to preserve their dignity and their eyebrows.

But a completely open kitchen? It's rare. For many reasons.

There is considerable skill and some instruction in the dressing out of a rabbit or the gutting of a capon, but little entertainment. Most restaurant "prep" work is either tedious, goopy or bloody. Who really wants to watch someone washing lettuce or trimming artichokes?

The true believers do.

Thus it is that on any weekend afternoon or evening at Szmania's in Magnolia, the counter stools are solidly booked by foodies who watch over the proceedings with the same fascination that attends sidewalk critics of skyscraper construction. It's like going to lunch or dinner and finding yourself in a front-row seat at a master class.

And how does the master feel about all of this?

"I love it. I really do," Ludgar Szmania said. "And the reasons are very personal. I have been in this business for 22 years, and for most of those 22 years I worked without ever having any personal contact with the customers I was working for. But our open kitchen is so different from being tucked away in some back room.

"This way, I get to see - I get to meet - three-quarters of the people who come to our door. Sometimes we just say hello; sometimes we get into a more involved conversation, but I get to know our customers in a way I never could have before."

He looks too young to have spent 22 years doing anything professionally. Tall, blond, congenial, Szmania was born in Waltrop, Germany, near Dusseldorf.

He apprenticed for 3 1/2 years (beginning at 15) at a small hotel kitchen in Recklinghausen and then joined Hilton International in Dusseldorf. He moved on to Montreal and later to Puerto Rico with Hilton before being recruited by the Four Seasons hotel chain. He headed up their Vancouver, B.C., hotel kitchen for three years, then took over the prestigious Inn at the Park in Houston.

Szmania arrived in Seattle six years ago as executive chef for the Four Seasons Olympic Hotel, a post he held until he struck out on his own 20 months ago with Szmania's, possibly Seattle's most food-arts sophisticated, yet quietly unpretentious, neighborhood restaurant.

His is a resume of a master chef - not yet 40 - that underscores the professional deficiencies of so many American "chefs," who attend a culinary school for a couple of years, work a hot line for a few more and then think it is time to innovate with odd combinations of proteins and raspberries.

Seated at Szmania's curved counter, here's what you see: A small service bar and beverage center is at the extreme right, with the scullery behind it. In the far right corner is a vegetable and prep center. The hot-line ranges and ovens are against the far wall in the middle, with work tables facing them.

Immediately in front of the counter are the salad, appetizer and dessert work stations, with an espresso machine in the center.

With the exception of scrubbing pots and pans, everything is in full view, from the uncrating and rinsing of asparagus to the hand-rubbed construction of a pie crust.

"There is another virtue with an open kitchen," Szmania said. "That is cleanliness. We have to keep the kitchen absolutely clean. The same thing goes for our clothes. They have to look up to par.

"We have a cleaning crew that comes in seven night a week. It's expensive (most restaurant kitchens are professionally cleaned once a week), but it's absolutely necessary.

"It's a little bit like theater. Everything has to be ready, it has to look right, and the `cast' all has to be in place and ready to go at 5:30. It is much more of a stage feeling, of a performance. In the beginning, we had some people in the crew who could not relate to people; eventually we had to cut them out. I hire people who can talk as well as cook. We can't have people here who can't interact with our customers."

How do the actors feel about all of this?

"I was a little uncomfortable at first," said Karen Calvert, the dessert chef. "Originally, I didn't like it. I felt shy. I wasn't sure that everything I was doing was being done just right. But as time went by, it became more and more comfortable.

"And now I look forward to it. I know at least 60 percent of the people who sit at the counter. You see some of them, the regulars, a couple of times a week and they become friends. You work in front of them and you almost don't notice - until you look up and see a familiar face."

The cast can number as many as 13. And they have to get along. "It's not like some places," said Calvert, smoothing a pie crust into a pan, "where there is often tension between the kitchen and the wait staff. You have to work together here."

Ludgar and Julie Szmania did not construct their open kitchen solely for sociological reasons. "The space was so small," he said, "only 2,500 square feet, that we felt we needed to open it up. It allowed visual communication from one dining space to the other. If we had closed the kitchen off, it just wouldn't have worked as well."

Who sits at the counter? A lot of singles. A lot of drop-ins.

"We try to keep some counter seats available for walk-ins and folks from the neighborhood," Julie Szmania said. "When we first opened, we were so busy, night after night, that people from Magnolia who lived in the area couldn't get in, and there were some hurt feelings about that."

Who doesn't sit at the counter?

"A lot of older people," she said. "They want to sit at a table. We had one woman the other night who sat over there, by herself, at a table for four. And she stayed for an hour and a half, which is fine. But she could have sat up here and made some friends."

The 10 seats at the counter tend to fill up with those who are seeking more than friendship," Ludgar noted:

"They come in for dinner and they leave with a cooking lesson," he laughed. "These are mostly people who are very interested in cooking itself; they are curious about techniques and ingredients - and, of course, they get to sample a little bit of this or that ...

"Would you like a little red bean soup?"

(Copyright, 1992, John Hinterberger. All rights reserved.)

John Hinterberger's food columns and restaurant reviews appear Sundays in Pacific and Fridays in Tempo. Jimi Lott is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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