Cool jazz weaves through the room as I sip a pretty cocktail with house made tinctures and infusions. As my back sinks into the soft leather seat, I study a menu with large clean print. A server comes by and gently places a basket of warm bread at the table. I smile inhaling the aroma of baked wheat and melting sweet butter. Then sizzle and fire flash into the room from the open kitchen. I am happy and become happier when I take my first bite of a summer tomato salad garnished with basil leaves on fresh Burrata.
Dining experiences at restaurants cannot depend on the food alone. Interior designer James Kordonowy of A and E Architects and Chef Michael Callaghan of Callaghan Enterprises share how design, service and food, along with behind the scenes organization and setup in the kitchen contribute to a diner’s experience.
Both men discovered their talents at a young age. Callaghan started cooking when he was nine years old. Kordonowy learned how to draw from his brother. To this day he hand sketches ideas using a pen rather than a computer. Callaghan helped open Walkers Grill to then become the Director of Business Development for Food Services of America to now being CEO of his own consulting company, Callaghan Enterprises.
Kordonowy presents the three factors of design, service and food in a visual triangle to his restaurant clients who secure his expertise. The three interplay together as a successful formula for attracting diners, and then providing them a good all-around experience. Kordonowy confesses that his experience with a restaurant begins in the parking lot. Then once inside he studies how he is greeted to what service is offered. The design of the space contributes to his sentiments of the restaurant experience with a final verdict decided on after the food is served and tasted.
Callaghan elaborates on the importance of proficiency and efficiency in the back of the house or kitchen. He emphasizes proficiency, having ingredients prepared or what he terms mise en place, a French phrase meaning “put in place” or “everything in place.”
In the kitchen there are designated areas such as the pantry for preparation of salads, sandwiches or cold items. Cooking occurs “on the line” where a three-step process takes place repetitively. Ingredients that are stored in containers or under counter refrigerators are cooked on pans stored on or near the stove. The cooked food is plated and served to the diner. The cook should never have to leave his or her station as all ingredients should be prepared and stored for service. Usually a runner can restock items in the line that may be stored elsewhere.
Callaghan enjoys the drama of an open kitchen, bringing the diner into the kitchen and the cook out to the front of the house. He added, “People like to see what’s happening. You have to be very cognizant of what you’re doing. It’s an excitement. It’s like you are on stage.”
Both Callaghan and Kordonowy worked at Walkers (https://walkersgrill.com/) in downtown Billings when it was located in the Chamber building. Callaghan was the original chef when the restaurant opened 25 years ago, and Kordonowy was an expediter. For Kordonowy it was coming full circle when he was asked by owner Bill Honaker to help remodel the established layout across from the Doubletree Hotel on 27th Street.
That space featured a Western motif designed by Mitch Thompson, which has now been refashioned to Western “metropolitan”. Kordonowy shared that diners’ desires have changed. Clients prefer to walk in rather than make reservations and white tablecloths are no longer in vogue. Honaker discovered that more people were eating in the bar, so in his new space, there are more booths and small tables for informal eating.
Much of the old bar is still intact, featuring a large metal wine rack and barbed wire chandelier. The new Walkers restaurant is a modern expression of Bill Honaker who is a jazz musician and a native of Billings. “He just wanted a space that was funky and cool,” Kordonowy said. On the sidewall, a metal grill simulates sheet music while a colorful panel portraying musical notes with colors reminiscent of the Caribbean hang above the dining room. Graffitti and faux concrete walls bring in an urban vibe.
For Kordonowy this was a difficult project because even at the inception of the idea, loyal clients were dubious and resistant to the change. They loved the Western theme. Feedback has been 95% positive according to Kordonowy. He believes, “In general our design is a component in making businesses profitable. I think good design sells.”
Though Kordonowy enjoys the creativity in his work, he understands the responsibility of being fiscally responsible, interpreting a client’s ideas within the guidelines of budget and taste. He attempts to create responsibly.
Callaghan believes that proficiency is the key to a good kitchen. Though health rules and regulations need to be adhered to, such as a three-sink dish washing system and a separate hand washing sink, he emphasized being prepared and having a space to cook as quickly as possible brings good food quickly to the customer. Callaghan notes that the equipment is needed in the kitchen depends upon the food being prepared. For instance, a kitchen preparing pasta may need a large cooker. Refrigeration is always needed while a convection oven may be valuable in the line with an eight-burner stovetop.
He advises those who wanted to open a restaurant to do their homework. “It’s a business. You have to figure out how to make money and not be greedy. You just have to figure it out. Figure out something you feel you are really good at or have a passion for.”
From Callaghan and Kordonowy, passion, service, design, proficiency, and not just food alone make for a delicious restaurant experience.