When it comes to restaurant design, chef–designer collaborations are of immense value to create an elevated dining experience that is reflective of the chef’s tastes, values, and personal ambitions. Offering a holistic experience where menu, service, and environment complement each other seamlessly to deliver a special experience and create excitement and loyalty towards the venue is of utmost importance. 

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Beatrice Girelli

Above all, chef-designer partnerships are an opportunity and a privilege. Design is a creative response to a list of conditions, desires, and aspirations, and as designers, our role is to conceptualize and develop a design that can offer seamless solutions to technical and operational challenges. It should also allow the restaurant to function well while showcasing a unique design personality. It is especially inspiring to work with a chef who has a clear point of view and creates a space that delivers a unique experience, crafted together by leveraging each other’s strengths and expertise. 

Collaboration is key

Although many restaurant designers have a strong grasp of operational processes and flow in food service, it is not uncommon to overlook some of the unique nuisances that are associated with each restaurant. Whether that involves the day-to-day movement of cooks and servers, issues are easily avoided when the chef is involved early on in the design process. A chef will likely have a better grasp of how the restaurant chooses to receive deliveries, how staff enters or exits the kitchen during peak hours, and even storage. Overall, the chef can weigh in on the technical and operational procedures that are specific to that restaurant. Additionally, as frictionless and touchless dining experiences continue to gain momentum, opportunities for extra seating areas or expanded kitchen areas are present. Collaboration with the chef can help spark new ideas on the most efficient use of the available space. 

Our team recently collaborated with Jason Neroni, Executive Chef of The Desmond supper club at the new Kimpton Alma in San Diego, California. The result is a dining destination inspired by Neroni’s style and philosophy showcasing local produce and local culture alike. The space feels open and effortless but is articulated as a sequence of more intimate areas punctuated by the juxtaposition of modern and historical elements.

Observe to understand

During this, and most chef-designer collaborations, we always start by observing and experiencing the physical space first to form a personal point of view. Conversation with the chef comes immediately after. We need to understand the food, the style, the vision, and the technical requirements. We then work to capture the chef’s aspirations and vision and present surprising and innovative ideas that we can develop and refine based on a collaborative exchange. 

At The Desmond, Neroni’s personal taste is as honest as his food, and it was very important to him that the final restaurant design did not align with stereotypical choices and details. He trusted our team’s ability to capture the essence of his personal style in the overall look and feel of the space. Throughout the design process, I was impressed with Neroni’s ability to think “big and small” at the same time. He is a well-read curious person, and certainly a “big” thinker when it comes to conceptualizing a new restaurant, but never loses sight of the practical operational aspects that make a restaurant a success. He is able to think as the creative chef, operator, server, bartender, and kitchen staff at the same time. It is this attention to detail that creates a seamless experience and makes the guest feel special.

Form and function

At the end of the day, restaurants are businesses. We invest as much focus in finding creative solutions to operational concerns as much as we invest in creative tasks. The seamless blend of “form and function” translates into an efficient space that functions well, is aesthetically compelling, and meets the financial objectives of the enterprise. That seamless blend and the ability to deliver an experience that supports the menu gracefully and captures the right atmosphere.

People today are looking more and more for honesty in the quality of the food, and this is being reflected in the design as well. Fortunately, we seem to have moved past the tendency to overdesign and “try too hard to impress.” Design that prevails over the food is never a good idea. A successful restaurant design has the ability to keep surprising the recurring customer and make the guest feel special and welcome over and over. 

Beatrice Girelli is the co-founder and design director of Indidesign. She received her Master’s Degree in Architecture at the University of Rome, La Sapienza, with a specialization in Historic Preservation/Restoration, she is NCIDQ certified and has retained her professional Architectural license and board certifications in Italy and in the UK. In 2003 Beatrice started Indidesign, in Los Angeles, CA which grew quickly into a recognizable name in the field of interior architecture with an emphasis on luxury and lifestyle hospitality projects and product design.

Chef Profiles, Expert Takes, Feature