A cooking suite and sous vide preparation allow this restaurant's chefs to efficiently and productively execute an eclectic, upscale menu.
When chef and restaurant partner Daniel Stern walked into the 37th floor of the Residences at Two Liberty Place in Philadelphia, he saw an open space with a few columns and breathtaking views of the Delaware and Schyullkill rivers. "I had been approached to open a restaurant in this space, and when I saw it I knew immediately it had the potential to be an exceptional space in this city. We are the highest restaurant in the city that is open to the public," he says.
Stern and the design team transformed 11,000 square feet into a restaurant and lounge with a design style that combines contemporary elegance with a reinterpretation of the extravagant Art Deco era of the 1930s. "I like to bring together the past and the future, and the traditional and modern," Stern says. "I believe that a restaurant should combine the elegance of dining with the comfort and style of a home dinner party. I want people to come into a sophisticated place and build their own experience. Perhaps they'll have cocktails and snacks at the bar and then move to a table, maybe linger a long time and return to the bar. The place has great energy, where you'd come with family and friends to celebrate."
Stern also owns and operates the urban and rustic MidAtlantic Restaurant and Tap Room in Philadelphia. Before opening his own restaurants in Philadelphia, his hometown, he worked at top-rated establishments such as Le Bec-Fin and Restaurant Daniel in New York City, and the Ritz-Carlton in Half Moon Bay, Calif.
R2L's simplicity and spatial balance create an environment that shows off the hand-polished zinc, stacked strips of glass, ebony-colored mahogany, woven leather, zebra-print upholstery and rich, striped carpets. In the lounge, plush furnishings and cozy booth seats complement glimmering light and an exposed steel structure. A local artist's floating, handcrafted sculpture of polished silverware encloses a corner dining area. A wall of wine runs the length of the space.
Upon entering the restaurant, guests get a glimpse of Stern's 2,500-square-foot kitchen and bar. A silver-painted wooden ceiling grill undulates across the bar, dining room and lounge, reinforcing the feeling of a limitless sky. When guests are closer to the kitchen, they can see the stainless steel cooking suite and some of the adjacent workspaces where chefs prepare and assemble the menu items. "The food is a unique and modern take on American cooking," Stern says. "There's something for those who want a more reserved meal and for those who want to be adventurous."
Stern admits to not previously being a big proponent of an open kitchen because "a lot is said that you don't want guests to hear," but he is certain he made the right decision to install one at R2L. "It gives guests more appreciation for what it takes to produce the menu here and to see the people who are preparing the food. Even if guests weren't watching, the kitchen would have to be spotless, organized and well run. Luckily the bar is loud enough to drown out some of the sound coming from the kitchen."
The cooking suite "makes it easier for the staff to coordinate the flow," Stern says. "I or whomever is at the pass can see everything that is happening." Controlling labor costs also influenced the equipment selection. Team members can work at more than one station during nonpeak periods.
Because R2L is on the 37th floor, which is the residence tower's concierge floor, it hadn't been constructed to contain a kitchen. "One of the greatest challenges was determining each piece of equipment's weight per square foot so engineers could reinforce the floors with special large metal spandrels in the floor joist system to support the equipment," says the project's foodservice consultant, Justin Joseph Silverthorn, FCSI, of Advanced Foodservice Solutions. "For example, the area containing the cooking suite had to handle the biggest load: about 6,800 pounds."
Before recommending specific pieces of equipment "our firm used a calculation of fit, form, flow and function," Silverthorn says. He first learned this type of time-motion analysis while working at the Ritz Escoffier with chef Michel Roth, MOF. "Chef Roth was focused on work efficiency and how it related to equipment and human ergonomics. After, our initial look at time and motion analysis, we knew that this was an important component to have in all of our design work. This analysis helped Dan to decide how large an investment he wanted to make in equipment so he could maintain optimal efficiency while keeping the food quality at his high level."
Food deliveries arrive on the ground floor. Staff bring them up to the 37th floor in a designated elevator and place them into a walk-in cooler, freezer or dry storage. Shelving in these areas, which occupy about 600 square feet, contains distinctive labels for fish, meat and produce to help staff keep these items separate. Products prepared sous-vide style — meaning they are cooked and vacuum sealed and stored using reduced-oxygen packaging — also go into the walk-in units and are labeled "ROP."
In the 240-square-foot prep area, staff use a semiautomatic slicer, worktables and various smallware items to prepare mise en place. Essential to this operation is the 40-gallon tilting steam kettle for blanching vegetables, poaching lobsters and shrimp, and cooking some of the soups.
A pressurized tilt skillet cooks stocks, beans, wild rice and soups, and also caramelizes proteins. Staff use it also for making moist short ribs, corned beef and osso buco, and for sautéing vegetables. Stern is impressed with the skillet's ability "to do such heavy lifting and also produce things that require finesse." Because the cooking surface base is several inches thick, it requires several minutes to heat up. "Once it does, the heat distribution is incredibly even, and it retains the heat very well. Also, the skillet produces crystal-clear chicken and veal stocks with great body without cooking things to death overnight."
Great care was taken to attend to details throughout the kitchen. "All the equipment in this area and throughout the kitchen contains 14-guage stainless steel construction for prep tables," Silverthorn says. "In addition, heavy-duty deep-drawn sinks are 18 inches deep to hold deep pans; there are cutouts for trash containers so nothing sits in the aisles, and a hose reel is installed for clean-down and hygiene."
Also in the prep area is a space for combi oven trolleys. Staff place prepped food items onto trays and then onto these carts, which eventually get rolled directly into the combi oven. "This practice reduces handling time," Silverthorn says.
The electric combi ovens in R2L were chosen because Silverthorn believes more finite thermostat adjustments can be made on these units. In addition, electric units were chosen over their gas counterparts because bringing the necessary additional gas into the building would have been quite costly.
Stern's staff uses the combi for slowly caramelizing bones for roasted stocks and sauces and gently—and slowly—roasting and poaching tenderloins and chicken. "Controlling the moisture inside the chamber allows us to keep products tender and prevent them from burning," Stern says.
One of Stern's favorite combi oven applications is making french fries. After staff cut the potatoes, they blanch them in the combi oven and then place them in a fryer for no more than two minutes. "We conserve a lot of oil and get a great product," Stern says.
In the pastry area, staff use refrigerated counters and refrigerated marble countertops to prepare salads and garde manger. Staff use a sheeter, 40-quart mixer and combi oven to make breads, truffle flatbread (a house specialty), cookies and other desserts. Ice cream is house-made and stored in a batch freezer. "Ingredient bins sit under a counter so they aren't in the aisles," Silverthorn says.
Refrigeration in the pastry area and throughout the kitchen is ample so chefs don't have to restock their stations during meal periods. "Everything comes off a remote condenser on the 38th floor to reduce noise and conserve space for preparation," Silverthorn says.
The cooking suite is the kitchen's showcase, containing, in clockwise direction, fryers for making crisp cheese risotto and shitake mushroom fries, and a graduated French-top range. "There is a lot of heat coming off the suite, so the residual heat off the flue on the piano suite is used to do dishes such as a confit with tomatoes, garlic and oil," Silverthorn says.
On the opposite side is a plancha that Stern selected "because we can cook and sear directly on the surface and also use it to warm sauces and other items. We also use the larger griddle for holding during service so we can keep product hot as we plate." In addition, the suite contains a two-burner open water bath range and a 24-inch grill. A mounted salamander is used for finishing an array of items including fish, meat, and onion soup.
Ovens below the suite's counters heat dishes in the finishing stages of preparation and also hold plates.
All menu items are married at the common pass. "We put in an intermediate shelf beneath the main shelf for snacks served at the bar," Silverthorn says. "Staff must work quickly in this area to avoid bottlenecks, which are rare elsewhere in the kitchen."
Another aspect of production, the sous vide vacuum-packaging system allows staff to prepare items such as vegetables, artichokes, celery root, pork belly and octopus and keep them refrigerated until needed. A hybrid steam table, which is a temperature-controlled bath that keeps oil at a desired temperature, is part of the system. "Sous vide is one of the most underutilized technologies in this country," Silverthorn says. "It is used effectively throughout Europe and only a few top chefs in this country are incorporating it into their operations. Some report great success."
After guests have finished a course, staff bring dirty dishes to a soiled dishtable drop area. Integrated into the table is a trash receptacle with a hose reel beside it and overshelves. Three staff members can use the scrapping trough before it goes to the disposer. "Staffing is minimal for the fully automatic, high-temp conveyor dishmachine that handles approximately 1,200 to 1,600 pieces of flatware and plates each evening," Silverthorn says. The dishmachine also cleans sheetpans and cooking utensils. A separate machine cleans more fragile glassware. "The bar also has a warewasher, but the staff is so busy filling orders that we needed a machine to handle the overflow."
Though the restaurant was never intended for LEED certification, energy-saving practices are incorporated into the cooking equipment. "The dishmachine and braising pan not only save on kilowatts per hour, but account for a tremendous savings in labor," Silverthorn says.