When the Culinary Institute of America expanded its San Antonio, Texas, campus in 2010 to establish an associate degree program there, part of the vision was to include a venue that would serve as both an instructional lab and a full-service, commercial-style restaurant. The result is Nao, a 4,400-square-foot restaurant that gives students in their last 12 weeks of the program "real world" experience in both the front and back of the house.
Opened in April of 2012, Nao's cuisine explores foods of the Americas. Its ambiance is casually upscale, and its centerpiece is an expansive and sizzling exposition kitchen. The kitchen in its entirety comprises 50 percent of the restaurant, 30 percent of which is exposition. "You can take in 80 percent of what's happening in the restaurant from a single vantage point. It's very transparent. We cherish the image of the professional chef and servers, and of the CIA students. And that's not even touching on the benefit that people love seeing the action, the entertainment, while dining," says David Kellaway, CMC, CCE, managing director of the CIA, San Antonio, who worked with Mission Restaurant Supply to lead the project's design and development.
Kellaway describes Nao's expo kitchen layout as resembling half of a figure eight along one wall of the restaurant. It's roughly 37 feet long and ranges in depth from 10 feet in the center to 16 feet along the outer curves on each side. An expediting station, or pass, is positioned in the center, directly in front of a wood-burning oven station. Additional stations span out from the pass, including a wood-fired grill, rotisserie, sauté station with convection oven, plancha station and garde manger to the left of the pass. To the right of the pass are fryers, a "general facility" station, dessert and pantry stations, and a large convection oven used for banquets.
Three separate hood systems, one over the plancha and sauté stations, one over the wood-fired grill and another just behind that grill, keep the air clean and balanced. That's a top priority for any expo kitchen, Kellaway notes, but particularly for one that incorporates extensive live-fire cooking.
The Nao kitchen works so well in part because its layout allows for the expediter to be positioned on the outside of the counter at the pass. "The expediting sous chef can see and communicate pretty directly with every station," Kellaway says. "That helps in coordinating pulling food off the line."
A highlight of Nao's kitchen, as with a growing number of expo kitchens, is its counter seating. Immediately adjacent to the cooking stations, this area seats 6 to 8 to the right of the pass and another 10 to 12 to the left. "More typically, you'll have the counter seating and then there will be a buffer zone or service zone that acts as an insulator from the actual cooking activity," Kellaway says. "That's not the case at Nao. You're really engaged face-to-face in conversation with the chefs and the students cooking at that station. It makes for a very entertaining and tactile experience: If there's a flare-up on the grill or at the sauté station, you feel the heat on your face and catch the aromas. It's a synergy of the concept of the chef's table and the tried-and-true configuration of counter seating, as in grand old diners and lunch counters."