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“Virtual kitchen” hits the Fountain Restaurant

The venerable Fountain Restaurant is bringing reality TV to the city's restaurant scene, with the installation of a new flat-screen for viewing its own top chef, Martin Hamann.

The venerable Fountain Restaurant is bringing reality TV to the city's restaurant scene, with the installation of a new flat-screen for viewing its own top chef, Martin Hamann.

Diners can book a private room to watch executive chef Hamann prepare dinner via closed-circuit television, and then see the food on the screen delivered to their table, less than 10 seconds after the last drizzle of sauce or tuft of micro arugula has garnished the plate.

The luxurious restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel may draw followers of the popular reality cooking shows with its new "Virtual Kitchen" program, which offers not only a view of the preparation, but also the satisfaction of eating the finished product.

The idea of watching a chef operate behind the scenes is not necessarily new here, as in-kitchen dining experiences - called chef's tables - are popular in several local restaurants, where diners sit in the kitchen, talk to the chef, and inhale the aromas of the food as it is seared, grilled or sautéed.

In fact, it was a lack of space in the kitchen that led to the idea of a 48-inch screen in the private Logan Room at the Fountain.

"There's not really a good area for people to go and have a table of twelve in the kitchen, so we thought we could put in cameras," Hamann explained.

While the Fountain Restaurant is the first to have a Virtual Kitchen-type experience in Philadelphia, there are plenty of others around the country; Celebrity chef Charlie Trotter's restaurant in Chicago has trained a similar camera on the kitchen for guests in a private dining room for more than 10 years.

At the Frog and the Peach in New Brunswick, N.J., two televisions set up at the bar broadcast "Frog Net," which provides close-up views of executive chef Bruce Lefebvre's kitchen. Frog Net was put in place about a year ago by owner Jim Black.

Those expecting the in-depth instruction of a cooking show or the tension-filled drama of reality television may find the Virtual Kitchen a little anticlimactic. The video and sound go only one way, so Hamann tries to keep his talking into his wireless microphone and dish-clattering to a minimum.

"The only thing I would like is for myself to be able to see in the room," Hamann said. "I don't want it to be intrusive, so I don't want to come across when people are having conversation." The restaurant has plans to make the video go both ways, however, so that Hamann can better judge when to speak to diners.

While some may find the Virtual Kitchen a more sterile approach, lacking the sensual smells and sizzles that a table in the kitchen provides, Hamann believes the TV screen has its advantages.

"It's obviously going to be a lot more comfortable in the dining room without the smoke, and from a noise level your dining experience is enhanced," Hamann said.

Additionally, don't expect to see the chefs duke it out behind the scenes as they do on cable.

"I think we run a pretty professional place here," Hamann said. "It's about working and teamwork - it's not that element of all the F-bombs and Hell's Kitchen and the whole berating thing," Hamann said.

The demonstrations are truly live, though, so if you're looking for drama you may catch a glimpse, whether provided by a surprise visit from a health inspector or a server misstep.

A session with the Fountain's Virtual Kitchen will probably cost more than it does to TiVo a month's worth of Top Chef. The flat rate of booking the Virtual Kitchen is $250 per party - to help cover the fees of an in-kitchen technician and use of the cameras - plus the cost of food. Lunch runs $48 to $68 per person, depending on the number of courses, while dinner is $98 to $138. These prices do not include wine.

The restaurant recommends a party of 8 to 12 people, and charges an additional $250 fee for parties of fewer than 8 (a total $500 fee, plus food and wine.)

Susanna Foo, chef/owner of her eponymous fine-dining destination on Walnut Street and Susanna Foo Gourmet Kitchen in Radnor, said that she sees this type of technology as the start of a new fine-dining trend.

"It's an investment, but I think it's a good idea," Foo said. "I might do it sometime, but not in the near future."

While cameras in the kitchens of restaurants like the Fountain and the Frog and the Peach can appeal to a new television-inspired population of foodies, not all kitchens want such exposure. Georgette Farkas, who represents celebrity chef Daniel Boulud's Manhattan-based restaurant empire, said Boulud is not interested in bringing his kitchen to the small screen.

"I think he feels there is a certain wonderful mystery about what goes on in the kitchen," Farkas said. Boulud does have a glass-enclosed chef's table over the kitchen in his restaurant Daniel, but Farkas said Boulud believes that this behind-the-scenes experience should be reserved for special occasions.

Hamann hopes that the Virtual Kitchen at the Fountain will help pique interest in the established fine-dining institution.

"We are 25 years old; we aren't the fresh, exciting new restaurant," acknowledged Hamann. "I think this will enhance the Fountain."