Photo by Megan Leigh Barnard

Dinner & A Show

“All day we’ve got three salmon, two pot pie, two hamburguesa…”
“One trout sells this ticket! Let’s move!”
“Everybody should be helping!!”

Sauté pans clang against the gas stove burners. Stacks of plates rattle against each other as they are thrown down on the line to be filled with steaks, chops, and greens. It’s loud. Chaotic. The host, a seasoned chef, yells to the sauté station in a menacing tone, demanding that all plates arrive simultaneously. The camera pans to a young chef about to spoon apple-cider-butter sauce on a perfectly cooked salmon filet, and just as he turns his wrist, a booming voice rises above the clatter, bellowing, “S.O.S. Sauce. On. Side. Are you listening to a word I’m saying?!” The young chef freezes a split second before ruining the dish. The camera pans left. “Good work, guys. Perfect ticket. Lets keep them coming like that…”

The host of tonight’s reality cooking show takes a moment to praise the men in the trenches. He turns to face the camera, and in an act defying every law of the universe, he steps out from your TV right into your living room and places a dish on the table in front of you. This is what it feels like to grab the best seat in The Whitney House.

It’s funny; Ian Brown never wanted to own a restaurant. When a friend suggested that he take over the vacant space on High Street in Worthington, formerly occupied by PK O’Ryan’s, he thought it was funny, too. But six months later, the hometown guy signed up for the task of filling it with something he felt would serve the community he’s known his entire life.

The Whitney House concept is simple—an homage to a house on Whitney Street in which Brown’s family spent nearly every holiday, or special occasion, and the restaurant is meant to evoke the feeling of that house. The warmth, friendliness, and fun of families dining together, and enjoying skillfully prepared comfort food. The interior of the dining room is painted in shades of white and grey, with exposed brick, wall mirrors, and clean lines abutting spotless white tile. Wall sconces and hanging lamps light the space, casting shadows across the wood floors, and often times illuminating the smokiness of the room, a feature of the open kitchen design. Along the hallway leading to the adjoining tavern room there are glass-front wooden cabinets holding stacks of plates and trinkets you might find in, well…a house in Worthington. By 7 p.m. the tables are full, and the kitchen is firing on all cylinders. A table by the window provides a picture perfect view of charming downtown Worthington. A booth in the back room allows a quieter experience, but the sweet spot here is at the bar. There are two bars in The Whitney House, so allow me to be a bit more specific: the bar you want does not have a row of tap handles. There are no neatly arranged bottles, nor will you find a bartender. This bar looks through a window straight into the kitchen. Your host behind the bar is Chef Maxwell Avon, and what a host he is.

The open kitchen isn’t a new concept, whether it’s the short order cooks behind the line at diners around the country or the high-end establishments where guests enjoy the flash of fire in their periphery as they chat with friends over cocktails. There is something voyeuristic about being allowed access to the space usually reserved for the machinery of a restaurant. The success of competition-based reality TV shows hosted by angry British chefs is a convincing testament to this fact, but anyone who has spent time on the line can tell you that there is nothing like really being in the action. What happens on TV and what happens in a real kitchen are two very different experiences. Even open kitchen concepts too often fail to portray the real pressure, madness, and brutality of a restaurant kitchen operating at the highest levels. Diners get a dramatized version of the chaos, in which cooks in perfect aprons load pizzas into brick ovens, or prepare salads in sterile glass-walled cages. The expletives do not fly, the tone of the chef often does not raise above a whisper. There is a unique beauty that you can only find in the chaotic choreography of a true restaurant kitchen, and this is what you find when you take a seat at Chef Max’s bar.

Ian knew that he had something special when Chef Max came on board to create the menu at The Whitney House. Having spent time as the executive sous chef at Lindey’s, Chef Max was no stranger to preparing seemingly ordinary comfort food at an extraordinary level, and this is where he really hits his stride at The Whitney House. Shortly after sitting down, I was presented with an amuse-bouche salt tasting. As the surprise plate was set down in front of me, Chef Max began to tell me about his obsession with salt. This was going to be fun. Thin slices of cucumber, each adorned with a sprinkle of salt in a variety of colors and shapes. He explained the origin of each, highlighting his favorite, the Utah Red Jurassic, as well as large black granules from Cypress and two smoked varieties. Seconds after completing his saline soliloquy, he spun back around to the window behind him, demanding to know who was responsible for the tardy Amish Brick Chicken that left him with an incomplete order sitting in the window. This is what Chef Max describes as, “slow and gentle pressure” and it is balanced equally with praise when necessary. While those not yet initiated into the firestorm of high-volume kitchens may find it jarring at first, this is how top-notch outfits ensure they put out a top-notch product. Beyond the clamor and chaos, what is truly on display is accountability: there is no dish that goes out without Chef Max’s inspection, and when necessary, correction. When his team is operating at the highest level, you get a real sense of all the moving parts coming together to create culinary excellence.

Sipping on Ezra’s Oxcart, a combination of rye whiskey, falernum, mint tea, and lemonade, while watching the perpetual motion in front of me, was vastly more entertaining, fascinating, and educational than anything you might find on cable television, and on this show, you get to taste the food. Shockingly, my lightly breaded, perfectly juicy bone-in pork chop was almost out-shined by the winter root vegetables accompanying it. This medley of potatoes, carrots, parsnips, and brussels sprout leaves could not have been more satisfying on a cold January night. Like the two ladies dining next to me, I had planned to take some of my meal home with me for lunch the next day, but after the first bite, it was clear that was not in the cards. I briefly regretted not ordering the daily special, a tower of meatloaf, when it was set down at the seat next to me, but I forgot about it completely with my next bite. In between calling out orders and inspecting dishes, Chef Max took the time to explain the importance of brining pork chops to my new dining companions after they mentioned getting less than favorable results with pork chops in their own kitchens. Later, we all discussed our shared love of grilled fruit while I enjoyed my brûléed banana split and bourbon eggnog for dessert, and Chef Max provided translations for some of the kitchen lingo the women overheard. I hadn’t planned to spend my night with two strangers twice my age and the entire staff of a kitchen, but I also hadn’t planned to have this much fun.