First Look - ING (Or, Does Your Restaurant Have a Mission Control?)

By Anthony Todd in Food on Feb 14, 2011 4:00PM

When I walked in the door of Homaro Cantu's ING, I honestly had no idea what to expect. I'd been to Moto many times, and to Otom (the previous tenant of the space) once before, but aside from some buzz about miracle berries and a lot of tweets ending in "-ing," I was pretty much in the dark. What I experienced was a potential revolution in restaurant logistics. For all the highfalutin talk about feeding the poor, levitating food and "molecular gastronomy," the real stories of the night were the fun, interesting food cooked by executive chef Thomas Bowman and the incredible machine Cantu has created to run such an immensely complicated restaurant. Food aside, we may be seeing the future of restaurant management at ING.

I wasn't kidding in the headline - how many restaurants have you been to that have a mission control center in the basement? Between the main course and the dessert, Cantu took me on a tour of the entire facility, and one of the highlights was the computer center. The restaurant uses an automated expediting system - instead of chefs shouting and screaming "Fire" and "Ready" around the kitchen, they are eerily quiet. Each wears a small earpiece and the computer tells them exactly what to do. For instance, when my table got up to take a tour, a "hold" was put on our table, so the chefs and servers, all of whom are connected into the system, would know that we weren't sitting down and exactly when to make our next course. The computer system uses "evolutionary" programming, so it can learn about each particular diner and staff member. Eventually, the restaurant will remember your preferences and dietary restrictions, and even greet you by name at the door.

This system is particularly important because ING, unlike Moto, is intended to operate on an a la carte basis. Chef Cantu admitted that serving such complicated food was much easier when everyone in the restaurant got the same 10 or 18 courses. Now, as diners order anything they want in any order, things are going to get complicated. Cantu also promised a revolution in billing and serving. Rather than ordering one dish at a time, diners will decide how long they want to eat. The restaurant, using the efficient computer system, will bring out a certain number of dishes per hour, and the bill will be calculated per hour, rather than per plate. The numbers Cantu was quoting (a result, partly, of the efficiency the system allows) are astonishing: only $50 an hour for seven courses, including beer and wine pairings. This is still tentative, of course, and no official prices have been released. The biggest surprise about ING might be how much of a bargain it will be.

Not everything is high tech. A chef at the udon station in the front of the restaurant constantly stretches noodles, by hand, throughout the dinner hour. Ever single staff member had to learn how to make the noodles, which are made the same way they have been made for hundreds of years. Oh, and the miracle berries? They will be a part of the dining experience, though limited to the basement "chef's table" for now.

It's not clear whether any of the dishes I ate will end up on the menu, and I didn't pay for the event, so I will refrain from any judgement until I return anonymously. The food did exhibit the same "fun" quality found in so many dishes at Moto (one of our dining companions called it "playful") and there were some successes and some failures. The nano-batch beers are destined to become a part of the beer-geek pantheon, as Cantu took his signature style and added it to beverages - a beer brewed with coffee and donuts, called "the precinct," was the highlight of the evening.

Cantu plans to promote and distribute the computer system, using ING as a testbed and demonstration center. In the coming weeks as the restaurant comes online, we hope that diners and critics alike pay attention to this behind-the-scenes revolution. The food is interesting, but the way everything arrives at the table, perfectly and without fuss, may be the real story behind ING.

ING is located at 951 West Fulton Market. ING is open for limited previews until the official grand opening in early March.