The Kitchen

A dining trend that emerged five years ago or so has hit Bakersfield with the opening of The Kitchen at 1317 20th St., in downtown Bakersfield. The concept is that diners come for a gourmet meal that they help prepare themselves, then enjoy while staff serves it.

It’s a prix fixe meal ($80 per person inclusive) that is essentially a cooking class with appetizer, salad, entree, and dessert. Wine and beer are available for purchase. A modest corkage fee of $8 is charged if you’d like to bring your own wine in (not a bad idea since the wine list is quite limited). And yes, you get to do most of the work yourself. But it’s a lot of fun.

Chef and owner Darci Atkinson, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America’s West Coast campus at Greystone in Napa Valley, opened The Kitchen a little over a year ago, and has been busy from day one.

“I’ve been very surprised at the reaction from people,” she said. “Before I opened I’d sit on the curb out front and wonder if people would come. What surprises me most is that every single day people call. It’s just word of mouth. I didn’t have to do any advertising at all.”

A giant decorative pegboard collage featuring a variety of cooking utensils and pans greets diners as they enter the cooking class.
A giant decorative pegboard collage featuring a variety of cooking utensils and pans greets diners as they enter the cooking class.

She insists it’s not a restaurant per se. “You must have reservations.” And each night is different. The cooking class dinners are on the weekends. “Cocktail nights attract a younger crowd. Pizza night is younger. We also have date night and ‘Wine Down Wednesdays,’” she said.

The place where all this magic occurs is in an old building downtown that is the only structure on the north half-block on 20th Street between K and L streets.

Inside, the wood floor is the only thing that’s original. Crisp white walls, stainless steel food preparation counters, and modern appliances greet guests along the right side of the long room. Brushed stainless steel hoods extend over the stove tops. Fluorescent lights bathe the room its entire length.

Two cocktail height dining tables are on the left, granite topped, also serving as prep areas. Beautiful metallic colored glass lights shaped like wine bottles minus the bottom hang over the dining tables.

A pegboard on the west wall is a giant decorative collage featuring a variety of cooking utensils and pans.

Darci Atkinson covers food prep details for the night’s dining with Mike Stepanovich.
Darci Atkinson covers food prep details for the night’s dining with Mike Stepanovich.

The Kitchen can accommodate 24 guests.

On the night of my cooking class, 11 of us are anticipating not only a great meal but also a great experience. Fueling this expectation is Darci, who greets each guest with a glass of sparkling wine. The one thing we don’t prepare is the rosemary roasted cashews served as an appetizer. They’re fabulous, and Darci is happy to provide the recipe.

Darci is aided this night by her assistant, Mayra, a Bakersfield College culinary arts graduate.

Darci assigns each guest a spot at one of the tables, where a folded apron awaits. Donning the aprons, we await our instructions. My table mates are Paul and Cara Costamagna, parents of three boys and a girl ranging from 17 to 8 years old. They’re enjoying a date night. They both enjoy cooking, and think The Kitchen concept “is cool.”

Tonight we’re preparing a pear and pistachio salad, followed by our entree, gnocchi with roasted asparagus, shrimp, and sautéed mushrooms; and concluding with dessert, warm chocolate lava cake.

We start with the cake, as it has to go into the oven. I man the mixer, blending the eggs, sugar, and vanilla; Cara melts the butter and Valrhona dark chocolate that is then added to the egg-sugar-vanilla mixture. The batter is then spooned into ramekins for baking. Just before it goes into the oven, Darci slips a chunk of the dark chocolate into the middle of the mixture, which will give the cake its molten characteristic.

Then it’s on to the salad. Paul and I finely chop the green onions, while other class members work on the lettuce, pears, and pistachios.

For the dressing, I’m the designated whisker for a vinaigrette that requires vigorous whisking. With the ingredients in a bowl, I begin to whisk, thinking I’m doing pretty good. Unh-unh. Darci lets me know that I need to speed it up, so as to not only blend the ingredients but also to get some air into it. After doubling my speed, Darci smiles and says, “That’s more like it.” And 60 seconds later I’m done.

Now comes the gnocchi. While some attendees work on the mushrooms and asparagus, others of us are working on the gnocchi, itself. Mayra has overseen the dough creation, and now it’s up to some of us to roll out the gnocchi and cut it into bite-sized chunks about a half-inch long. Darci puts a handful of flour on the parchment paper in front of us at our workstation, then plops some dough on too. Coating the sticky dough in the flour allows us to roll it into long ropes that we then cut to the appropriate length. The bites are then fried to a golden brown.

By now we’ve been at it a couple hours, so we sit down at a table, enjoy some wine, and Darci and Mayra take over, assembling the salad, followed by the gnocchi and the dessert. The amazing thing is we’ve learned a lot, helped create a fabulous meal, and then enjoyed it. We’ve gotten to know Darci and each other and had a splendid evening.

A few nights later four of us visit for Wine Down Wednesday. The prix fixe menu, prepared by Darci and Mayra, is divine:

      • Kale and julienned pear salad with vinaigrette, shaved pecorino, and toasted almonds.
      • Lentils and mozzarella with toasted pine nuts and kalamata olives.
      • Salmon tostada on a freshly made corn tortilla with avocado spread on the bottom, fresh corn, greens, goat cheese, and topped with jalapeño slices.

The evening is exactly as intended: relaxing, delicious, and engaging. It’s just a great experience.

After a year, Darci feels good about The Kitchen’s future. “I finally feel comfortable,” she said. “I’m still trying to figure out the demographics, but I’ve learned a lot, and one of the things is that people in Bakersfield want to eat steak.” She laughed.

She looked around at the people enjoying themselves, listening to the buzz, delighting in her creation. “I love being here,” she said. “It feels like home. It’s my space. The hardest thing for me to do is stop thinking about it.”

Visit www.thekitchenbakersfield.com or call (661) 827-7811 for information on how to attend a class yourself. LET’S EAT!

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