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Be a guinea pig at these test kitchens and incubators

Girl & the Goat
Source: Girl & the Goat
Girl & the Goat

As diners become increasingly savvy about how their artisanal sausages are made, the boundaries between chefs, cooks and customers are shifting — and, in some cases, dissolving completely.

Consider the open kitchen. Once relegated to roadside diners helmed by fry cooks named Bud, visible kitchens are now hallmarks of such critically lauded restaurants as Chicago's Girl & the Goat, Brooklyn's Olmsted and Ava Gene's in Portland, Ore.

These days, chefs and restaurateurs are opening the doors to their test kitchens and incubators to the paying public. At these experimental spaces, established and up-and-coming chefs tinker with wish-list concepts while diners enjoy unfettered access to top culinary minds during arguably their most creative processes.

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At Michael Mina's two-year-old MINA Test Kitchen in San Francisco, the James Beard Award-winning chef, and his friends and staff tinker with concepts and cuisines ranging from coastal Italian to global barbecue. The prix-fixe, pop-up dinners are available for limited-time engagements at the Marina space, such as Postcards from La Costiera, the Italian menu available now.

"It gave us an opportunity to work through new ideas and concepts that were percolating," Mina explains. "It's an incredible experience for our team to essentially open a brand-new restaurant every four months."

"Additionally, restaurateurs, investors and community organizers are pursuing operations where up-and-coming chefs can temporarily launch their businesses in order to develop expertise, support and funding."

Mina's chefs-in-residence have included partner Adam Sobel, whose 2015 pop-up, Little Italy, will soon give way to Nana Lu, a stall at Mina's forthcoming food hall in Honolulu, Hawaii. Food Network star Ayesha Curry's summer 2016 pop-up, International Smoke, proved so successful that she will launch a brick-and-mortar outpost in the space formerly occupied by Mina's RN74 restaurant in San Francisco later this year.

Across the country, chefs are opening their brainstorming sessions to the public. Tim Love, best known for Western restaurants with the words "lonesome dove" and "saloon" in their names, explores Italian and Spanish cooking at his year-old, eponymous test kitchen in Fort Worth, Texas. Tuesday Test Kitchen dinners recently debuted at The Catbird Seat restaurant in Nashville, and Los Angeles-based celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck opened an experimental outpost, The Rogue Experience, in West Hollywood last month. Meanwhile, Washington D.C.'s Jose Andres is planning ThinkFoodLab, a pop-up space scheduled to open this year.

Additionally, restaurateurs, investors and community organizers are pursuing operations where up-and-coming chefs can temporarily launch their businesses in order to develop expertise, support and funding. Akin to Silicon Valley's incubator model, these projects range from the brand-new upscale food hall Workshop in northern Charleston, S.C., to ANEW Rooftop + Test Kitchen, a philanthropic partnership with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri that opened in St. Louis in March.

Pizzaiolo Sal Lupoli, of Boston-area fleet Sal's Pizza, opened Revolving Test Kitchen in Lawrence, Mass. last December. The first occupant, CocoRay's, is a former food truck headed by local chef Ray Gonzalez. All Revolving tenants receive nearly $300,000 of equipment and furniture during their six-month stints, as well as mentoring from Lupoli. His aim is to help launch food businesses that will revitalize empty storefronts in downtown Lawrence.

For burgeoning chefs and entrepreneurs, this is an invaluable investment. For the hungry public, it's a chance to explore new links in the restaurant food chain. Browse the photos above to see where you can experience chef experiments dining out.