RALEIGH, N.C. -- "May I take you to your table?" asked the genteel maitre d' at Second Empire, a restored Victorian mansion that a decade ago was transformed into what has become one of this city's most elegant and expensive downtown restaurants.
Our coats checked, we nodded. With that, he guided our party of four past the foyer's hand-carved walnut staircase, past the hushed formal dining room with its 14-foot ceiling and Impressionist paintings, into a back hallway and through a pair of swinging doors.
We stepped into the restaurant's kitchen, where a dozen cooks were working frenetically.
In the center of the kitchen, amid the heat and frenzy, was a lone round table. It was set with white linen, silverware, and crystal , and around it were four chairs. The maitre d' pulled one out and motioned for me to sit.
This table -- positioned squarely at the heart of the restaurant's nerve center, where multi course dinners for more than 120 customers would be prepared that evening -- was ours for the next four hours. We were the guests of honor at Second Empire's chef's table, which meant we would dine in the kitchen alongside the executive chef and his staff, eating a meal designed for us.
Chef's tables are occasionally found at high-end restaurants and typically reserved for VIPs or special guests. But Second Empire's executive chef, Daniel Schurr, began offering them to the general public about four years ago, and they quickly took off.
He now hosts chef's tables four or five nights a week for anywhere from two to 14 people. At $110 a head, they include a custom-tailored menu of four courses, including dessert and matching wines. Patrons often book them to celebrate birthdays or anniversaries, while businesspeople schedule the tables to entertain clients.
"It exposes the customer to something different," said Schurr, 43, with a graying crew cut and a surfer's laid-back demeanor. "People are more exposed now to finer food, and the Food Channel scratches their curiosity about what really happens in restaurants, so this gives them a chance to see what they've read about and watched on TV."
Chef's tables are also a treat for the cooks, he added, because "they love to show off their skills, and this lets them rub elbows with the people they're cooking for."
Our evening behind-the-scenes at Second Empire, where we witnessed the big, busy staff operate as a well-choreographed team, gave me new appreciation for the difficult work, critical timing, and unrelenting pressure involved in running a successful restaurant.
Throughout our meal, waitstaff raced in and out of the kitchen delivering orders, waiting for dishes, departing with full plates, and returning with empty ones. Cooks were organized into assembly lines -- adding sauces, chopping herbs, applying garnishes, and plating desserts. Dishwashers worked nonstop scrubbing the pots and pans that piled up as fast as they could clean them.
The most arduous work, it seemed, was tending to the charbroilers and flat-top range, which can exceed 1,200 degrees and throw off intense heat. The kitchen can get so hot, in fact, that each staffer has a water bottle marked with his or her name.
Meanwhile, Schurr encouraged us to wander around the kitchen as much as we liked. So we roamed from prep table to grill to dessert station to dishwashing sink, all the while inspecting, scrutinizing, marveling, and asking questions. For his part, Schurr, who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and worked previously at the Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia, was constantly on the move, overseeing food preparation, giving directions, dispensing advice, holding impromptu tutorials for his staff, and applying finishing touches. Yet he still found time to chat and joke with us, field our many inquiries, and accommodate our requests.
Our five-course meal, printed on a keepsake personalized menu, began with artichoke and smoked tomato risotto with baby arugula, blue cheese, celery root puree, pickled beets, and mango. Then we had pan-roasted Georgia quail in molasses- shiitake mushroom reduction with creamy herb polenta, vegetable puree, and white asparagus. For the vegetarian in our group, Schurr prepared polenta, couscous, and sauteed vegetables.
Then came a culinary pause: cranberry and lemon-buttermilk sorbets to cleanse our palates. Our third course was sauteed Alaskan halibut with cannellini beans, chorizo, wilted spinach, dauphine potato, and fennel puree in lime-garlic jus.
When it was time for dessert, our menu listed crème caramel, but we asked if we could improvise and Schurr good-naturedly consented. So we also indulged in pineapple upside-down cake with toffee-caramel crunch ice cream, sweet potato bread pudding with brown sugar-molasses ice cream, and warm chocolate souffle filled with chantilly cream. Each course had a matching wine, poured by a sommelier: riesling with the risotto, Rioja with the quail, sauvignon blanc with the halibut, and beerenauslese (a dessert wine) with the sweets.
The food was excellent, creative, and artfully presented, and every dish brought a new explosion of tastes and flavors. It was nearly midnight by the time we finished eating, and we experienced sensory shock when we exited the rollicking kitchen and walked by the refined dining room, where a handful of well-dressed customers were quietly enjoying the last of their meals.
A chef's table, I realized, is not simply a meal; it's entertainment.
"It's a show," agreed Schurr. "People who leave here are blown away by the activity level, the organization that's required, and how many saute pans it takes to create just one dish. They're always amazed by that."
Contact Sacha Pfeiffer at pfeiffer@ globe.com.