PANEL DISCUSSION: What do executive chefs really think of their profession?

A panel of multi-site kitchen gurus assembled at this year’s Commercial Kitchen show to share their views on current equipment trends and the route they have taken to reach the top of the chef food chain. 

The kitchen should be a chef’s palace. How competitive are chefs when it comes to kit?

Dean Wilson-Hartles: I think that all chefs are quite competitive when it comes to equipment; we always want the best of the best. For me, in an airport, it’s quite hard because there are things that I want but with all the stipulations in an airport I’m limited to what I can have compared to the high street. I want the best but I can’t always have it.

Ben Ternent: It’s similar for me being a small independent. It comes down to what we can afford. There is some jealousy but it’s not that competitive. You always like to go into someone else’s kitchen to see what they’ve got and if it would work for you, but you can’t always have what you want.

Tom Mullin: I think I can speak on behalf of all Italian chefs to say they’re all very competitive. I’ll always get behind them to try and get the best quality equipment possible.

Antony Bennett: If I look at both brands, we’ve got the Lounge brand, which is a bit more informal in terms of the food offer and then the Cosy brand, which is a bit more restaurant-led. If you compare the chefs then the Lounge chefs sometimes want what the Cosy brand chefs have got and vice versa. There’s definitely competition and it’s good to have that.

Glenn Evans: Agreed. It is a very competitive environment. We try and hone that. We do internal chef competitions to keep their creative juices flowing and they look up to myself and the operational chefs as the next step. We try and develop them and keep the competitiveness going.

Is the route to becoming an executive chef a one-step path?

Glenn Evans: I think there are many different paths you can take in this industry now. I started chefing at 16, I never thought I’d end up in the role I am now. Had I known that I think I would have started that path a little bit quicker because I’ve always been quite creative in trying new, innovative things. But I guess you’ve got to learn the fundamental skills to get there. Once you understand the operations then you can try and be as creative as possible within that realistic barrier.

The panelists discuss kitchen trends at Commercial Kitchen.

Antony Bennett: My path was slightly different. I started as a chef after college, by 21 I was starting in food development from a manufacturing background. At about 25 I was in North London working for Bakkavor and then I finally ended up back in the restaurant sector, having only spent a small amount of time as a chef. It can take you many ways. But you need the kit around you to make it happen, whether it’s manufacturing or a kitchen.

If you could change one thing about your kitchen, what would it be and why?

Tom Mullin: Basically, we have massive stone ovens in each of our kitchens which are pretty much permanent fixings. But we’ve discovered recently a bit of an upgrade and we’d love to do it for all of our sites but it’s no small feat. The goal is, in the next couple of years, to try and change these massive ovens.

One of the things that would add more value to our kitchens is a broiler-chargrill combination”

Ben Ternent: There’s a long list. We’ve got quite a big kitchen so ideally I’d like to make it flow a little better. There’s not as much flow as I’d like for a service and there are certain areas that are cut off a bit. It’ll be moving and tweaking the equipment I’ve got.

Dean Wilson-Hartles: In airports size is a massive issue. Passenger space takes it all up. And for me, everything has to be electric. You can’t produce the best on electric but we have to produce the best we can. So, size and electric. If we could just get a big gas burner in there it would be amazing.

If there’s one product you could have, what would be on top of the wish-list?

Dean Wilson-Hartles: We’re working on a project for next year and I hope that I’m going to get a Josper grill. That’s the big thing on my wish list for next year.

Ben Ternent: I’d like a Frima bratt pan. They’re pretty fancy pieces of kit and would change my working life.

Tom Mullin: It’s a bit of a silly one but certain ovens have a ‘booster button’ that boosts the flame when you’re cooking. I’ve heard in the past couple of months that you can get a guitar pedal version of that and I think that would be practical.

Antony Bennett: For me it would be a high-speed panini grill. We’ve been trialling something at the moment as paninis are something a lot of people want for lunch. Trying to get them out quickly on a four-year-old grill is a challenge so we’re trialling several of the new pieces of equipment across some of our sites and it’s a game-changer.

Glenn Evans: There are many things. We don’t have salamanders in our kitchens, believe it or not, and one of the things that would add more value to our kitchens is a broiler-chargrill combination so we’ve still got that efficiency there. But from a pure theatre point of view I love the asado-style grills and, in line with our brand, they’re Argentinian. That would be fantastic visually and also for the flavour.

How much of a consideration or headache has the rise of vegetarianism and veganism been for you?

Dean Wilson-Hartles: I look after 57 sites across 37 brands and I need to make sure each one of those has vegan and vegetarian dishes. It’s big on the airports’ lists. It’s tough on us but we need to do it.

Ben Ternent: It’s something we really embraced last January. We have a separate vegetarian menu. We always try to offer at least three options with at least one being vegan because before that you always get asked for vegan options on the phone so it’s just easier to embrace it. They do sell.

Panelists agreed that the path to becoming a chef has widened over the years.

Is it more difficult to be creative with limited ingredients available?

Ben Ternent: We run a dinner series at Opus and each year we do a vegetarian dinner with a five-course taster menu and we’re always trying to be creative. It is hard when you take a piece of protein out but it really gets the lads thinking and it’s a good way to develop garnishes for the dishes.

Tom, vegan cheese?

Tom Mullin: It’s the one thing we struggle with. For our vegan nights we researched different kinds and found some really bad stuff. We’ve recently found a really, really good one which is cashew-based but it’s four times more expensive than regular mozzarella. On our vegan night that was scarily popular.

Glenn Evans: We focus on whether we can convert all of our vegetarian dishes to vegan if we can. It’s definitely become more popular for us. We’ve always had a good vegan and vegetarian following but now we’re thinking about how to make our more popular dishes vegan. ‘Vegan junk food’ is becoming more popular than the healthier side and the jackfruit is very on-brand for us. You do get some vegans who are very anti-meat texture too so you have to be careful.

Antony Bennett: We just introduced a jackfruit burger and that’s doing really well. There is lots of noise about these types of products in the media at the moment and there are quite a few suppliers having a go at it.

How far can kitchen automation be pushed and will we ever get to the stage where chefs lose their jobs?

Ben Ternent: Some pieces of equipment are definitely worth a member of staff. You ask some chefs whether they would have a Rational or an extra commis? It’s a Rational every day of the week. But it’s always going to need experience to work them and experience to develop menus. I think the equipment will play a big part in chefs writing their menus and what they can do but I don’t think it will replace that knowledge.

Dean Wilson-Hartles: I agree with Ben. I don’t think equipment will replace people. I think Rational and all the other bits of kit going forward are the limit. I don’t want to see it change too much.

Tom Mullin: We discovered a wonderful Robot Coupe that can chop things in minutes rather than hours. That really does help but it doesn’t mean we could replace a guy; it just means he has more time to focus on what he’s good at.

You ask some chefs whether they would have a Rational or an extra commis? It’s a Rational every day of the week”

Antony Bennett: It just goes back to that high-speed grill and things like that can help speed up service and improve quality. But being a chef is an art so I don’t think any kit could change that. There’s too much passion involved in creating a dish.

Glenn Evans: I think you’ll never be able to replace the skill levels and creativity of chefs in a fine dining restaurant but in the QSR sector in Asia, and especially Japan, it’s already happening.

Do you enjoy cooking at home and do you have a guilty pleasure that you cook?

Glenn Evans: One of my loves and hobbies is fine dining, so I compete in things like National Chef of the Year. They keep me on top and learning new methods and skills so yes, I definitely do a lot of cooking at home.

Antony Bennett: I’ve got a sous vide cooker at home. I play around with a few things like that at home but I don’t get a lot of time.

Tom Mullin: I don’t make pizza at home. I’m not Italian at all but I love southern Italian cooking. I‘ve got 45 guys at Pizza Pilgrims and each one has different ideas and tips on simple things so every night I’ll try to cook at home.
Ben Ternent: I don’t do as much as I’d like to but a good Sunday roast is the one thing I really enjoy cooking. Otherwise, a guilty pleasure would be a fish finger sandwich after a busy Saturday night at work.

Dean Wilson-Hartles: I’m barred from the kitchen. She won’t even let me go near the stove. For me, a guilty pleasure is a good old pie and mash.

Chefs are hungry for new kit that speeds up production and enhances flavour.

If you weren’t a chef or involved in the foodservice industry, what would you be doing?

Glenn Evans: I love football. I played it to a semi-professional level when I was younger. That was my first love and it’s kind of turned now. Football used to be my priority and the chefing brought the money in but now my legs have given in and it’s the other way.

Antony Bennett: Similarly, I played football to a good level when I was younger. I’ve written quite a bit of music and could have potentially had a little career in that.

Tom Mullin: I still write music quite a lot.

Ben Ternent: It was a toss-up for me at 16 between catering college or being a bricklayer, so probably some form of labouring. I’m not sure if they’d have taken me.

Dean Wilson-Hartles: Mine would be a fireman. I’ve not steered that much away.

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