Pub chain Fuller’s admits that it may have “got it wrong” when it initially began incorporating wood-fuelled cooking equipment into its estate but its decision to drop the appliances from its kitchens has left the group in a better position in the long-term.
The pub group began experimenting and investing at a number of its sites several years back, where it introduced solid fuel equipment but soon found a need for skilled kitchen operators and safety concerns meant the appliances were unsuitable for the chain.
Speaking at the Commercial Kitchen Show, director of food, Paul Dickinson, said that Fuller’s original mixture of Josper and Bertha ovens across 12 sites worked “really well” because the group had the right people with the right skill set.
“When those people left, that’s when things started to wobble and at the same time regulations changed so things happened that we didn’t predict.”
Dickinson also said that safety concerns over some solid fuel ovens scared him, leading to a decision to scrap them from kitchens.
“If we had an oven that was sat there at 350 degrees and we kept feeding it with fuel, the next morning when the chefs came in, it was still sitting at about 120 degrees. It took over 24 hours for that unit to cool down and that’s where I put my head in my hands and said ‘we’ve cocked up here, let’s pull it’.
“I swallowed my pride, however, once we made that change; although people did see a change in the flavour, what we did have was happier kitchen teams and a more consistent product.”
Fuller’s has since looked at alternative kitchen kit and Dickinson said that its new equipment provides consistently good flavour, even though it means a compromise on a wood smoke flavour.
Meanwhile, Nick Howe, managing director of London-based fitter Court Catering Equipment, which has worked with Fuller’s for 38 years, said that wood-fired equipment is not the way forward for multi-site operators.
He said: “You’ve got to be very careful with wood burning. It creates a lot more carbon monoxide and it’s very, very dangerous and people underestimate it. You need to have separate ventilation for wood-burning appliances and some people ignore that when it comes to regulations but they won’t get away with it moving forward.
“I think that one of the things that will limit [wood-fuel usage] is the restrictions on ventilation. If you want a standard kitchen alongside a wood-burning appliance it will have to have its own separate ventilation and there’re lots of other minor things to look at. The cost of those things prevents a lot of independent and multiple operators from investing in wood-burning appliances.
“Ventilation by and large, in our experience, is the most expensive element in any kitchen by a long shot. It could be easily £20,000 just to have a bit of ventilation for your wood fuel appliance.”
Howe added, however, that there are some higher-end operators who execute wood fuel cooking well, citing Soho House.
“It provides fantastic food from its wood burning pizza ovens and duck ovens. It’s using Robata’s oven on an enormous scale and some of the choices that comes out of there are very agreeable. I think that’s one of the better places.”