HEY, GOOD LOOKIN’: Why operators are demanding cooking suites that dazzle

Cooking suites need to do everything they have always done and more as foodservice operators bid to leverage new technologies and create a centrepiece that gets customers’ attention. FEJ reports.

There are some pretty nifty kitchen gadgets available to restaurants and caterers these days, but nothing can beat the humble cooking suite.

Renowned as the workhorse of most conventional restaurant kitchens, it’s still the accessory that chefs feel most excited about when planning a new kitchen or replacing one that has been in operation for years.

The elements that comprise a cooking suite — not to mention the aesthetic design — have certainly evolved over the years and will depend on the individual preferences of each chef or operator, but the fundamental expectations that customers have certainly hasn’t changed.

The most important question from an operator’s point of view is, of course, whether it will last. If a brand can prove that it is reliable and provide sufficient back-up from a maintenance capacity then the next priority is usually versatility — an asset that has grown in significance given the shrinking footprint of commercial kitchens.

“A key factor influencing buying decisions is whether the manufacturer can meet this demand for versatility,” says Ian Clow, sales director at Charvet. “To prove the point, we have just created a ‘split griddle’ — one half or one-third ribbed with the rest smooth and flat — which is ideal for fish and steak at the same time, for example. It means chefs can cook several things alongside each other, therefore making things more productive from a smaller space,” he adds.

The griddle was originally developed for a chain that needed versatile equipment to cook a wide menu from a small footprint, reveals Clow. “Power rating is an awesome 16kW for the gas model, 12kW for the electric,” he says.

For many operators, it is not just the act of cooking that can influence the purchase of a suite itself. Other factors such as running costs or even aesthetics are now central to the purchasing decision process.

Innovation in induction technology remains an influencing factor when it comes to specifying a commercial cooking suite, according to Stuart Flint, training and demonstration manager at Electrolux Professional.

“As a chef, what you want is control and power, which is why gas has been so popular for so long. However, manufacturers are now producing cooking suites where the induction technology is superior. Given the high volume of food that caterers need to produce, a cooking suite that significantly improves the speed of service will be popular in the market. Induction equipment has gone from an elite technology, only available on top-of-the-range cooking suites, to one that is now available at an accessible price-point for most market sectors looking to invest in a cooking suite.”

Trevor Burke, managing director of Exclusive Ranges, cites performance, efficiency and lifecycle value as the factors which he sees dominating users’ purchasing decisions, especially when you consider that a cooking suite is normally one of the largest kitchen investments an operator will make.

“While traditionally operators have been price-driven, there is a shift towards investing in higher quality equipment that lasts, achieving greater value across the product’s life,” he argues. “As the foodservice industry moves at pace, it’s important to remember that while a cooking suite needs to suit the current chef’s needs, it also needs to be flexible enough to adapt to menu and staff changes over the product’s lifetime.”

What’s changed is that the chains have taken this personalisation and are building it into their branding”

One defining market issue over the years is that kitchens have generally got smaller, with operators needing to get the same, or greater, output from a more compact footprint. Manufacturers have responded to this shift by creating modern suites that feature multifunctional equipment.

Irrespective of appliance choice, however, cooking suites still have to be able to take the knocks and keep on delivering, day after day. Nick McDonald, commercial director at Rexmartins, believes power, durability and ease of cleaning remain fundamental aspects of any cooking suite purchase, but he’s also observed an increasing focus on energy efficiency and, by extension, operating costs.

“The popularity of induction hobs, integrated into oven ranges, is evidence of this. But operators can now take a major leap forward by investing in a fully induction-powered cooking suite.”

Power of personalisation

Manufacturers are certainly raising the bar when it comes to cooking suite personalisation, which in itself is a reflection of the demand for more tailored products that fit a specific aesthetic look, often because it is the centrepiece of a catering environment.

“Having the ability to create a suite that is commissioned in a bespoke configuration, and can incorporate the likes of fryers or pasta boilers seamlessly into the construction to fit the needs of the kitchen, is becoming increasingly important to operators,” says Electrolux’s Flint.

“Here, each piece of equipment, including convection ovens and refrigerated drawers, can be designed to create the optimum ‘flow’ throughout the kitchen, to improve efficiency and minimise accidents from chefs bumping into each other during a busy service. What’s more, from a hygiene perspective, modern prime cooking suites, such as Electrolux Professional’s thermaline offering, tend to be very easy to keep clean as they are often formed from a one-piece construction,” he adds.

Charvet has observed the shift towards personalisation in the kitchen, too. Ian Clow thinks it could be because people eat out more and chefs are more prevalent on TV, sparking a need for cooking apparatus that stands out from the crowd.

“What they increasingly want is visual theatre — the open plan experience that brings authenticity to the food on the plate. It was almost certainly always there, at least in the better establishments, but the difference now is that the public want kitchens and finishing cooking at least ‘on view’. This has coincided with new brands appearing, pushing a more food-led, open-to-view approach that has included coloured cooking ranges and stronger branding in the kitchen.”

Clow insists that many quality chefs have always chosen strong colours for the panels on their ranges and, quite often, their kitchens are on view, either directly or via the chef’s table. “What’s changed is that the chains have taken this personalisation and are building it into their branding, which they have concluded needs to be as strong inside the restaurant as outside,” he adds.

Of course, all manufacturers are aware that even the most creatively designed cooking suite still has to do exactly what it says on the tin.

Adding colour and high quality finishes can break up the harshness of a complete stainless steel kitchen”

Steve Hobbs, managing director at Grande Cuisine, says: “With a shrinking workforce and access to skilled labour being major issues for restaurateurs, creating a more comfortable, cleaner, less stressful kitchen environment will help to both attract and retain staff. This can be done in subtle ways, one of which is to break up the harshness of a complete stainless steel kitchen by adding colour and high quality finishes.

“However, operators should take care not to let the underlying principles of investing in good equipment that is more efficient and practical fall by the wayside just because it looks nice! The colour and decorative finish will not change the way a piece of equipment is designed to perform or be used.”

Shaune Hall, product development chef at Falcon, endorses that viewpoint. “No matter what the current trend or fashion, the number one requirement for all operators is reliability and back-up service. Without these, the most colourful, best-looking suites in the market are redundant. That’s why Falcon adopts a ‘function first, then form’ approach. All our products are fully tested at our manufacturing plant in Scotland and serviced using spares stocked at our premises,” he says.

New technology

Due to the investment size and life-expectancy, operators are increasingly looking to integrate the latest technology into their selections when choosing a new cooking suite. Burke at Exclusive Ranges is among those that claims to be seeing operators make some pretty clear choices when it comes to specification.

“More operators are choosing to build specialist performance equipment such as robata grills into suites to have the most up-to-date capabilities,” he says. “As well as maximising space in the kitchen, it allows operators to optimise the kitchen flow and, in the case of display and demonstration kitchens, keep clean lines and an uncluttered design.”

Grande Cuisine’s Hobbs foresees an even greater move towards electric appliances with comprehensive energy-saving options and induction-based cooking technology.

“Ultimately, all electrical items in the kitchen will become connected as more and more operators choose to opt for total energy management systems. Mareno is already leading the way in this regard with its award-winning IChef products. IChef equipment can be connected to a building management or energy system which will allow power to be optimised across all equipment in the kitchen. All of these aspects are linked to energy optimisation systems where units are pre-programmed to come on and turn off at designated times dependent on the site and the operator.”

Flint at Electrolux claims fine dining remains in demand and it expects this trend to continue into 2019. Michelin-starred restaurants with open kitchens are becoming more popular and, as a result of this, it has noticed an increasing interest from operators for bespoke cooking suites that offer a more aesthetic finish.

“This movement is going to have quite a big impact on the market over the next 12 months, and will encourage chefs throughout the industry to dedicate even more thought to the cooking suites they have installed,” predicts Flint.

Cleaner, sleeker, more attractive cooking suites are the order of the day. But it’s not just about keeping up appearances — as the proverbial workhorses of the kitchen they need to be able to stand up to the pressure.

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