Before social distancing came along, the hot topic in kitchen configuration was how restaurant operators could accommodate vegan menus as a growing part of their operation.
With some brands courting controversy for cooking plant-based products on the same equipment platforms used for protein, operators have become understandably concerned about whether they have the right set-up.
Operators are entitled to wonder whether a major overhaul of kitchen infrastructure is needed to accompany any sort of drive into vegan food.
Irene Keal, marketing director at catering equipment distributor Sylvester Keal, thinks you only have to look at the scrutiny that some chains have faced to see why it makes sense for operators to consider installing dedicated equipment to deliver vegan dishes.
“A lot of foodservice businesses are coming under fire for their preparation methods, with many operators using the same cooking apparatus for both the meat and vegan options. To comply with vegan practice, caterers need to introduce separate cooking equipment to prepare any plant-based product.”
John Benson-Smith, the award-winning chef and F&B consultant at johnbensonsmith.com, agrees that the increase in the variety of vegan dishes on menus certainly has an impact on kitchen design and equipment choice.
“My belief is that vegan food certainly needs to be cooked on separate equipment and prepared in separate areas. I think the industry needs to start taking itself more seriously and investing more heavily in equipment, as well as being more demanding in terms of layout, space and design.
“While we visit some excellent kitchens for clients who are happy to invest and are interested in food quality and having a good ethos and are genuinely fanatical about food, unfortunately there is a great number of kitchens and businesses who don’t take the industry seriously and don’t demonstrate a pride in their metier.
“Often companies fail to invest sufficiently and this results in them using sub-standard cheaper equipment which is unfit for purpose.
David George, catering consultant at DGCC and Greene King’s former food development chief, believes that rising demand for plant-based dishes requires operators to think carefully about their design and equipment choices moving forward.
But he cautions: “Both common sense and commercial viability must be taken into account, especially with so much pressure on capital expenditure including purchasing, maintenance and utility costs, not to mention labour costs.
“Ideally, anyone designing kitchens of the future or planning on making changes to current templates should take the opportunity to plan in operational methodology and create segregation where possible covering delivery, storage, prep, production and service.”
In terms of preparing vegan food, use of the correct utensils and appliances combined with solid training and operational practice shouldn’t make it too difficult for businesses to adopt this policy, especially when all operators should have processes in places for allergens.
The same is also true of the cooking of products, but this takes on the need to ensure segregation as during service it’s inevitable in most businesses that meat and vegan foods are going to be cooked at the same time.
The decision on whether to bring in separate equipment isn’t necessarily as black and white as it might seem, however.
As one operator explains, while some vegan customers would prefer this, others might consider that the net impact of doing so would be damaging in other ways: “If you look at generation Y, a very high percentage of them are going down the vegan route for environmental reasons. But from a lifecycle perspective, if you want it to be cooked in different equipment, you need to have another fryer, for example. So there is the manufacturing of that, which is a big environmental implication, and then you have got the extra gas consumption of it.
“So, actually you can’t just look at it on face value because even making these decisions can have another environmental impact elsewhere. We have got a couple of sites where we are putting bigger gas supplies in so we can run more equipment.”
Whatever an operator’s stance, it is clearly a sensible move for businesses to review their foodservice procedures and endeavour to introduce changes that ideally don’t cause disruption to speed of serve, quality of food or workflow ergonomics.
David George suggests that to help operators’ workflows and menu dish execution challenges, manufacturers’ R&D activity should be directed towards effective cavity partitioning and surface segregation or similar functions to facilitate vegan food creation rather than producing two or three separate appliances to do so.
“One thing’s for sure, kitchen space is at a premium in the vast majority of commercial kitchens and therefore simply doubling up is certainly not an option and, to be honest, not necessary.
“Also, separate equipment may not be viable, so this is where manufacturers have to up their game on the innovation of multi-tasking appliances to accommodate different food styles and subsequent requirements,” he adds.
If sales of plant-based products reach the level analysts expect, adaptability could prove to be the prudent kitchen operator’s best asset.
Quintex is the Platinum Partner sponsor of the Kitchen Design & Efficiency category of FEJ Kitchen Excellence Week. For information about Quintex and its range of products, including the Cheetah demand controlled ventilation system, call 0118 973 9310 or visit www.quintex.co.uk