There is a space-age element to most new commercial kitchens these days, thanks to the array of touchscreen control panels, whizzy gadgets and digital devices that now record everything from up-to-the-second refrigeration temperatures to incoming orders placed via app by customers.
Yet like many chefs of his generation, Gary Devereaux can recall a time when a kitchen was the last place you’d expect to find technology.
“When I started as a commis 27 years ago, a chef didn’t even have a computer — you had to cross the finance office to type out the menu. But in the last 10 years, I guess since Apple brought it to another level, everybody seems to have got on that whole big technical cycle.”
As executive chef of the House of Lords, Devereaux runs one of the most tech-savvy catering operations in the country, comprising two major kitchens, a couple of satellite kitchens and a team of 55 chefs catering for 2,000 covers a day across fine dining, brasserie, staff restaurants and banqueting formats.
On the cooking side it uses state-of-the-art MKN ovens, which are pre-programmed with the latest recipe information for menu consistency.
Speaking during a roundtable discussion chaired by FEJ at the Catering Equipment & Services Forum, he said: “An easy scenario, for example, is that we do scones for afternoon tea for our members at 3 o’clock every day. Therefore the pastry department will make the scones in the morning, go about their business and then the oven will suddenly start ding-a-linging and flashing to show it is going into scone mode. Then it will tell you when it is ready to go and over time we have developed the ovens to pulse it with steam and effective heat.”
From a compliance perspective, all HACCP procedures are digitally monitored and tracked via a kitchen management solution from Monika. Every chef has a fob that records tasks and Devereaux can request reports with up-to-date information whenever he requires. He says it is particularly useful when EHO inspections take place.
“If an EHO comes to the Lords site it will take four days to fully audit the kitchens and one day will be spent auditing paperwork, so we’ll give them a log-in code for 24 hours to examine all of our data. Therefore, before the EHO even turns up they have had the chance to see the data and can just carry on with the practical inspection.”
On the food waste side, meanwhile, the House of Lords kitchens have been involved in a trial with Winnow to weigh the volume of food that is thrown out in order to better manage wastage. Using a six-week menu cycle, the technology allows it to establish what sort of waste is created and where savings can be made.
“It’s a great tool,” says Devereaux. “I gave myself between 3% and 4% food waste throughout the whole of the Lords site. In the first week that the live data was coming through you start running around going ‘what are you doing! Stop putting that there!’ but after a while the chefs get the hang of it and they really do enjoy it.
“It becomes a bit of a challenge and a buzz for them to see the graph come down and after a month we were down to 1.7% food waste, which is a great thing to see. It then tells you the carbon footprint, the tonnage, how many meals you wasted throughout the year and you can look at projected wastage growth, so therefore you can control your waste more effectively.
“We have had some chefs before who would come in and wouldn’t know what to do with peelings or how to use the rest of the vegetables for example, but now they do and they care about it, so it is also a learning curve for them.”
Not all kitchens are fortunate enough to have access to such a rich depth of technology, although clearly a growing number of operators are at least looking to move in this direction.
It is certainly a high-tech world out there now and with all the technology that is around you can see there is a lot of time-saving to be had”
At Silverstone Circuits — home of the British Grand Prix — the catering team is in the early stages of exploring how connected equipment can enhance the nine kitchens that deliver hospitality across the venue.
Head chef, Dean Hoddle, says: “We use Rational at the moment and we have just put a VarioCooking Center into our kitchen so we are looking at putting more equipment online and exploring online connectivity. It is certainly a high-tech world out there now and with all the technology that is around you can see there is a lot of time-saving to be had.”
Hoddle says the concept of connecting items of equipment is something the operation can see huge value in following its initial experiences in this area. It recently developed an in-house bakery concept with a frozen dough scenario and is now able to produce the same product in any one of its nine kitchens where the ovens are connected.
One of the challenges with any new technology is getting staff buy-in, but also educating them to use it in the way that best serves the organisation.
“There is always going to be a generation that say ‘I don’t use an iPad or computers’ — I am lucky to only have a small pocket of those resistant people but the rest of the new generation of chefs coming through have learned that way at college, so it is second nature to them,” says Devereaux. “That makes it a lot easier and, with all the new technology coming out, they should find it even easier to manage things.”
Yet, while there is an expectation that younger chefs are more likely to be au fait with modern technology, Silverstone’s Hoddle actually thinks catering colleges could be doing a lot more to prepare graduates for the type of infrastructure they’ll encounter on a daily basis when they join the industry.
“The colleges around here still work very much on the old-school equipment, so when they come into a work placement with us they are faced with a new system, whether it is an oven with a tablet or something attached to it. I am quite surprised that we are not teaching them at the college level and the industry is not getting involved a lot earlier because they are potential clients at the end of the day, and to learn that at such an early stage is almost as important now as learning the cookery skills.”
Coffee machines have led the way when it comes to technology integration, with telemetry offering operators a forensic overview of machine performance and status.
Richard Wylie has a background in hotel management so he knows all about the needs of operators, but he has spent the last 19 years working in the coffee industry and currently serves as national sales manager at WMF.
He says technology is moving fast in this space and customers are increasingly prepared to pay for more sophisticated solutions.
Each piece of technology seems to come with its own tablet so if I was to put them all in my kitchen I would probably have a wall of tablets!”
“End-users can get drinks counts, they can monitor the quality of their beverage usage, they can connect fridges, they will tell when you they are cleaned and they can tell when they are running out of product. It also allows operators to manage their peak times and staff up accordingly.”
One of the main benefits of a connected appliance is that software updates can be implemented immediately and remotely, while maintenance and diagnosis can also be carried out off-site. Wylie says the sheer amount of data that telemetry collects provides manufacturers with the intelligence to be able to improve the reliability of machines.
“We are in a situation where we can monitor how the machines behave. Now, this is a big step forward for manufacturers because what we are looking at is components that fail and what happens before these components fail. We are analysing our machines globally so if we see certain characteristics happen before a component fails we can build those into our preventative maintenance, which again benefits the end-users because it results in less downtime.
“A preventative call is better to have than a reactive one, so really the connected coffee machine world is a great step forward for us in designing, developing and giving customers more reliable machines.”
Wylie says that the contract catering and office markets are among the biggest adopters of coffee machine telemetry, while he sees the larger QSR operators embracing it too. “The data has been around for a long time but I think we are now beginning to see people use that data, whereas before it was a nice thing to have but they never actually made anything of the data that was provided.”
If there is one issue that dominates any operator discussion around the concept of the connected kitchen, it is a desire for a common platform or standard that allows all pieces of equipment to be controlled from a single source irrespective of brand or manufacture. At the moment that is simply not possible.
As Devereaux says: “Every manufacturer has its own website which you can log into with your own password, but it would be nice to have all that under one system in future, perhaps even linked to a stock management system from when you develop the dish to the photograph, through the whole system of it all to the waste at the end.
“For the last four or five years I have been speaking with many companies to say, ‘this is what you need to be doing’ but there is not one out there in the catering world — or at least I haven’t seen one yet! — that can do the whole lot. Each piece of technology seems to come with its own tablet so if I was to put them all in my kitchen I would probably have a wall of tablets!”It is something that has crossed Hoddle’s mind too. Bringing in new technology can be a daunting prospect when all vendors claim their solution is the one to enhance an operation.
“Everybody you see has got some amazing bit of software for this or that so you’ve got to look at which ones are going to fit and which ones will talk to existing systems you have in place. We use a system for all of our recipes and we have got 1,600 dishes that we have painstakingly put onto it as we have devised and developed them.
“I spoke to somebody today who said they can do all this with their HACCP but that means sitting there writing the same thing all over again if the systems can’t talk to each other. If there was that one solution, a general platform that it can all bolt onto, it would be perfect.”
The topic of connected kitchens also throws up questions around data security and management, especially with GDPR on the tip of many operators’ tongues. It is a sensitive issue but one that is ultimately within each user’s control.
“All our machines are registered by the end-user and they would sign that they are happy for us to collect data as part of the contract they have entered into,” says WMF’s Wylie. “They don’t have to agree to it, they can just opt out of it. All we would then do is collect data from a machine somewhere in the world, but we wouldn’t know where it was. It is still useful information for us as a manufacturer.”
Wylie says the more pertinent challenge is educating customers how to extract the most from their data. “The biggest thing we come up against is whether people will use the data and whether they will actually see value in it. It has become easier as the world has become a more connected place, but it’s about getting people to use the data and learn how it impacts on their business. From selling coffee machines, we are actually now teaching people to be analytical, and we are trying to teach people actually what this really means, which is a different kind of sale altogether.”
There is also the topic of connectivity itself. Kitchens are notorious for being located deep in basements or below ground level where getting a WiFi signal might not be straightforward. “Or you could have 20 Formula One cars driving past your window!” says Silverstone’s Hoddle, noting the challenges of WiFi availability when the world’s top racing teams are running such vast communications networks next door.
The final point is whether more technical, autonomous equipment spells the end for traditional cooking skills. Deveraux insists it is all about how you approach it. “I look at technology more as a helpful tool than a deskilling tool,” he says.
“I’m from an old school background growing up with no machinery, not even using a steamer, to now having all this state-of-the-art equipment, and I always embed that into the chefs too. It is good to see the colleges still training them at a basic level and I think the next stage for us personally is to teach them that the technology is there to assist them, it’s not a ‘skip’ tool.”