Most operators regard prime cooking equipment as the heartbeat of their kitchen operation, but will the relationship between chefs and their cooking appliances change as sites reopen again? FEJ investigates.
After a period of inactivity that nobody could have foreseen at the beginning of the year, there is no sweeter sound for chefs than the clicking of hobs being turned back on and the whirring of grills being fired up again.
But with some element of social distancing likely to be in place for a while yet, and hygiene and safety at the top of the agenda, it begs the question of whether operators will begin to engage with their prime cooking equipment in different ways.
“There’s no question that foodservice operators are now interacting with their pieces of prime cooking equipment differently, particularly when it comes to the utilisation of features and technologies which they previously may have not been taking full advantage of,” insists Steve Hemsil, sales director for the UK and Ireland at Welbilt.
“This is something that Welbilt UK has been pushing heavily, as we believe that by providing operators with further guidance on how to get the most from their existing pieces of equipment, we can help them to meet new demands in an effective way.”
One example of this is KitchenConnect, which Welbilt customers have been learning more about as they look to reopen.
“This advanced platform is perfect for helping operators navigate their kitchens in a socially-distant way as it allows chefs to remotely automate menu updates, monitor performance data, input cleaning regimes and gather maintenance data — all without physically having to be in the kitchen,” outlines Hemsil.
Key features within Welbilt’s Convotherm combi oven range are also taking on added significance in the current climate. Its ConvoClean automatic cleaning function allows caterers to achieve optimum hygiene and restore customer confidence in cleanliness, while the unique ‘disappearing door’ that comes with its Convotherm 4 model helps to create additional space in the kitchen at a time when operators are thinking carefully about social distancing.
The shifting sands of the foodservice landscape during the past three months — particularly in terms of takeaway and delivery — has certainly got operators looking at how they can ensure their cooking operations are as productive as possible.
“One trend that we have seen amongst those that are able to offer takeaway services is an increase in the use of cook and chill operations,” says Alex Reed, sales manager — foodservice at Electrolux Professional.
“This is particularly useful for restaurants that are making meals to be taken off premises and re-heated at home. Equipment such as Electrolux Professional’s SkyLine ChillS blast chiller is perfect for this type of operation as it allows meals to be prepared and then blast chilled, to lock in taste and, crucially, to allow it to be re-heated at customers’ homes safely.”
Richard Norman, national sales manager at Jestic, agrees that with normal menus streamlined to suit a home delivery offering and with fewer staff in the kitchen to maintain safe working, it is only natural for operators to explore optimal production methods.
“To simplify processes, improve efficiency and to reduce the numbers of staff in the kitchen, more items are being pre-cooked in advance and held ready for service times,” he says. “Ensuring food safety standards and getting quality results from pre-cooking and holding foods requires equipment which offers precise control of temperature and humidity.”
One of the newest brands in Jestic’s portfolio that fits into this category is the advanced range of Moduline cook and hold ovens and holding cabinets.
“The Moduline range keeps chefs in total control, perfectly preserving the moisture and nutrients in a wide variety of foods and ensuring that they have enough of the most popular menu items ready for peak trading periods — looking and tasting as if they have just been cooked. Many operators are also utilising programmable blast chillers like the advanced appliances in the Irinox Easy Fresh range, which can blast chill and shock freeze products even straight out of the oven, improving efficiency and preserving fragrance, consistency, colours and nutritional properties.”
While the challenges of the last few months might have made some restaurants re-evaluate their cooking operations, fundamentally restaurants have always looked to minimise product purchases and get maximum efficiency from a cookline set-up.
That’s one of the reasons for a big shift towards multifunctional equipment, according to Steve Hobbs, managing director of cooking supplier Grande Cuisine. He thinks Covid-19 will only support this trend.
“Let’s face it, kitchens have got smaller for a reason — to create more front-of-house space to sell more covers — and in the current climate I cannot see any operator investing cash in making their kitchen bigger and their front-of-house smaller in order to accommodate social distancing measures! The reality is that they will have to find a way of operating with what they have.
“And, while we accept that those who are looking to change their offer might require additional equipment that allows them to do this, I would suggest that anybody who is looking to change their layout or their equipment without fundamentally changing their offering probably had the wrong equipment or layout in the first place!”
“Cooking equipment that can offer a range of functionality will become more sought after”
Social distancing guidelines certainly present more of a challenge to operators without expansive kitchen spaces at their disposal, which typically applies to the majority of pubs, cafes and casual dining restaurants.
This issue serves as another catalyst for the push towards multifunctional cooking. “Social distancing obviously demands more working space for chefs, but it is already hard enough to get operators to provide sufficient kitchen areas to work in,” says Richard Acton, operations director at Charvet.
“It is therefore highly unlikely for kitchens to become larger; instead, they can choose to install multifunctional equipment which can perform different functions at different times of the day and is therefore more productive than conventional kit. Charvet combi pans, bratt pans, multizone induction and four zone steel planchas can all perform different jobs, saving on floor space and allowing increased worktop separation between equipment.”
Social distancing may have to be observed for some time yet and in an environment as busy and fast-paced as a commercial kitchen, this presents certain obstacles.
Electrolux’s Alex Reed suggests that one of the potential solutions is to create more dedicated work stations, allowing each chef to maintain a certain position within the kitchen, and thus reducing unnecessary close contact with one another.
“In this vein, there has been an increase in enquiries about multifunctional equipment, such as pressure braising pans, which are able to undertake a number of different cooking methods, including shallow frying, boiling and steaming.
“As social distancing prevents kitchens from being able to fully utilise their floor space, cooking equipment that can offer a range of functionality will become more sought after.”
There are also process changes that can assist with the new conditions operators face, such as tweaks to working patterns or supplier deliveries. “Limiting delivery vehicles to the hours between 10pm and 6am latest means the prep chefs working earlier, frees up working space later in the day, takes pressure away from public transport at peak times and is far better for the environment overall,” suggests Charvet’s Acton.
Operators may consider segregating prep area and cooking areas if they don’t already in order to keep staff apart, or introduce safe distance work stations, which will need to include ingredients storage and prep or cooking equipment. One-way systems and individual workstations will become the norm for some.
“In smaller kitchens, operators might nominate one person only to work the hot equipment, to prevent cross-contamination,” says Graham Kille, technical sales director at Rational. “This is where advanced, multifunctional equipment that does not require monitoring will bring more benefits, as it can almost work as an extra member of staff, which will be a major benefit to a chef working solo.
“If inexperienced or temporary staff are being employed then there will be increasing reliance on intelligent equipment that can be pre-programmed,” he says.
Connected appliances are going to bring benefits in terms of social distancing, because they reduce human actions in the kitchen, suggests Kille. “For example, there’s no need for anyone to come in to update control panels, as it can be done remotely. Similarly, HACCP data, such as cooking temperatures, can be collected without even visiting the kitchen.”
Grande Cuisine’s Steve Hobbs is firmly of the opinion that any major changes to the way operators work are unlikely in the short term.
“Anybody who is looking to change their layout or their equipment without fundamentally changing their offering probably had the wrong equipment or layout in the first place!”
He reasons: “Fewer staff, and potentially fewer customers, is likely to mean that equipment doesn’t get used as much, especially if the operator is running a reduced menu, but I cannot see many choosing to spend money removing equipment at present as this may well be a ‘short-term’ issue.
“The nature of the services required for prime cooking — gas, 3ph electrical power, water — means that moving equipment is both expensive and impractical. However, it is possible that some operators might look at moving or even relocating certain items of mobile or tabletop plug-in equipment in order to ensure that certain operations, such as food prep, can be carried out with due regard to social distancing.”
One trend that is undoubtedly set to take on extra significance — especially during the summer months — is outdoor cooking. Richard Ebbs, commercial and marketing director at Synergy Grill Technology, expects to see many UK operators relying less on their indoor kitchens and instead opening up their outdoor spaces for catering.
“Outdoor space, whether within a pub garden or hotel courtyard, has always had great potential to be a significant profit generator for a venue. However, it is important that operators think of this space in the same way that they do their permanent kitchen and purchase equipment that is up to the demands of a commercial environment, rather than opting for a cheaper domestic alternative which could actually harm the hard-built reputation of the venue.”
Synergy has developed a number of outdoor cooking solutions that are designed to overcome temperature loss being exacerbated by the volume of food placed on the bars, an issue it claims that operators can encounter with some conventional barbecues.
“Thanks to the brands’ practical thermal shock resistant grill bars, which allow chefs to cook a higher volume of food, they can be safe in the knowledge that the temperature will not drop,” he insists.
Social distancing is forcing many operators to review their menus, with the emphasis on making them smaller for added simplicity.
While reduced menus allow chefs to deal with fewer movements and ingredients, they naturally generate more attention in terms of food quality and selection. It is therefore vital that menu items not only appeal to a wide variety of diners with various dietary needs and flavour preferences, but are cooked to perfection.
Tim Bender, sales director at supplier Hobart equipment division, says that menu engineering is a conversation it has been having with operators for some time now.
“Businesses are having to pivot,” he comments. “We have to first consider what’s practical in terms of workload and what they want from their menus. Often, these factors differ from site to site, so it’s crucial to try and look at each operation with fresh eyes. We’re consulting daily and coming up with bespoke solutions, advising on the equipment and workflows that strike the optimal balance for them.”
When it comes to how this will impact equipment use, it’s all about cutting down points of contact, suggests Bender. “The Bonnet Precipan, for example, uses 30% less kitchen space but still performs up to nine different functions including grilling, braising, sautéing, pan frying, steaming, smoking, boiling, and simmering — a multifunctional solution with even more relevance for modern kitchens post-Covid.”
Jestic’s Richard Norman has certainly noticed the impact of reduced menus on equipment sales.
“Many operators are scaling down their menus and concentrating on classic takeaway favourites like pizza which are relatively easy to produce and offer an attractive margin. This is mirrored by the demand we are seeing for portable pizza ovens from Alfa Pro, which are helping operators to meet the current demand for takeaway pizza and also leaves them ready to cook outdoors when customers can once again enjoy freshly cooked pizzas on terraces and outside spaces in accordance with social distancing guidance.”
“Businesses are having to pivot. We have to first consider what’s practical in terms of workload and what they want from their menus”
Charvet’s Acton agrees that menus need shortening in a crisis, but as the market emerges from the pandemic and gets back to some sort of normality they will inevitably begin to revert to type.
“The interesting question is how much of the takeaway or delivery market will restaurants aim to retain or develop? Having multifunction equipment within a kitchen will allow greater flexibility for operators to change their menus on demand going forward to meet the changing needs as the virus changes the way we dine out or have takeaways.”
Grande Cuisine’s Steve Hobbs says that if Covid restrictions stay in place for a prolonged period after reopening then it is highly likely that there will be changes to how a kitchen is set up. But this has a wider impact on the extent of the menu offer and the number of staff on the premises rather than how big the cookline is, he suggests.
“Going forward, it is possible that any long-term implementation of social distancing within the kitchen may influence how a cookline is designed. But this was already happening pre-Covid. For example, on more than one occasion we have designed an Athanor cook suite for a hotel so that all the equipment required to cook breakfast items — such as a plancha, induction hob and grill — are in close proximity so that they can be operated by a single chef.”
As operators face up to the new challenges they face, the flexibility of their cooking operation could become a bigger asset than ever before.