THE BIG INTERVIEW: Chef Niall Keating on creating an energy efficient kitchen from a blank canvas

Luxury Cotswolds hotel Whatley Manor has turned its back on gas cooking to embrace an energy efficient induction-led kitchen complete with the latest modular and multifunctional equipment. Ahead of its recent re-opening, FEJ caught up with executive chef Niall Keating to discover the thought process behind its specification.

When you got the go-ahead for the kitchen refurbishment, what was your mission and brief?

The world of cuisine has moved on at such a pace and the tools of the trade need to facilitate all the latest cooking techniques and styles. In our case it also needed to facilitate the ever-evolving business model at Whatley. The brief was formed by sharing all information about our food, covers and the general business that this stove will be the backbone of the kitchen and facilitate all that we need.

The mission was always to create a more functional and efficient kitchen but also a more inspiring space for myself and the team to create and serve some of the most interesting food in the UK. The previous kitchen had been a good workhorse but had sadly had its day. It was proving ever harder to allow us to fulfil the potential of each individual outlet — The Dining Room, Grey’s Brasserie and Events.

What things about the existing kitchen were you most looking forward to changing or getting rid of?

I am most excited about being able to show guests the beautiful new space we are creating and to be able to make our guests’ visits to Whatley even more experiential by bringing them into the kitchen, showing them behind the scenes, engaging with the chefs and perhaps even enjoying a course from the menu in there, too! Every element of the kitchen is being replaced, the layout is evolving, and the colour scheme is changing. It’s so exciting to see these changes taking place.

What were the main design considerations when you were planning the new kitchen?

‘Future proofing’ was a key factor in the kitchen designs. This is a significant investment from the owners so we wanted to ensure that the kitchen would stand the test of time. For example, fridges from the previous kitchen operated on one cooling system, so if one failed, they all failed. We will be removing these systems and replacing them with individual units that can be replaced or developed without affecting the skeleton of the kitchen. Aesthetics are a key focus, and we can certainly say that there will not be another stove like ours in the UK, which is a nice notion.

A lot of chefs talk about the importance of kitchen flow. Was that a key part of your thinking?

The layout of the previous kitchen worked well for the functionality of our restaurant outlets, it was just that the equipment was failing and could no longer support the business. The new layout will remain similar but as it is all new with the stove being slightly smaller there will be even better flow as more floor space has been gained.

The new kitchen eliminates gas appliances from the kitchen — what impact will this have on the business and the brigade?

The energy efficiency achieved is going to be tremendous. No more gas burning all day long will also make for a much cooler kitchen meaning less energy needed for extraction, nor will the fridges have to work so hard. All in it will be a much more pleasant environment for the team.

Has the refurbishment given you the opportunity to work with any new brands of equipment or equipment that you have always considered aspirational?

It has, the stove is manufactured by Athanor and I always knew they were very well made stoves, but visiting the factory has reinforced the knowledge that these are amongst the finest stoves in the world. It will, without question, inspire me and the team every day. Having worked with Adande fridge/freezer units at Restaurant Sat Bains, this was a piece of equipment that I wanted to include in my kitchen. The functionality of the large fridge drawers that have the capability to chill, freeze and blast-cool food will make the kitchen much more efficient.

Every element of the kitchen is being replaced, the layout is evolving, and the colour scheme is changing”

What is the biggest piece of ‘game-changing’ equipment that the new kitchen will feature?

The VarioCookingCentre by Rational will replace the previous gas-fired stock pot. Not only will this be more compliant with health and safety regulations, but it will significantly reduce the time taken to produce stocks and sauces. A veal glace that would have previously taken 48 hours to produce will now take just 12, therefore using fewer chef hours, as well as less energy.

What difference will the new kitchen make to menu development and service?

The most notable development will be to The Dining Room menu, initially. We will be offering guests the opportunity to eat one course from the menu in the kitchen, allowing them to fully understand the process that has gone into creating their meal. Additionally, the precision cooking allowed by the new stove will ensure that the serving time of each dish can be more consistent throughout every service.

How ‘future-proof’ is this kitchen — do you expect it to stay the same for the next 5-10 years or is there scope for it to evolve even more over time?

Personally, this is stage one of the kitchen’s development. The new kitchen will allow us to maintain consistency of every plate of food that leaves the kitchen. The base skeleton of the kitchen will then allow the space to adapt with the times and remain fully functional in years to come.

You said the bespoke Athanor suite is the centrepiece of the kitchen — what were your main priorities when planning this?

As the central unit within the kitchen, the stove has to service two restaurants and private parties. Previously, the restaurants would compete for space on the gas solid tops, so the aim was to ensure that each restaurant had clearly defined and bespoke cooking capabilities. The Dining Room now has a plancha plaque as well as four induction hobs for more controlled cooking, whereas Grey’s Brasserie has two plancha plaques to allow for the greater volume of covers. Aesthetically, I have designed the new kitchen to be clean and crisp, so although it’s a small touch, it was important to me that the stove was finished in white, along with other features in the new kitchen.

A lot of operators pay lip service to sustainability, but it looks like some of your equipment choices demonstrate a genuine commitment to lowering carbon footprint. Do you expect more operators to follow suit?

Many operators are looking to reduce their carbon footprint, and the kitchen is only a small part of the hotel where this is possible. At Whatley Manor, we have assembled a team of department heads who are continuously looking at ways to reduce our impact on the local and global environment. Sustainability is a big focus for 2019.

The kitchen workhorse

At the heart of Whatley Manor’s new kitchen is a bespoke Athanor stove consisting of four induction hobs, two plancha cook plates, an integrated water boiler, and a ‘quick therm’ salamander grill, which uses infra-red technology. 

Gas appliances will no longer feature in the kitchen, making a huge saving on energy bills as well as reducing the 23-bed hotel’s carbon footprint. Executive chef Niall Keating and general manager Sue Williams (right) flew to Athanor’s factory in France with UK supplier Grande Cuisine to see the white enamel stove being made and make final adjustments.

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