It's not just the equipment your chefs cook with that matters, it's also the kitchen's shell, the lighting, the data technologies, the skills, and a great deal more. John Porter reports on what chefs would love to see in their dream kitchen to deal with the demanding customers of today and the future
From training to technology, many different elements need to come together to create a world-class kitchen. A group of chefs from across the industry came together at The Caterer's office to thrash out the process in a roundtable moderated by The Caterer's Lisa Jenkins.
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Can we start by talking about the perfect route through a kitchen?
Hayden Groves (HG): You need to start with the material for the walls and the floor. We've moved away from tiles with dirty grout to non-slip flooring. Start with the shell. Lighting is very important as well.
Has new LCD lighting made a difference?
Martyn Nail (MN):
John Campbell (JC): Lighting is hugely important. If the food is purely lit from above, it gives you a sense of what the diner sees on the plate. There also has to be mood lighting.
HG: In a previous kitchen I worked in, we had lux tests done and several areas were down to 220 lux. If you spend 16 hours a day in that environment, as we were, you get eyestrain.
Omar Allibhoy (OA): An ideal kitchen should also have an element of natural light.
MN: In new developments there tends to be much more front of house space and less kitchen and storage space, even though with changing rooms and cleaning facilities the requirements grow.
HG: On the flip side, if you do have a lot of storage space, you tend to fill it up, and then it's wasted money.
JC: In my opinion, you need to start with the people, because they make a restaurant work.
HG: You work the flow through from your deliveries coming in to the decanting area, then production and mise en place, and then finishing.
Simon Crichton (SC): It depends significantly on the service style and customer expectations. You can go from a small restaurant to a big event serving 10,000 covers and the kitchen to deliver that is going to be different. Understanding the demand and the quality you have to deliver is the starting point
OG: At Westfield we serve up to 700 covers a day from a production kitchen and a small service kitchen. 'Engineered' is the word we use: we've engineered the menu, the plates and the design to make sure we can deliver those numbers.
SC: Some kitchens have to be more flexible in their design than others. We have kitchens that service lots of different uses. What you're producing and how you serve it changes regularly. You need equipment that's adaptable, and then the skills of the chefs to produce it.
JC: The restaurant sector has a lot to learn from contract caterers. They produce thousands of meals a day consistently.
What systems can chefs or operators put in place to ensure consistency?
Laura Abbott (LA): As a manufacturer, we develop products very much with consistency in mind, where the recipe is programmed and the food will come out consistently, as you wanted it.
Richard Greasley (RG): What we try to get across to caterers is that instead of having five pieces of equipment, you can do a whole meal in one, saving space, and it even gives you the HACCP (hazard analysis and critical control point) data.
SC: If you're trying to do the same menu in multiple locations, it's fine if you've got the same piece of kit everywhere - but that isn't usually the way it is. You've still got to deliver consistent quality by having standard recipes and standard production methods and training for them.
LJ: Some equipment needs proper training to use, and chefs say they don't always have the time.
JC: Or they've got time, but think they know better.
MN: They feel they don't need training because they have the skills. Speaking for my team, they come to realise that there's comfort in the technology and you don't need to keep guessing.
RG: With touchscreen, there's a generation that is now using the technology. But you can also strip it back to just five recipes at the press of a button.
HG: From an Á la carte perspective, a 10-grid oven can be impractical in terms of the different temperatures needed to cook small quantities of different dishes.
OA: You have to engineer your recipes to suit the product and the operation. We use Merrychefs, which I set up. The chefs then don't touch the recipe.
The question, then, is where's the challenge for the chef?
OA: The reality is there are some jobs for skilled chefs, and some chefs who just need a job.
MN: Some people want free rein to use their skills, but a lot of others want to rely on technology and to be comfortable with the consistency it gives them.
JC: And there can be a sense of pride when they see a good product on the plate as well as happy customers.
When you imagine your finished plate, do you think about which piece of equipment will be best to produce it?
MN: It depends how big your brief is. If you're planning the whole menu, yes.
JC: You'd have to be pretty barmy to buy one piece of kit for one element of a dish. So you're looking for a range of equipment that allows you to do a lot of things?
JC: I think there's now better dialogue between the chef, the kitchen designer, the consultant and the manufacturer to get these products on the market.
OA: It's always the end-user, not the manufacturer, who will see ways that equipment could be made better. There needs to be more communication.
HG: Design consultants will often favour one manufacturer, which is something chefs need to be aware of.
JC: We have an open kitchen so the visual impact on guests is important. They need to see us there working. Utilities, workspace, ergonomics are all considerations. Our new kitchen will pay for itself in four years.
MN: What sometimes get overlooked is how much a range you've had for five years or 25 years costs you. It just eats gas or electricity.
HG: If you spill milk on a solid top, you don't clean it until 11pm. It's not only the man hours and the effort, it's the chemicals. With induction, you give it a wipe and you're good to go.
JC: We've gone all-electric. When we looked at the draw of the entire restaurant, including the cookery school, there wasn't much daylight between the need to get an extra sub-station or not. It looks like we're just there or thereabouts, saving £55,000.
MN: If you had 20 power sockets 20 years ago, now they are probably all full and 20 more are needed as well - but the equipment is now much more efficient.
SC: Quality of build of equipment is important, because it's a long-term investment. I've worked for organisations that took the view that you could reduce capital investment by buying slightly cheaper equipment, but the cost of maintenance completely outweighs the saving in the long run.
OA: The warranty is the key thing. Too much equipment falls apart too quickly.
Does the need for data connectivity create new challenges?
SC: Having the right network for communication between front of house and back of house, for sure. To get printers networked properly you need a reliable system. The chefs' office doesn't normally have data connection, which of course you need.
Andy Jones (AJ): Without technology in the healthcare centre they would spend more time recording than they would looking after the food and making sure the patient received it presentably. When we put in data systems and fridge monitoring systems, it's all done for you.
HG: The fridge police will always find something to question, though. They always like a bit of paper with lots of different handwriting on it.
What about the impact of other technology, such as electronic point of sale (EPoS), on the kitchen?
SC: If you know from your EPoS data what your volume is historically, it helps you enormously with planning production. If you then link that with a recipe management system, it helps you quite significantly.
OA: In the tapas environment, working with screens instead of printers is ideal. The number of items on a check means it's incredibly challenging for a head chef to control. With written checks, it's sometimes the head chef who delays the kitchen because he's not distributing the jobs quickly enough. At our
next restaurant we're looking at a screen system that will go straight from the waiter to the kitchen section. The head chef will be able to focus on expediting the food to the waiters and controlling the quality.
SC: The other place that technology is going to play a big part is in the changing law as regards allergens. There are a lot of menu management systems, but it's a complex area and it will be a big challenge.
AJ: That's where technology works; the supplier has the information and it can be imported, so the allergens can be picked up. For us, it's starting to revolutionise patient ordering, because it's got rid of paper.
OA: An environmental health officer would give you a very different set of answers about what makes a world-class kitchen than us and, unfortunately, they are now the bosses. I don't cook any more, and neither does my head chef - he's focused on training and checking temperatures.
HG: I'm now an administrator. I run a team, and I'm the HACCP man!
SC: If systems are run well and used correctly, that should release the chef's time. The double-edged sword is that if you're going to have programmed recipes, you've got to cook to those. I don't think it stops you being creative, but you have to be creative in a more disciplined way.
OA: We need to work a month in advance to implement a special, because we need to spec it and train it properly due to health and safety.
JC: That's not a special, that's new product development!
What about the skill level of the kids coming through the colleges?
LA: We work with Westminster Kingsway College, and each year the students work in differently equipped kitchens.
MN: Where they have access to technology, they'll use it, but it's also about making sure they know their skills and their craft.
JC: More manufacturers have to get involved with the colleges. Eco-efficiency needs to be part of the syllabus. In this industry we throw a quarter of our food away. The utilities we waste are phenomenal. We need to be more responsible, and we're in a position to do that now with technology.
AJ: Students are the future, and they're more savvy about technology than any of us. It's not that they don't know what they should do in terms of sustainability, but they need to be shown what technology is available and how they should use it.
SC: People coming out of college need to understand the craft and the methods, regardless of whether they're using a standard recipe or not, because then they
will understand what they need to achieve.
JC: And they'll understand how to use the kit to get the results.
OA: Sharing is the key. I don't take a step without consulting my team. We run through the menu and the recipes, and try to visualise how we'll actually deliver. The best kitchen? Ultimately, it's not equipment-led, it's operationally led.
Around the table
Laura Abbott, UK business development, Electrolux Professional
Omar Allibhoy, Tapas Revolution Restaurants, London
John Campbell, chef/proprietor, the Woodspeen, Belmont, Berkshire
Simon Crichton, marketing director, Sodexo
Richard Greasley, UK business development, Electrolux Professional
Hayden Groves, executive chef, BaxterStorey
Andy Jones, service development director with ISS and chair of the Hospital Caterers Association
Martyn Nail, executive chef, Claridge's
The NHS and nutrition
John Campbell believes that hospitals represent a big opportunity: "Food can keep your body safe and fit and help repair it, but that doesn't happen in hospitals. You can mitigate so much with nutrition - care, aftercare, bed space. There needs to be a professional committee that consults with the NHS on equipment and training. The food production system needs to change, and this will need different equipment.
We could change the way this country manages its health service, and it would cost no more money if we're smart about it."
Andy Jones agrees: "The challenge is that the NHS won't always harness technology; it's scared of doing anything different. That's why it's still producing
some of the dishes using old equipment. I still struggle to get doctors to include food in a patient's recovery plan."