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The Caterer

Equipment: Man v machine

08 November 2007
Equipment: Man v machine

The trend towards healthy eating brings increased demand for freshly prepared and well-presented vegetables and fruit. Stuart Ferguson looks at how food prep equipment can be used to save - and make - money

It's an overcast Thursday afternoon in late November, and two scruffy-looking college students are huddled at the back of a training kitchen in Folkestone, Kent, each holding a ruler. "Is it one-eighth or one-sixteenth of an inch?" asks the first. "Is what?" replies the other. "Brunoise, is it one-sixteenth?"

The first, who has had to cover his long flowing hair in a pink hairnet, gives an exasperated sigh. "How should I know? I'm trying to work out how big my baton carrots should be."

Both stare out of the window, dreamily fantasising about a machine that could save them from the tedium that is first-year vegetable preparation.

There must be countless chefs who can relate to this scenario. Let's face it, who really wants to spend their time peeling, julienning, brunoising, dicing, chipping or slicing? And who has the time or, more importantly, the staff to handle the workload - especially as we live in an age where accountants rule the roost and our brigades are being downsized to accommodate budgetary requirements. Added to this is a serious shortage of craft skills in an industry that's becoming more and more volume-driven, making mechanical aids a much more sensible and appealing route.

But this presents a bit of a quandary. Should we be further deskilling an already deskilled industry, or should we take the more responsible tack of providing the necessary tools to ensure the job is done correctly?

"I don't think anyone would view a veg-prep machine as deskilling the workplace," says Nick Vadis who, as executive chef of Compass UK and chairman of the Craft Guild of Chefs, has a unique perspective on the subject. "Unless you're buying in prepped vegetables there will be a place in most kitchens for a machine. It's more about time management - when you have a chef stood at a bench for hours slicing carrots then the use of a machine becomes a no-brainer."

The first thing I want to know is how much I can save by installing a £1,000 potato peeler. To do this I've decided to take a close look at my own operation. On a Saturday afternoon I have two kitchen porters sitting glumly at the far end of the kitchen peeling and cutting potatoes for Sunday's roast offering. It takes them just over an hour to peel 50kg of spuds, so in financial terms this equates to: £5.75 x 2 plus 30p per kg x 50 = £26.50. So I've spent £26.50 on peeled potatoes and I haven't even factored in the cost of roasting the damn things yet.

Already prepped

Let's look at the other ergonomics. I have only two KPs working at this time, which means for one full hour I have no one cleaning or washing up. To buy the same amount in already prepped would cost me 85p per kg, costing £42.50 in total, which isn't much of an incentive. So what am I left with? Not much change out of £30 and two demotivated KPs with sore fingers.

Let's take the maths a little further. This would cost me £1,378 a year, and remember this is just for Sunday roast potatoes. We haven't even considered the potatoes we use for mash, rostis and chips during the rest of the week. When you take these into consideration, the £1,000 potato peeler starts to become far more economically viable.

These figures are based on a medium-sized business turning over a steady trade. When you start to think about larger businesses the figures really start to pile up. Take a Type 42 destroyer, for example. Royal Navy chef Mark Davies says: "We couldn't survive without our Hobart ‘rumbler' for the potatoes. We feed 300 people three times a day and the boys love their chips so there's no way we're peeling by hand."

The Hobart "rumbler" Davies is referring to is the E6128, which has a capacity of 13kg, a workhorse that will save you countless man-hours of peeling.

If this isn't big enough, take a look at IMC's SP25 peeler, which can handle up to 25kg of potatoes per load, making it ideal for larger and busier operations. The high-grade stainless-steel and cast-alloy construction ensures durability while combining strength with ease of use and cleaning.

Massive saving

Now let's look at carrots. Pre-cut baton carrots cost me £2.10 per kg, while whole carrots cost about 52p per kg. Straight away there's a massive saving to be made. Not only that but you don't always get the best quality with ready-prepared vegetables. It's a very price-driven business, so it's more likely that your supplier will use older and cheaper carrots that are more woody and quicker to peel than small, sweeter carrots.

Costing a little over £1,000 the Ital vegetable cutter available from Apuro, unlike most other commercial brands, comes complete with four blades and a storage basket. The supplied blades, two slicing knives, a chipping plate and a grating knife, will cover most applications, but optional extra blades are available. The TM1 has a 520W heavy-duty ventilated motor that produces a disc revolution of 300rpm for optimum cutting power capable of a throughput of up to 220kg of root vegetables per hour. Three safety micro switches ensure operator protection in case of overload and overheating. If you break down the £1,000 cost over a year, then again it makes economic sense.

If it's versatility you're after, the Robot Coupe R301 Ultra, which also retails at just over £1,000, not only offers vegetable prep by way of an included attachment and four blade disks, but also a 3.5-litre food processing bowl and blade. For larger businesses Robot Coupe offers a range of machines that will cater for between 10 and 400 covers, plus a variety of blades, most of which cost about £40.

You might think that any fruit or vegetable that goes through one of these machines looks like it's been prepped in a machine and not by hand. You'd have a point - until you get your hands on a Barbel Quattro.

Hard-pushed

From the outside it looks like any other conventional machine, a flip-up lid to place the blades in, a food pusher to get the food to the blades, and that's about it.

But as soon as you brunoise mixed veg, julienne carrots, or even allumette potatoes, you see something a little special. The end product the Quattro delivers is consistent and pretty near perfect. Even purist chefs would be hard-pushed to identify which carrot or potato had been machined and which had been prepared by a knife.

This is the result of some very sharp blades that don't destroy the cells of the vegetables and fruit they cut. This also prevents oxidisation, which in turn keeps the product looking fresher for longer.

Of course, it comes at a price, with the smallest machine costing £1,850 before tax and the cheapest blade at about £100. But this, and the other machines mentioned, could prove cost-effective in the long run. All you need to do is sit down with a calculator once in a while.

Oh, by the way, I still have the pink hairnet - just not so much of the hair that once went into it.

Do the maths: a potato-peeling machine could turn out to be a sound investment - and no more demotivated kitchen porters with sore fingers

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