In an age when patience is a rare virtue and speed is paramount, there is an increasing need to find ways to speed up our operations while still retaining quality and consistency.
In the absence of Star Trek-style replicators to instantly provide the customer with the refreshment of their choice, a cooking system that uses an accelerated heating process is probably the next best thing.
Still on the Star Trek theme, ovens using air impingement technology were originally developed for NASA's space station programme, and quickly adapted to the demands of our terrestrial kitchens.
Products on the market include Hobart's Hurricane Conveyer Ovens and Zesto ovens from Imperial Catering Equipment, and while many people overlook these ovens, dismissing them as pizza ovens, this simply isn't the case.
"The beauty of air impingement cooking is its speed and versatility," says Tony Perkins, project manager for catering equipment distributor the Carford Group. "It allows all types of food to be cooked very quickly at a wide variety of temperatures, producing uniform results every time."
The concept relies on small jets of hot air under pressure being forced around the food, heating it two to four times faster than a conventional oven can, depending on the product. The shorter cooking time means less evaporation and moisture loss, so that food is browned and crisped without drying out.
Most impinger ovens are the conveyor style but are equally adroit at cooking meat, fish, poultry and a whole variety of foods. "The variable-speed continuous-cook platform moves items through the oven at a steady pace, ensuring an even product flow during cooking," says Perkins. "Another important feature is that, unlike batch ovens, impinger ovens need little staff intervention during operation, keeping labour costs down and freeing up kitchen staff to do other tasks."
Carford supplies the Lincoln CTI Countertop Impinger 1300 Series from Enodis, which is small enough to sit on most commercial counter-tops but does the work of a half-sized convection oven or a bank of five microwave ovens.
Although impinger technology is fairly simple to use, it can still seem like a big, scary machine to the uninitiated. But if you're a business that has no qualified or experienced chefs but wants to serve a certain quality of food, there's one bit of kit that you can invest in that is pretty much guaranteed to be in the kitchens of most of your staff: a microwave oven.
"Sales of microwaves have grown significantly in the past year, partly due to the smoking ban," says Ray Hall, managing director of RH Hall. "We now have a third wave of outlets that have been forced to look at the way they do business, with less revenue coming from wet sales."
Hall continues: "It is also true that there is an ever-increasing range of high-quality food available, with the food companies and microwave experts working together to enable the novice caterer to produce an extensive menu without a huge investment in kitchen appliances and space.
"Microwaves are cheaper to run than many kitchen appliances, take up less space and have a small carbon footprint. There is no doubt that by adding a high-quality food offering outlets can increase turnover and, with expert help, even those without skilled chefs available can provide an appropriate food offering for their clientele."
One business that sees microwave power as central to its home-style menu is Ponti's, the Italian chain founded in 1963 that today has more than 50 cafés and restaurants around London. "You would be hard pushed to find a heavier user of microwaves than Ponti's," says managing director Stefano Ispani.
Most Ponti's outlets have a bank of 6-8 ovens, typically Sharp R24AT models supplied by RH Hall. These play a key role in regenerating all the chain's traditional hot dishes, such as lasagne and spaghetti bolognese, which are either cooked fresh daily at each restaurant or delivered chilled from Ponti's central kitchen facility in Islington, north London. Despite their 1,900W rating, the ovens have one of the smallest footprints available and operate off 13amp plugs. They are also stackable, saving valuable space for preparation behind the serving counter.
Of course, microwave ovens have suffered an image problem in food service. It's taken almost 50 years to get there, but Merrychef managing director Graham Veal is confident that the term "ping cuisine" and other uninformed, negative comments about microwave technology have been finally banished from commercial kitchens.
"Today's generation of chefs are trained using Accelerated Cooking Technology," explains Veal. "In the same way as using the internet and mobile phones is second nature to them, many will question conventional cooking methods when equal, often superior, results can be achieved in a fraction of the time."
Over at the Sheraton Park Lane hotel, executive chef Andrew Bennett was an early convert to the benefits of Accelerated Cooking Technology, which uses a combination of convection, microwave, air impingement and infrared heating. Recently the hotel's chic Citrus restaurant introduced a new menu offering modern Italian cuisine, including antipasti, pasta, risotto and fresh pizza, which is cooked from scratch in a Merrychef 402S.
"We are reliant on the 402S for speed," says Bennett. "We create the pizza from scratch, using raw dough, and it cooks to perfection in the oven in just a few minutes. The new menu is very popular, and we've seen a big increase in the number of covers."
The travel industry has had a bumpy ride over the last few years, and for operators to perform well, the need to deliver good-value accommodation has never been stronger. For one company, BDL Management, which specialises in the development and operation of leading-brand hotels, the provision of great accommodation had to be matched with the provision of great food to help attract business and leisure clientele as well as increasing the average spend per visit.
BDL has properties across the UK featuring the Express by Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn and Crowne Plaza brands. "Good-value branded accommodation needs to deliver consistently to customers on every level," explains Dennis Kane, group food and beverage manager. "And that includes meal choices as well as the freshness, quality and taste of the food. Without legions of highly skilled staff, the costs of being able to produce a diverse menu - especially in key tourist or hotel locations - can be prohibitive."
Kane, who is based at the Holiday Inn London Docklands ExCel hotel, continues: "We were intrigued to learn that there was a simple push-button oven that could not only cook everything bar a large roast, but was capable of cooking up to six different items of food simultaneously and perfectly."
The oven he had heard about was the US-made TurboChef C3, which is claimed to cook up to 10 times faster than conventional ovens by using its unique patented technology combining microwaves with superheated air circulating at high speed. "A rack of lamb can be cooked in just 200 seconds, whilst salmon en croÁ»te is cooked and browned in just 140 seconds," says Kane. Added to that, the C3 can be used in any kitchen, as it requires no venting - a significant cost saving for any business operation.
Key maintenance points
- A little-known fact is that magnetrons deteriorate over time, some makes more than others. If you use a set programme or button for reheating a steak and kidney pie, for example, you might find after five years that it is no longer cooking properly and you might need to adjust the programme.
- Electrical safety checks and emissions testing: the environmental health officer can ask when your microwave was last tested. There is nothing mandatory about this, but to prove due diligence it should be done as part of your regular service arrangements, or at least annually, especially for heavily used ovens.
- When buying a new oven, use a reputable catering supplier, and check that the oven will stand up to the pressure and number of meals throughput. Don't buy a domestic oven, as it will overheat and will not stand up to the pressure of a busy service.
- Clean spillages immediately to prevent burning, increased energy usage and risk of fire. Pay special attention to bottom door hinges, if relevant, and door edges and recesses where food can build up and prevent the door closing flush with the microwave body, increasing the potential for microwave leakage.
- Doors must not be distorted. A common problem with bottom-hinged doors is that people place heavy weights on them or use them as an extra shelf, for which they are not designed.
- A combination microwave can weigh up to 45kg - or a large, old-fashioned hundredweight. If fitted with a grill, it will have the magnetron mounted in the bottom, making it more susceptible to problems with burnt-on dirt. These units are harder to keep clean, because owing to the combination of grill, convection and microwave there is more fat splattering inside. They should be kept sparkling clean, with spillages cleaned up immediately and no build-up of dirt or food allowed.
- A commercial microwave can weigh 30-50kg, which is a real issue when you need to move it to clean underneath. Two people will be required to lift it. Also, make sure the unit is unplugged or that you have enough spare flex to move it safely. Some ovens have 2m of cable: make sure this will not get snagged or damaged by other items.
- Never place a microwave near a fryer: it will suck in greasy air from the fryer, which will cause cleaning and operational issues.
- If a removable filter is fitted over the air intake, it should be cleaned on a regular basis.
- Do not block air outlets on top or behind ovens.
Source: Serviceline -01438 363000 - www.service-line.co.uk
|Carford Group||0845 026 0400||www.carford.co.uk](http://www.carford.co.uk)|
|HobartÂ||0844 888 7777||[www.hobartuk.com](http://www.hobartuk.com)|
|Imperial Catering Equipment||01509 260150||[www.imperialrange.co.uk](http://www.imperialrange.co.uk)|
|Lincoln/Enodis||0845 370 4888||[www.enodisuk.com](http://www.www.enodisuk.com)|
|RH Hall||01296 663400||[www.rhhall.com](http://www.rhhall.com)|
|TurboChef||0845 602 1544||[www.turbochef.com|