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Profiting from winter banqueting

17 August 2006

Banqueting traditionally involved silver service of freshly cooked food. Many operations still use this system, but there are logistical problems to cooking food and serving it hot, with maintaining temperature the most serious.

The food may be hot when it goes out on silver salvers from the kitchen but, with as many as 10 customers to a round table and etiquette saying that nobody begins to eat until the last person has been served, the temperature can by then have dipped from hot to tepid.

Portion control can also be an issue. If one diner asks for a bit more meat, a little extra sauce or a few added potatoes, by the time the last person is served there may not be enough food left for a full portion.

Another problem concerns presentation. Chefs are often rightly proud of their plate presentation but, in silver service, the chef has no hands-on control of how the food is presented.

Kitchen problems such as these must be resolved before considering the issues facing the restaurant manager, who has to find temporary staff capable of performing silver service and answering diners' questions.

Yet cook-serve is not dodo technology. For smaller banqueting operations, re-equipping with state-of-the-art combi-ovens, blast chillers and walk-in coldrooms is not financially viable, so the kitchen has to stay with traditional cook-serve. There are food quality and food temperature issues, but a modest investment in new equipment can deliver hugely improved results with cook-serve.

Modern holding cabinets are the devices many kitchens choose to allow them to deliver better quality banqueting food. These are far more advanced than a simple dry-heat hot cupboard, which has a tendency to cause skinning on food surfaces and moisture and colour loss. Newer holding cabinets have sensitive temperature controls, and many will inject controlled amounts of steam to keep food moist.

Cook-chill For a growing number of hotels, then, banqueting no longer involves bulk silver service in the dining room, but a plated meal service using cook-chill. The food is precooked, either earlier in the day or as long as a few days beforehand, chilled and then regenerated at the point of service.

The food in this system can be bulk-cooked, chilled and regenerated in gastronorms, with plate assembly on a hot production line, or preplated and regenerated as a finished meal.

Food safety Whichever system is used, food safety is paramount. Almost all cooked food is clear of potentially harmful bacteria immediately after it has been cooked, but airborne bacteria will begin to multiply on cooked food as soon as it begins to cool down. The faster cooked food passes through the critical zone from hot to cold, then the less potentially harmful bacterial growth there will be.

There is only one safe way to rapidly chill cooked food destined for a cook-chill banqueting operation, and that is to use a blast chiller. Leaving cooked food to chill in an ambient temperature carries a huge risk of food contamination, while putting hot cooked food into a standard upright fridge cabinet is also dangerous, as it will not pull the temperature down fast enough.

A blast chiller must be capable of pulling down hot food from 70°C to 3°C in 90 minutes or less. For small banqueting operations, a cabinet blast chiller may be sufficient, but busy banqueting operations will benefit from roll-in blast chillers, into which racks of food can be wheeled straight from the oven to begin the chilling process within minutes.

But the blast chiller is not intended to hold chilled food. Any banqueting cook-chill operation must have further refrigeration for safely holding chilled food, in the form of upright cabinets for a small cook-chill kitchen, or a walk-in coldroom for larger operations.

Refrigeration While banqueting food that has been cooked, blast-chilled and put into refrigeration will remain safe for several days, for practical reasons it is best to work as close to the banquet as possible. Refrigeration space is almost always at a premium, so cooking midweek for weekend banquets just adds to the costs of refrigeration. Consequently, many banqueting operations choose to cook and chill in the morning for that night's dining.

Before the banquet food is chilled, it has to be cooked, and a combi-oven is essential. Depending on the maximum number of banqueting covers, a 10- or 20-shelf combi-oven is needed. A benefit of most 20-shelf combi-ovens is that they will have a facility for wheeling in a trolley loaded with plates or gastronorms of food so that the door can be shut with the trolley inside. After cooking, the trolley can be wheeled out and into a compatible blast chiller.

More flexible Such trolleys often have the useful accessory of a zipped insulating jacket, which will cloak around the rack of plated meals, keeping them hot.

A 20-shelf combi-oven has a huge capacity for bulk food cooking, but two 10-shelf combi-ovens might be more flexible. The capacity will be very similar, but having two ovens means foods needing different cook times and temperatures can be prepared at the same time. The downside is that there is unlikely to be a wheel-in facility.

A combi-oven is also the popular way of regenerating chilled food for a busy banqueting operation. The benefit of regenerating chilled food in a combi-oven lies in its ability not just to blast convection heat on to the food for rapid reheating, but to introduce steam.

A small amount of steam during the regeneration process prevents drying out and losses of colour and flavour. Some chefs will even cook vegetables slightly al dente in the precook process, knowing the heat and steam in regeneration will bring them to a perfectly cooked state.

Any plan for re-equipping a kitchen with combi-ovens for a cook-chill banqueting operation must be determined by the regeneration needs, not the cooking needs. Cooking can be staged batch by batch; regeneration of all the chilled food must be simultaneous.

A way of getting the best deal on re-equipping a kitchen for a cook-chill banqueting operation is to do a one-stop shop for the cooking, refrigeration and regeneration equipment. Mix-and-match equipment of different brands will work perfectly well, but the benefit of single-sourcing lies in getting a more attractive price for the whole system. The buyer is also dealing with one supply source, so there is one point of contact for installation and advice.

Regeneration trolleys An alternative way of regenerating chilled food for banqueting is to use mobile regeneration trolleys. In this system, a main course will be individually plated from chill and the chilled plate put in a regeneration trolley.

The benefit of regeneration trolleys for banqueting is that, if the banqueting area is some distance from the main kitchen, as can be the case in civic or educational sites, the food can be transported to the banqueting area yet still be served hot and fresh-tasting.

There are trolleys available which will hold plated meals in chill then, at a preprogrammed time, begin to heat up the food. Some regeneration trolleys even have the facility to inject bursts of steam to keep food moist when reheating, as in a combi-oven.

\* For more information on how to choose the right kitchen banqueting equipment, search the CESA website at www.cesa.org.uk.

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