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Regenerating profits

24 August 2004
Regenerating profits

Breakfast sales form a captive market for a hotel and yield good margins if breakfast is not included in the room rate. That contrasts starkly with the dinner operation, from which it is notoriously difficult to make a profit.

Dinner is labour-intensive, and many guests in urban and city hotels may want to go out to eat at night in the high street, while country house hotel guests may prefer to go down to the village pub.

But dinner can deliver good profits for a hotel in banqueting. This is not a discretionary food spend, as it is for the individual business traveller; it invariably involves higher than normal liquor spend and, since it is usually a celebratory meal of some kind, costs are not analysed in great detail.

However, while banqueting is a huge part of any food and beverage operation, it has to rise to the occasion and not be a disappointment. Apart from menu planning and cooking skills, the two greatest challenges presented by banqueting are getting the food out to diners as quickly as possible and serving it hot.

It is not impossible to cater for big numbers at a banquet using the traditional route of cook-serve and silver service. This remains popular with small to medium-sized hotels, but chefs do lose control of plate presentation. Finding casual banqueting staff is an ever-increasing problem, and food temperature in autumn and winter can be a common cause of customer complaints.

That is why, according to Malcolm Harling, sales director of Williams Refrigeration, cook-chill is becoming increasingly popular for banqueting purposes. He says: "Ingredients can be bought in larger quantities; time management of kitchen staff is more effective; portion control and waste management are improved; plate presentation is better; food temperature is assured; and, most important, the opportunities for higher food safety standards are greater."

Harling says that, with a properly controlled cook-chill banqueting system using blast chillers and holding fridges, banqueting food can be batch-cooked and held between 0¼ and 3¼C for as long as five days. Refrigeration, he adds, is the pivotal feature of a banqueting cook-chill operation. Blast chillers are essential, he points out, because they bring the temperature of cooked food quickly down to a safe holding level. And as John Savage, food service director at Foster, points out, with a blast chiller that can accept an entry temperature as high as 90¡C, food can be chilled almost immediately after it has been taken out of the oven.

Equally as important to chilling the food for safe and consistent cook-chill banqueting is proper cooking, and that means using combi-ovens and temperature probes. There are more than 50 brands of combi-oven available and, with few exceptions, they all use a combination of convection heat and steam.

David Jenkins, development chef for Dawson Foodservice Equipment, works with the Lainox Cube combi-oven and considers the combi an essential part of the banqueting process because it can regenerate food without drying it out. "The combi-oven won't just bring the food up to a precise core temperature but will also put moisture back in," he says.

Just how technically advanced combi-ovens have become for banqueting usages is shown by the latest model from Rational, sold in the UK under the Rational or Lincat name. The SelfCooking Center model (SCC) uses multi-function probes linked to the oven's computer system and can calculate cooking times, the temperature and humidity needed, and can even add a final burst of heat to achieve the desired surface finish.

All the chef has to do is punch in the food to be cooked, then select the finish (soft, crispy, rare, well-done), and the oven takes over. Through creating zones of different temperature within the oven, the SCC can also cook different foods on different levels.

On the day of the banquet itself, there are two methods of food regeneration. It can be plated from chilled on to jackstacks or holding trolleys and wheeled into combi-steamers, or regenerated in gastronorm containers and plated hot, just before service, by a line of assembly chefs.

Compass Group has such confidence in cook-chill that it operates Circadia, a central cook-chill production centre in Surrey that serves its own banqueting and outside events business as well as delivering under contract to hotels in the South-east of England.

Circadia managing director Mick Geraghty says that the numbers of banquet functions, and their size, is now such that traditionally built kitchens often have neither the space nor sufficient skilled kitchen staff to do cook-serve banqueting.

He says: "In many hotels, the food operation is considered a non-profit operation. The money from banqueting comes in beverage sales. Buying in cook-chill banqueting food can remove so much kitchen cost that the food operation of banqueting can move back into profit."

Not all banqueting is for big numbers, however. Wedding receptions, office parties, or just groups of friends, can often comprise fewer than 100 people, but they can still benefit from cook-chill. The delivery route here, after chilling and plating, is to use regeneration trolleys. The basic trolley will raise chilled food to eating temperature in about an hour, with the best equipment using small injections of steam to keep food moist.

Regeneration trolley technology has moved on to big-number banqueting through the development of units that can blast-chill plated food, hold it in chill, then regenerate it back to serving temperature. The Moffat Chillogen, for example, is mobile, can work off a standard 13amp plug and can hold as many as 90 plates on 15 shelves.

While mobile regeneration trolleys are normally associated with public sector catering, Kurt Giger, executive chef at the Renaissance hotel at London's Heathrow Airport, has six Chillogen trolleys, bought to expand the banqueting opportunities.

The biggest function this year where the regeneration trolley system was used was lunch and afternoon tea to say farewell to Concorde, involving 1,800 guests. The kitchen team knew that, because of the sheer quantity of cakes and sandwiches that would have to be made up fresh for the afternoon tea, their main effort would have to be focused on that, rather than lunch.

The lunch, which had fillet of beef as the centrepiece, was cooked, chilled, plated and then loaded into the Chillogen trolleys prior to the event. The trolleys were switched on close to lunchtime and, thanks to their heat-and-hold system, delivered the food as if it had been cooked to order. Even when some guests delayed their lunch sit-down time by half-an-hour, the vegetables and beef still had good colour and texture.

Breakfast banqueting
While banqueting is normally viewed as an evening affair, the four-star South Lodge country house hotel near Horsham, Sussex, has developed breakfast banqueting.

The thinking behind this strand of the hotel's function business is, according to executive chef Lewis Hamblet, so as not to completely disrupt a client's working day for the sake of a business meeting. Instead, companies can choose to meet in the early morning and conduct their business meeting around breakfast, so that by 10am the meeting is over but the working day is not.

While guest breakfasts served in the main dining room and via room service at South Lodge are still done by cook-serve, breakfast banquets are done using plated cook-chill.

Hamblet says: "We can have as many as 80 people in for a breakfast meeting, and they all want serving at the same time. Holding breakfast foods until service time can cause the flavours to merge and fat to leach out, and keeping the food hot is a nightmare."

The system for breakfast banqueting at South Lodge is to cook all the breakfast items in one of the hotel's two Rational combi-ovens when the kitchen starts up for breakfast at 6am, then blast-chill it all. The meals are then plated on to a wheel-in trolley and held in chill. Just before service time, the plated breakfasts are pushed into the combi-oven, where they will regenerate in less than six minutes.

Hamblet chooses scrambled eggs rather than fried eggs, but says that, because of the combination of heat and steam, the food is as fresh after regeneration as if it had just come from under a grill. "Tomatoes still have that slight crunch, the bacon is crisp, sausages sizzling and the scrambled eggs light and fluffy," he says. "Everything is neat, there is no grease on the plate, and everything tastes fresh."

The future for cook-serve Cook-serve is not completely dead yet. There are banqueting systems that can hold freshly prepared food without drying it out and which can be for big numbers.

Cooking for the fans of Glasgow Rangers football team in the Ibrox stadium executive boxes is the responsibility of head chef Brian Graham. With a match-day meal service that can peak at 2,000 covers, Graham has opted for a cook-and-hold food system using US-built Alto Shaam holding carts.

Graham says: "The function suites at Ibrox vary from 15 to 210 covers. The Alto Shaams can hold wet dishes and roasts without drying out. Whatever we put in, as a plated meal, comes out the same as when it went in."

The normal routine on match days is to plate up most of the main course but to cook proteins and some sauces just before delivery to ensure that the protein is neither over- nor under-cooked and that the sauces do not split.

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