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The Caterer

So you think you know about… shelves and tables

10 November 2005
So you think you know about… shelves and tables

When it comes to having enough space to work in, most chefs will say the person who designed their kitchen was never going to have to work in it, or that it was designed when food sales were less busy. That lack of working area calls for making maximum use of available space with effective shelving and work tables.

The principles of efficient shelving are that it should be rigid, accessible, easy to clean and safe for staff, with a low risk of items falling from shelves or the shelves themselves collapsing. The ergonomics of shelving is also important in a busy kitchen, with the most frequently used items the closest to hand to minimise the time to walk to pick a pan or a food ingredient. Neither is smart use of storage space in a kitchen just about where to put pans. It extends to dry goods stores and coldrooms.

Shelving fixed to the walls of the kitchen or the dry store area is still widespread, but it's difficult to move when there's a need to alter the kitchen layout. Cleaning is also more difficult as the shelving cannot be pulled away or easily dismantled.

The most effective shelving is a freestanding modular system. This usually comes as a flatpack or semi-fitted. As part of a new kitchen or refurbishment, the installer will put the shelving together, but since it's literally "snap and click", often without any nuts or bolts to fix, self-assembly is very straightforward.

Among the advantages of modular shelving systems are mobility, versatility and the ability to remove shelving for washing, either through a dishwasher or in a sink. The uprights on modular shelving have anchor points for shelf support brackets, so an appropriate number of shelves can be fitted according to the goods in store and their size.

Changing shelf height is very simple, and additional shelves and support brackets can be bought. A good modular system will allow for shelving to be fitted around a corner, often without the obstruction of a support post on the leading edge of the corner, further increasing the versatility of the unit. Where transporting of shelving is a feature needed in a kitchen, modular racking systems mounted on castors
are available.

A wide range of materials are used in shelving, each with its advantages, but the one material which has a food safety question mark against it is wood. In theory, wood is cheap and for dry goods storage such as tins it presents no food safety risks. But if other goods are stored on wooden shelving it can become soiled and be a breeding ground for bacteria. A regular and thorough cleaning routine using a sanitiser will keep the wood clean, but in practice this is unlikely to happen.

Zinc chromate is one of the cheapest materials for shelving, useful where cost is very important to the kitchen equipment budget. It performs well for ambient dry goods storage, but if used in the damp environment of a coldroom over a period of time it can produce a type of white rust which must cleaned off.

Coated wire is metal, usually as a mesh or parallel bars, which is given a plastic coating, similar to the racking used in a domestic fridge. This is a versatile material which can be used in both coldrooms and for ambient racking. In a coldroom, care must be taken that rust doesn't break through at bends and joints.

Anodised aluminium is another inexpensive material, with strength and stain resistance, and the anodised coating makes it easy to keep clean. It can be used in both dry goods storage and in coldrooms and freezer rooms.

Stainless steel is the most durable of construction materials, easy to keep clean and rarely having corrosion problems. This is the choice for kitchens where there's a desire for high performance and a willingness to pay for it.

There are several construction forms for the shelf, but they fit within two types - solid shelves and slatted shelves. A solid shelf is useful if small items are being stored, such as cooking utensils or small jars which would topple over on a slatted shelf.

Slatted shelves are the more popular of the two systems. They allow air to circulate freely around food, important in storing fresh food at ambient temperature and for coldroom storage where the slats also allow for a good circulation of cold air. For wine storage, half-round slats are useful.

When cleaning modular shelving, slatted shelves can be lifted out and in most cases put through a dishwasher. For parts of modular shelving that cannot be put into a dishwasher such as the upright frame, a medium stiffness bristle brush with hot soapy water will clean off spillages and a sanitising spray will help remove residual bacteria. A hot power wash spray gun normally used for cleaning solid floors is another way of cleaning shelving, but check with the manufacturer's instructions. Immediate cleaning should be done when there's a spillage of cooked food or leaching of fluid from meat and fish.

Work tables There are three essentials from work tables for chefs. They have to be rigid, easy to clean and make maximum use of the space they occupy. For a busy kitchen the first choice of material for work surfaces is stainless steel. It's strong, easy to clean and won't corrode. Some tabling is stainless steel construction throughout, but there may be a mix of metals with a coated steel frame underneath the stainless steel top to bring the cost down.

Rigidity in work tables comes from the type and quality of tube construction. The stronger the tube section and the more cross-members there are, the firmer the table will be. A lower shelf underneath the working surface will give increased strength and rigidity.
Rounded corners rather than pointed corners on stainless steel tabling will reduce the risk of personal injury to staff.

An important consideration when buying stainless steel tables is the thickness of the steel. The usual thickness for stainless steel tables is 1.2mm. It's possible to buy 0.9mm stainless steel, but don't expect a long life from it. The top end of stainless steel for very heavy use is 1.5mm thickness. One way to make a medium thickness stainless steel used in tabling much stronger is to seal in a layer of medium density fibreboard (MDF). This also reduces vibration and noise.

One of the main benefits of stainless steel for work tables is its ability to keep clean, yet cleaning is often the cause of damage. No detergent with bleach or any chlorine content should be used on stainless steel work tables. Chlorines attack the surface of stainless steel and will lead to rust spots.

The best way to clean any stainless steel table is soap and hot water. Harsh abrasives such as wire wool pads will damage stainless steel. Nylon scouring pads are better, but if they're too rough they'll still score the surface and spoil the sheen.

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