Theatre-style serveries visibly demonstrate that meals - or at least components of them - are freshly prepared. They also spark interaction between staff and customers. But upping the drama has its downsides, such as excess heat, smells and draughts that can diminish the comfort of customers and staff and intrude on the carefully managed image sought by interior designers.
At Bryanston, an independent boarding school in Blandford, Dorset, contract caterer Chartwells has countered menu fatigue with theatre-style cooking for several years. "But it used to involve a little butane gas camping stove, which looked somewhat amateurish," says catering manager John Hughes.
Chartwells decided to try a new German-designed self-ventilating counter, the Varithek, available in the UK through BGL-Rieber. It is basically an assisted service mobile counter module incorporating the required mix of induction cooking plates, griddles, grill plates and bains-marie in its top. Users can change these around if they want; at Bryanston, the chef prepares stir-fries one day, grills the next and crêpes on Fridays.
The equipment's most notable feature is a patented system that draws cooking fumes and vapour through a vent at the side of the counter top, passing them through odour and grease filters in the base of the cabinet. Manned by a chef and wheeled into position halfway down the dining room, the Varithek at Bryanston serves about 150 of the 620 lunches served daily between 1.05pm and 1.40pm. The length of queue determines whether diners opt for meals fresh off the unit or go to the regular serveries that offer baked potatoes, salads and other fare.
"It's really about offering changes for the kids," Hughes says. "They do get bored, so, with the theatre bar, they not only get the full value of the smells coming from whatever the chef is doing, but see him perform and gain a sense of camaraderie." Any snags? The unit's on-board power requirements mean there's more than one cable to deal with when the counter is in its island position. But Hughes says the built-in extraction works well, provided the filters supplied by the manufacturer are used. Chartwells has since introduced the units at other schools.
Other self-contained theatre-style counters now appearing on the UK market include the Libero series from Electrolux, in line with that group's forecast that "the trend towards front-of-house preparation will underpin the future of the food service industry worldwide". As well as built-in fume extraction, the new series offers a mix-and-match choice of cooking tops, such as induction and infrared. Units can also be specified with an ingenious hot and cold plate, which automatically senses whether a product placed on it is hot or cold and keeps it that way, either heating or chilling the plate.
The Ventocart from Top Prep suits display cooking, with two 318mm square ceramic griddles set in a stainless-steel wheeled base and an integrated carbon filter ventilation system in the base of the counter. It's priced at about 4,500, with induction hob versions available.
Fume extraction is also built into a new mobile carvery pod being sold through Equip Line. It is designed as a self-contained satellite production unit either for expanding existing servery areas or for use as an extra wheel-in unit for applications such as Sunday lunchtime.
But how practical is self-ventilation on larger fixed-servery installations? "The issue is mainly with the size of the cooking elements," says Steve Hobbs, director of Signature FSE, whose King's Buffet counters offer display cooking elements set in granite tops for a hygienic seal. "There comes a point when you need to think about extracting to the exterior of the building using hoods, rather than filtering the air and dissipating it within the restaurant."
This particularly applies, he says, with gas-burning appliances and fitments such as 400-500mm deep chrome griddles, which can produce a lot of greasy air and may be hard for an internal system to deal with. Induction hobs don't usually pose problems, as is shown by an installation at a Sodexho-run restaurant feeding staff 24 hours a day at Gatwick Airport. The counter provides stir-fry and pan-Asian menus via three Adventys induction wok hobs.
A cooler environment for both staff and customers tends to be the biggest attraction of such serveries. One operator that has taken this route in response to complaints about the freshness of its catering is RoadChef, which now operates induction-based, theatre-style cooking at nearly all its 29 motorway catering sites. Counterline serveries integrated within the free-flow countering are fitted with drop-in Sanyo induction plates supplied by Valera.
"We thought induction was the safest and cleanest way to go," says David Cheeseman, RoadChef's foodservice development manager. "They have a flat surface with no bits and pieces to remove and there are no flames or glowing rings for children to put their hands on." Instant heat-up and a high level of energy efficiency are other considerations, but the company always makes sure there's the fall-back of a gas-powered range back of house in case of disruption to the electricity supply.
Conventional serveries required simply to dish up hot and cold food from bains-marie and chill sections don't usually have air-handling problems as long as refrigeration and heating equipment is adequately ventilated within the body of the cabinet. But in exceptional cases serveries can be integrated with air conditioning, as happens at the new Aura caf-bar in the departure lounge of Southampton Airport. To improve passenger comfort during busy periods, an air-conditioning system was built into the servery installed by the Carford Group.
Air passes through decorative wooden slots in the counter front, whereas a big ceiling-mounted air-conditioning box would have detracted from the stylish look wanted for the lounge area. Richard Weller, Carford's commercial director, says the installation required incorporating a plenum chamber inside the cabinet. This lost some under-counter space but there is still room to store glassware. "It involved more work on installation," says Weller. "This was mainly in co-ordinating with the mechanical and engineering contractors and matching our counter dimensions to standard plenum sizes."
But servery installations can still pose problems of excess heat. Scottish Widows Client Services felt that a strip of outward-facing fascia lights would add an attractively theatrical impact to the new servery in its upgraded staff restaurant. However, they would have generated too much heat, especially around the refrigerated storage area. This led project consultant Western Blueprint and servery maker E&R Moffat to come up with an unconventional solution: fibre-optic lighting embedded in the servery front. The tiny pinpricks of light provide a dramatic backdrop while staying completely cold, making the counter an ergonomic as well as visually effective solution.
It is also low maintenance. Gordon McIntosh, Moffat's commercial manager, says the counter's custom-made fibre-optic loom needs only a single Philips projector lamp (typically 150W). This feeds light to all 40 fibre-optic strands which surface on the exterior of the servery.
Fibre-optic filaments can transmit light up to 50m with no degradation in light quality and can be supplied in various diameters from 1mm to 10mm. They should last for ever, says McIntosh - only the lamp needs changing, after about 5,000 hours. "Aesthetically the light is purer than normal lamps and the long-term lower maintenance outweighs the extra cost," he adds.
- BGL-Rieber, 01225 704470, www.rieber.de
- Carford Group, 01202 851920, www.carford.co.uk
- Counterline, 0151-548 2211, www.counterline.co.uk
- Electrolux, 0121-220 2800, www.foodservice.electrolux.com
- Equip Line, 01895 272236, www.equipline.co.uk
- E&R Moffat, 01324 812272, www.ermoffat.com
- Signature FSE, 01908 235660, www.signature-fse.com
- TopPrep, 0870 3000 658, www.topprep.co.uk
- Valera, 01708 869593, www.valera.co.uk