Making a good profit from hotel food is not easy. Bedrooms, conferencing and liquor sales are all more profitable than most hotel restaurants. Except when it comes to banqueting.
The beauty of banqueting is that it allows for rigid cost control. There is volume, and the customers all eat the same food at the same time, which keeps waste management and labour costs tight.
Banqueting traditionally was silver service with freshly cooked food. Some hotels still continue the tradition, but to cook food and serve it hot causes huge logistical problems. Food temperature is the biggest one. The food may be hot when it goes out from the kitchen on silver salvers, but with eight or 10 customers to a table and etiquette that says nobody begins eating until the last person has been served both meat and vegetables, the temperature has often dipped from hot to tepid.
Portion control can also be a problem. One customer asks the server for a bit more meat, a bit more sauce or a few extra roast potatoes, and by the time the last person is served there may not be enough food left. Some chefs might put extra on the salvers to allow for this, but this affects gross profit margins. Chefs are proud of plate presentation, but in silver service the chef loses control of how the food is going to be presented to the customer.
Then there's the headache of finding the trained staff to serve it. Banqueting table service is seldom a full-time position. Provincial hotels might have a regular core of local people who enjoy the extra money casual banqueting service offers and stay loyal to a hotel for many years, but for city hotels banqueting staff means agency staff. No reputable agency would offer untrained staff for silver service, but the training might be as basic as language skills.
Overcome the problems of food temperature, portion control and staffing, and silver service still works. But for an ever-growing number of hotels, banqueting is no longer silver service, but a plated meal service using cook-chill.
A cook-chill banqueting system delivers consistency in food temperature, plate presentation, portion control, speed of service and, most important of all, quality and food safety.
Keith Warren is director of CESA, the Catering Equipment Suppliers' Association. For more information on every aspect of catering equipment visit the CESA website at www.cesa.org.uk.
What you need for quality and food safety in banqueting cook-chill
Cooking While a cooking range can fulfil almost every cooking mode except grilling, a banqueting operation is all about controlled cooking, and nothing comes close to a combi-oven in delivering this.
A combi-oven can be racked from top shelf to bottom with delicate product, such as 4oz salmon fillets, and every fillet will come out cooked exactly the same. These are the functions a combi-oven can perform for cook-chill banqueting:
- Meat - up to a third of the weight of a piece of meat can be lost during dry roasting through loss of water content. Having gentle steam in the oven during roasting both minimises weight loss and produces a more tender joint. For cooking individual portions, such as steaks or chicken fillets, programming and using the temperature probe delivers exactly the core cooking temperature the chef wants.
- Fish - never mind minutes, seconds can affect the quality of fish. Combi-ovens can control the steam environment and time to deliver a full load of perfectly cooked fish.
- Vegetables - by cooking in steam instead of boiling water, vegetables keep more of their nutritional value and natural colour, so that when they are regenerated for service they retain their crunch, flavour and appearance.
Chilling Food safety is of utmost importance in cook-chill banqueting systems. Almost all food is clear of potentially harmful bacteria when it has been cooked, but airborne bacteria will begin to feed and multiply on cooked food as it cools down. The faster cooked food passes through this critical zone from hot to cold, the less chance there will be of bacteria growth.
Awareness of the risks of slow cooling of hot food is now so great that simply leaving food to cool in the kitchen is a method consigned to history. Putting hot food in a fridge is hugely dangerous. Fridges are for holding previously chilled food, not chilling hot food. It will not work even if hot food is put in an empty fridge. To put hot food in a fridge already holding chilled food is extremely dangerous. The temperature of the fridge will rise, lifting the temperature of previously chilled food and risking bacterial contamination of everything in the fridge.
There is only one safe way to rapidly chill cooked food and that is using a blast chiller. A blast chiller looks similar to a large fridge, but has a powerful cooling system and a high-speed fan. Hot food is subjected to very cold air driven at high speed over it. Heat is driven out in minutes. A blast chiller must be capable of pulling down the temperature of 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 operations will benefit from roll-in blast chillers, where racks of food straight from the oven can be wheeled into the blast chiller to begin the chilling process immediately.
A blast chiller is used for safely cooling cooked food, but it is not for holding chilled food. Any banqueting cook-chill operation must have refrigeration for safely holding chilled food. This may be upright cabinets for a small kitchen, but a walk-in coldroom is better for larger operations.
Walk-in coldrooms can be bought in preset sizes or built using modular panels to fit a particular area. They can hold every element of a banquet, from cold starters to desserts.
Jackstack is the name given to a stand with angled prongs on four sides which can hold individual pre-plated dishes held in cold storage. Typically, this will be pre-plated cold starters and desserts. Pre-plated main course items can be stored in this way before regeneration.
Effective racking in a walk-in coldroom is essential to maximise the available space. The best racking is made from plastic, anodised aluminium, stainless steel or plastic-coated steel. Wooden racking is suitable for dry goods storage, but not in a coldroom, as the wood may absorb spilt food and slowly grow bacteria. All racking needs regular washing through the dishwasher or by hand.
While 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 at a premium, so cooking midweek to serve a number of weekend banquets just adds to the cost of refrigeration. Many busy banqueting operations choose to cook and chill in the morning for that night's banqueting.
Regeneration Regeneration is the process of bringing chilled food back up to temperature immediately before service. Done well, the process delivers all the attributes of just-cooked food without the problems of silver service.
A combi-oven is the best way of regenerating chilled food for a busy operation. Heat-up time is very fast and, most importantly, the injection of some steam during regeneration will keep the food moist and retain colour and texture, and the food will come out of the oven with a just-cooked taste and appearance.
An alternative way of regenerating plated meals is to use mobile regeneration trolleys. A main course is individually plated from chill, but rather than using a combi-oven, the chilled meal is placed in a mobile regeneration trolley. The benefit of this method is that if the banqueting area is some distance from the main kitchen, as in civic or educational sites, the food can be transported to the area and still served hot.
There are mobile regeneration trolleys available which will hold the plated meals in chill, then, at a preprogrammed time, turn the heat on to heat up the food. Some regeneration trolleys have the facility to inject bursts of steam to keep food moist.
There are two basic systems of regeneration in cook-chill banqueting: an individual plated meal can be built from chilled components, placed on racks and reheated as a complete meal ready for table staff to serve; alternatively, food can be regenerated in bulk and, using an assembly line manned by chefs or semi-skilled kitchen staff, food for a table can be assembled, sauced and taken out for service.
It is a widespread practice in cook-chill banqueting to heat sauces separately and sauce just before the food is taken out for service. This avoids the risk of the sauce splitting during regeneration or marking the rim of the plate during handling.
An aid to keeping plated meals hot is to place an insulated jacket around the jackstack.
With the possible exception of a blast chiller, most busy kitchens will already have the equipment needed to switch from cook-serve to cook-chill for banqueting - another reason it is fast becoming the banqueting system of choice.