Theatre cooking has become an integral part of the contract catering offer in many B&I sites. Not only does it demonstrate the skill and flair of the chef, it also allows interaction between chef and customer and serves as a valuable element in the customer experience.
It was a desire to develop this experience for its customers that led independent contract caterer Bartlett Mitchell to revamp its facilities at the Office of the Gas and Electricity Markets (Ofgem) headquarters at Millbank, London.
While there was already an open kitchen situation where customers could have stir-fries cooked to order, it was by no means the ideal set-up. Orders could be placed directly with the chef at an open counter but the actual stir-frying took place at a gas-powered cooking line along the back wall, denying the customer the chance to fully engage in the preparation of their dish of choice.
In essence it was a theatre cooking station but not one specifically designed for that purpose. Catering manager Conall Hogan explains: "It was a theatrical situation but the chef had his back to the audience. The idea was to put him front and centre, facing the audience."
With about 1,000 people on site, the nine-strong catering staff - led by head chef Vanessa Griffiths - is tasked with feeding 500-600 customers in the two-hour lunch break on a daily basis. The stir-fry bar is very popular so service needs to be swift. "It has to be an efficient operation," says Hogan. "The risk is if customers have to wait too long they'll go out and get a sandwich instead."
For Jim Beaver, contracts manager for Ofgem, the regulatory body for gas and electricity companies, energy efficiency was a key element in the selection of the new catering equipment. He says: "We have government targets for the overall reductions in energy use we have to achieve. The catering operation runs for two hours solid every day all week; that adds up to a lot of hours over the course of a year and makes a significant impact on energy use. Any kit that comes into the building has to be as energy efficient as it can be.."
Visits were made to other Bartlett Mitchell sites to see various theatre cooking stations in operation. It gave Beaver and Hogan a good idea of what they wanted to achieve at Ofgem. "They were very customer facing and it highlighted how stuck in the past we were," says Beaver. "We also saw that induction was so much more efficient and quicker for the customer."
Armed with a vision of a cooking station that would strike a balance between improving service levels and increasing energy efficiency, Bartlett Mitchell awarded the contract to refurbish the facilities to commercial catering design and installation specialists WilcoxBurchmore whose expertise they could rely on to create a tailor-made solution within the existing footprint.
Director of WilcoxBurchmore, Cathy Wilcox, worked closely with the caterers to formulate and implement a bespoke design that best answered the needs of the catering staff and the demands of the customers, while at the same time slashing energy use.
With induction identified as the way forward, the section was equipped with a Varitek front of the house induction cooking system from BGL Rieber built into an attractive granite-topped servery. The self-ventilating unit requires no canopy and features interchangeable slot-in modules for wok cooking, pan work and direct cooking.
The need to have close at hand an abundance of fresh ingredients, from which customers can select the components of their stir-fries, required sturdy refrigeration units capable of holding large quantities of fresh produce in the most energy efficient manner.
"We go through a lot of fresh ingredients such as beef, chicken, prawns and various vegetables including carrots and beansprouts," says Hogan.
Beaver adds: "We wanted undercounter refrigeration to maximize worktop space at the back if needed during service. Gram was suggested as the most energy efficient soloution and provide the best value for money."
Consequently, two Gram Gastro 07 1/1 Gastronorm counters, each with two refrigerated sections, were installed along the back wall underneath a stainless steel worktop. Offering a capacity of 255 litres each and a digitally controlled temperature range of +2/+12°C, the units fulfill the energy efficient requirement and further boost the site's green credentials by using environmentally friendly technology in the form of natural refrigerants and foaming agent.
Another key piece of equipment, also selected for its energy efficient properties and superior performance, is a Hatco QTS-1 Rise and Fall salamander. One day a week the stir-fry bar transforms into an omelette station. The ethos is the same, in that customers choose their preferred ingredients that the chef then cooks before them, but the omelettes are finished under the salamander.
With a similar requirement for speed as the stir-fries, the omelettes created the need for a salamander that would heat up in double-quick time in addition to offering energy efficient operation. With a heat-up time of just eight seconds and a plate detection switch to the rear, the Hatco salamander only ever uses energy when it's required rather than constantly throughout service and can offer energy savings of up to 79 per cent.
It's a big hit with Griffiths who says, "It's really good on energy saving because it's only on when it's in use and it heats up in seconds. And because it is divided into three separate elements, we can choose to have all three on, or two, or just one."
Beaver couldn't be happier with the results of the refit and the advice and service provided by WilcoxBurchmore. "It's absolutely spot on what we asked for," he says. "One of our Key Performance Indicators is the queuing time for the customer from entering to leaving with their food. It must be no longer than four minutes. It's now a much quicker turnaround and besides halving the time of serving customers, the interaction between them and the chef is now there."
Hogan is similarly impressed. He says, "The aim was speed and efficiency, energy saving, drive up demand and reduce queuing times. It was a whole package of ideas that had to come together, and it has."
The catering team is now discussing other themes for the station made possible by the new equipment, for instance, during the summer months there will be a hot salad counter featuring ingredients such as mackerel, chicken, beef, salmon and prawns. "It's opened up a lot more possibilities," says Beaver. "With the level of versatility available, we could have a weekly menu just for that section."
That's something Griffiths considers a real bonus. She says, "The more versatility we can have in the restaurant, the bigger footfall we get through the door. It keeps regular customers interested and brings a new dimension to having lunch at work."
This press release was provided by Imperial and Hatco