If you’re smart, fast and multi-functional, there’s a place for you in the modern foodservice kitchen. And if you’re easy to use and don’t require constant oversight, so much the better.
The link between the equipment capturing the imagination and investment of the current crop of operators, and the rationale to support it is strong. The restaurant environment is saddled with the dual challenge of both a scarcity of labour and specialized food-preparation skills, says John Placko, culinary director at Modern Culinary Academy in Mississauga, Ont. “It’s hard to run a business when you have these problems. But I’m always pushing people to see there’s equipment out there to help overcome them.”
The kitchen of chef Placko’s Bar 120: Cuisine Transformed, his restaurant at Toronto Pearson International Airport, is one such shining illustration. In this “plug-and-play” space, an array of modern foodservice equipment sidesteps the call for a bloated staff with sophisticated culinary talents. “Today, you can put a complex menu into an environment where you don’t have a highly trained chef,” Placko says. “All the equipment is built for a reduced skillset and reduced labour. Everything runs on the press of a button and the kitchen needs just a single cook.”
Take the TurboChef, a centrepiece at this tribute to molecular cuisine (the first such restaurant in a North-American airport) and a standard in Subway and Starbucks locations. Chefs prepare crispy chicken wings and mac-and-cheese flatbread in this convection-microwave-rapid-cook oven that’s attracted foodservice buzz for its speedy usefulness.
Next on the list is sous-vide — a consistent darling of the restaurant kitchen that sees chefs submerge foods in plastic pouches or glass jars in a water or steam bath where temperatures are tightly controlled. The cooking method, which first hit the scene in the 1970s and was the subject of a brief revival in the mid-1980s, is now in an explosive popularity curve. That, says Placko, is because its consistent performance relieves chefs of the unpredictability of their humanity. “If you have someone highly skilled, cooking chicken breasts every day, there are going to be times when they’ll over- or undercook them. With sous-vide, it’s just time and temperature. Low skill can always produce a perfect product.”
Sous-vide cooking — once the exclusive domain of high-end restaurants but now with a broader cooking base appreciative of its reliably accurate results — uses an immersion circulator. With this smart device that clips to the side of a water-filled cooking vessel and heats it to — and holds it indefinitely at — a precise, controlled temperature, chefs get enhanced flavour and texture retention. They also get longer shelf life for a product, because it’s vacuum-packed and cooked under pressure — a particular advantage for the accessibility of pre-prepared food ready for a quick finish in a sauté pan or immersion bath.
NEED FOR SPEED
The only downside of the immersion circulator — whose application extends across vegetables and proteins — is its cooking time. Chefs bypass that with another kitchen novelty: the combi-oven. This versatile kitchen piece can duplicate what’s done in the immersion circulator, but in larger loads and in a third to half the time. The kitchen staff at Bar Isabel in Toronto used to prepare beef tongue pastrami in an immersion circulator — then it discovered it could do the same thing in a combi-oven in half the time.
The Hotmix PRO is another multifunctional device that’s taken the modern restaurant kitchen by storm. This stainless-steel marvel and its up-to-3,000-watt motor not only blends but chops with blades that can run at 16,000 RPM. More than that, a built-in heating/cooling system cooks and freezes foods at temperatures between 11 and 374° F.
Similarly, glass chillers reduce food temperatures rapidly, plunging products from 160° to 40° F in 90 minutes — thus retaining its structure and nutritional value without compromising exposure to bacteria. A glass chiller at Credit Valley Hospital in Mississauga, Ont., means staff can serve oatmeal prepared three days earlier and feel confident of its freshness. And banquet halls use the equipment to cook the food for a Friday banquet on a Tuesday and slash staff requirements on the big night.
Finally, Bar 120’s kitchen hums with the Control Freak — an induction cooktop from California-based PolyScience Culinary with a probe that’s fairly new to the market and has chefs psyched. With this pro tool, chefs get unprecedented control of their cooking temperatures, salvaging delicate sauces and stocks requiring low-and-slow attention from ham-fisted supervision. The Control Freak saves chefs from babysitting their pastry (or eggs, custard creams or anything else that requires close monitoring) with an induction table that not only scrutinizes the reaching of a certain temperature, but follows chef-loaded instructions (hold it, increase it, decrease it), freeing up staffers.
THE AGE OF THE HIGH-SPEED OVEN
The same trend of integrated equipment is afoot in quick-service restaurants, where the dual challenges of labour costs and speed of service have set the tone for a long time — especially for operations with high-volume lunches or drive-thru traffic. Everyone’s looking for solutions to speed up that pathway of customer. Enter the high-speed oven.
“I’ve seen more and more of these,” says Rudi Fischbacher, associate dean for the School of Hospitality, Recreation and Tourism at Humber College. “They cook well, finish well and give food a nice crunchiness. They’re faster than combi-ovens and very versatile. And they’re small units, so they integrate into the kitchen nicely.”
From TurboChef to Ovention to Merrychef, these high-speed wonders cook as quickly as a microwave but finish with the crispiness of a convection. They’re programmable, ventless (so kitchens don’t need ventilation hoods) and designed for push-button simplicity. You can’t burn food on them because they cook and release themselves on a timer. And you can cook a fully dressed pizza in four minutes — an impressive time savings compared to the traditional 15 to 20.
In existence since the early 1980s with the Amana Jetwave, a flush of rapid-cook ovens crowds a very big market today, everyone with their own mousetrap. All are the products of a techno boom and today’s options are ergonomic sensations with smaller footprints (so they can be stacked and occupy less space), built-in Wi-Fi and touchscreens so operators can load their own food photos to make it easy for employees to operate, regardless of their language.
And these high-speed wonders are a boon to the deep-fry haters, for the alternative to the grease bath they offer so many food products. “As new franchisees open up, they might be able to avoid having a fryer in their operation,” says James Keppy, corporate chef for Mississauga, Ont.-based Maple Leaf Foodservice. And the quality might improve because a fryer can often darken a product, especially as the oil gets older; these ovens produce consistent product. “There’s a peace of mind to that,” says Keppy, who makes regular high-speed-oven presentations to restaurants with Maple Leaf chicken products, along with French fries, potato wedges and mozzarella sticks. And, because these appliances are oil-free, they also spell the end of oil burns and the quandary of what to do with waste oil.
What’s more, your food retains the integrity of its yield. “A prime rib in a normal oven might shrink by 20 per cent in three hours; in these ovens, you might lose just 10 per cent,” says Michael Hodgson, director of Culinary Development at the Charcoal Group, based in Waterloo, Ont. “So they’re expensive, but you could see a return on investment of 10 per cent on all your beef.”
Additionally, these kitchen newcomers inspire menu innovation for the wide net they cast over culinary novelty. “The plan is to have ideas they can make more money on, such as appetizers they wouldn’t have got the sale on before,” Keppy says. “It might be a pizza place that can now offer wings; it opens more doors.”
Owners at the Burlington, Ont., Beertown, which the Charcoal Group opened in November 2017, with a Merrychef as the centrepiece of the kitchen, designed the menu to take advantage of the technology. They cut their flatbread so it would fit inside the ovens and the restaurant’s spinach dip and nachos are Merrychef regulars. Nachos that took eight minutes in a convection oven are ready in 45 seconds — and as hot and crispy as their predecessors.
The company plans to update all of its Beertown kitchens with Merrychefs on the strength of research showing the Merrychef-equipped kitchen is 25-per-cent faster than its three siblings. “We’ve been very, very happy with it,” Hodsgon says. “Thanks to it, customers think we’re fast and good.”
KILLING THE PIVOT
Innovation is also stirring the POS piece. New kitchen display systems send orders from servers to all corners of the kitchen, eradicating the convention of a chef calling orders to the grill and dessert stations. Designed to encourage dining-room turnover and rationalize labour throughout the kitchen, these smart systems triage the food orders, sending them to monitors at corresponding food stations and staggering production.
“They’re lifesavers,” says Scott Davidson, vice-president, Culinary Development for Burlington, Ont.-based restaurant-consulting group Crush Strategy, Inc. “They create a calmer culture in the kitchen. And, if your kitchen’s organized and streamlined, your food’s coming through hot and fresh — and an extra turn-and-a-half in a 200-seat dining room is big dollars.”
While the POS systems aren’t new (American fast-food restaurants had them in place a decade ago), they’re now expanding to bigger operations in the U.S. such as Applebee’s and the Cheesecake Factory. Davidson feels there’s a threshold to the size of the business that can use a system like this, suggesting it should be generating between $500,000 to $1 million in food sales a year to justify the upfront investment. “The systems were expensive,” says Hodgson, whose Beertown concept employs them. “But worth it. They spread labour costs out.”
But as much as the equipment in foodservice kitchens is advancing quickly into the future, there’s a segment that’s reaching into the past, too. Many chefs are keen to revert to more natural cooking, with charcoal or wood, and the romanticism tied up with it. From replacing the old diner lines with equipment and personnel pressed against one wall with island suites where chefs face each other à la “Ratatouille” (a movement spearheaded by French Laundry’s Thomas Keller and picked up by Toronto’s Il Covo, Grey Gardens and the Toronto Yacht Club, among others) to wood ovens that cook more than pizza, the old is rubbing shoulders with the new in the contemporary kitchen.
“I’m seeing a lot more old-world-style cooking that doesn’t require technology at all,” says Rob Gentile, chef/director for Toronto’s King Street Food Company. “It’s coming from the absolute, undoubtable knowledge that cooking over either charcoal or wood tastes the best. Nothing tastes better. And the ultimate goal is to make everything taste the best.”
It’s why, when Gentile opens a new Buca location in midtown Toronto in the new year, he’ll be “resurrecting the idea of old-world Italian cuisine” with showpiece wood-burning ovens that can cook the entirety of the menu. Also on the books: a new oven that accommodates “stick cooking,” a traditional method from the whitewashed hill towns of Puglia, Italy where meat is heated vertically next to charcoal. The original restaurateurs of Italy “didn’t cook with immersion circulators, sous-vide cookers and fancy combi-ovens,” Gentile says. “They cooked simple food on gas, fire, wood grills — and the food was amazing.” Still, this chef is not averse to the virtues of kitchen-based technology. When the original Buca gets renovated early next year, it’ll feature a number of innovations, including a grill and a smoker, a curing room and a fermenting chamber that can track meat temperatures, humidity and pH levels.
“Everyone’s scrambling right now because margins are so thin in the restaurant business,” Davidson says. And the increase in minimum wage in Ontario didn’t help, squeezing an anticipated 10 per cent on the dollar closer to seven or eight per cent.
The result, says Placko, is a restaurant environment characterized by squeezed labour and skillsets. “Being able to employ and pay multiple skilled people in an establishment has become a little impossible. So you shift your money from the labour component to purchasing equipment up front that will save ongoing labour costs in the long run.”
Story by Laura Pratt