High-tech tools gain steam

High-tech tools gain steam

Striving to cut mounting energy and labor costs, boost productivity and take part in the growing “green” movement, restaurant operators are shopping for various equipment innovations that are gradually changing the way kitchens are designed and built.

The new wrinkles they’re trying range from fancy island-style kitchen suites for fast, precise exhibition cooking to high-tech combi oven-steamers with the versatility to replace several pieces of conventional kitchen equipment to sophisticated energy-management systems that reduce energy use by cycling down kitchen hoods at times of off-peak usage.

Of all the hot trends, the most resounding one is the green consciousness that parallels the public’s rising interest in that area. Operators across the gamut of foodservice are showing greater environmental awareness, noteworthy for an industry that some have branded laggard in that regard.

“More and more restaurants are really appraising this, which is a big change from years past,” says Jim Maxwell, co-owner of Architects II in San Francisco, a design firm that specializes in green projects.

For instance, in the National Restaurant Association’s new “What’s Hot” chef’s survey, 41 percent of respondents predicted environmentally friendly equipment and practices would be the hottest back-of-the-house trend in 2009. Similarly, another association survey found that more than a third of operators in each of four foodservice segments, including quick service, family restaurants, casual restaurants and fine dining, said they plan to purchase energy-saving kitchen equipment in 2009.

Dosa, a modern Indian restaurant in San Francisco and a Maxwell consulting client, offers a glimpse of what’s possible. Its owners have installed roof-mounted remote refrigeration compressors and an on-demand kitchen ventilation system, and have plans to mount photovoltaic cells on the roof of the building to generate electricity, Maxwell says.

“They have taken green about as far as you can,” he says.

On-demand ventilation systems tackle one of the kitchen’s most energy-intensive areas. They are equipped with sensors that adjust the speed of the exhaust fans in kitchen hoods to match the amount of smoke, grease or heat that needs to be removed, leading to major savings over hoods that run constantly.

“A lot of people are evaluating their energy costs and looking for places to save some money, and that’s a great place to do it,” Maxwell says.

Other trends are changing time-honored kitchen conventions, like the straight cooking line. Take the cooking suite that integrates multiple pieces of cooking equipment into a single, space-saving, high-efficiency unit.

“From an operational standpoint, suites are fantastic,” says James Davella, director of foodservice equipment and design for Shawmut Design and Construction in Boston. “They offer better communication, timing and flow of product.”

The power and versatility of a kitchen suite is on display at Zola Wine & Kitchen in Washington, D.C., the newest member of the Star Restaurant Group there. Its French-made, island-style suite incorporates six open burners, a French-top that reaches a temperature of 850 degrees Fahrenheit at its “eye” for rapid, precise heating, a plancha grill for quick searing, an electric multi-cooker that does everything from steaming lobsters to cooking pasta, and ovens clad with cast iron for superior heat retention.

“The advantages are more efficient cooking and more precise end results,” says Bryan Moscatello, Star Restaurant Group executive chef.

He envisions using the suite for everything from public cooking classes to recipe development to private parties.

Also noteworthy is the more common use of formerly rare equipment like combi oven-steamers and blast chillers in restaurant kitchens.

“The combi is certainly on top of everybody’s order at this point,” Davella says. “It’s more prevalent than ever before, because the product coming out of it is very good and the speed of cooking is fantastic.”

Offering three modes of cooking—steaming, dry heat and a combination of the two methods—the combi can potentially replace conventional steamers and convection ovens and save valuable space.

“It could save 24 inches here, 18 inches there,” Davella says, “and that certainly pays off.”

Another combi proponent is Erik Blauberg, chief executive of EKB Consulting in New York City.

“I would heartily recommend combis,” he says, adding that he particularly likes the combi’s ability to be programmed to automatically perform a series of cooking steps.

“You can program it to cook chickens with steam to keep them juicy inside and then switch to high heat to brown them so they come out crispy on the outside,” he says.

Once the program is set, the combi can be operated by lesser-skilled personnel, thus freeing the chef for higher-level tasks, Blauberg notes.

Could the combi spread beyond high-end restaurants and hotels into mainstream casual chains? Davella sees it happening—eventually. But it will take time, because chains are committed to conventional equipment.

“But the conversations are happening,” Davella says. “At shows like NAFEM I see that they’re coming.”

At any rate, a generation of culinary students schooled on combis will expect the devices when they join the culinary workforce, he adds.

Blast chillers are also gaining acceptance as prices come down and more attention is paid to safe, rapid food chilling, says Davella, who designs them into most kitchens.

“If you took a pan of lasagna out of the oven with an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit, a blast chiller will get it down to 40 degrees Fahrenheit in 90 minutes or less,” says Davella. “But the same pan just placed uncovered in a walk-in box would take about 14 hours to cool that much, if you’re lucky.”

Another trend that will affect kitchen design is the growing interest in low-temperature cooking. Some chefs prefer the results they get from gently cooking proteins with combis, cook-and-hold ovens and thermal circulators, the latter of which is used for sous-vide cooking, rather than subjecting meats and fish to high-heat searing and broiling.

In particular, cook-and-hold ovens with vapor-control capabilities “are gaining popularity because of their ability to hold a very constant temperature,” Davella says.

Thermal circulators are used “more and more,” Davella says.

“I don’t see large portions of menus going sous vide,” he says, “but I see it used for components.”