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High-tech equipment puts out fires for Boston’s

Striving to slash cooking times, boost productivity and make the kitchen a safer and more pleasant workplace, Boston’s the Gourmet Pizza has replaced conventional open-flame cooking equipment with high-tech cooking devices of a kind rarely seen in casual dining.

The Dallas-based chain — the U.S. arm of Boston Pizza, Canada’s No.1 casual-dining player — executes a 100-item menu with hardly a flame in sight. It relies on the seemingly magical heat of induction woks to quickly prepare pastas and the speed and consistent results of forced-air conveyor ovens to bake its signature gourmet pizzas. Those two equipment pieces drive pizza and pasta menu categories that account for about half of total sales.

In fact, that penchant for high tech helped attract Samuel “Bud” Boswell, Boston’s corporate executive chef and director of purchasing and product development, to the company.

“I was familiar with induction cooking, but I had never seen it outside of a classroom or a hotel,” said Boswell, a veteran of more than 20 years in fine-dining kitchens and a former culinary instructor. “To see it in casual dining was really unusual. Along with the impinger oven, it really had a big influence on me.”

According to Boswell, the fast, efficient service that has resulted from such innovations has helped fuel Boston’s growth to 50 units since its U.S. debut in 1998. “It works to the point that we’re opening 15 restaurants a year,” he said.

In an induction cooking device, a high-powered electromagnetic field creates almost instantaneous heat in a ferrous, or iron- or steel-based, cooking pan. The typical Boston’s kitchen has four induction woks built into a custom-made pasta station, two on each side of a refrigeration well that holds sauces and precooked pastas. There’s also a bain-marie, or water bath, of near-boiling water for reheating the pasta. At order pickup time, a cook heats a pasta portion in the bain-marie and the sauce in an induction wok before tossing the two together in the wok.

“Thirty seconds in the hot water is about as long as it takes to retherm the pasta and heat the sauce in the woks,” Boswell said.

Thus an order that would take four or five minutes of conventional cooking is ready in one to two minutes.

“We can put as many pastas in the window using four [induction] units as eight burners could do in a regular kitchen,” Boswell said. That not only keeps service snappy, it reduces labor needs.

 Compared with a kitchen with open-flame equipment, the induction kitchen tends to be safer and more comfortable to work in. Burns are less likely because there are no exposed flames and only the wok and its contents get hot, not the surroundings. It’s also energy efficient.

“The unit doesn’t consume power until you put the pan on it,” said Michael Walden, Boston’s director of construction and development. “When you remove the pan, the system cycles off. The other nice thing is, because we’re not creating any grease fires, there’s no need for a ventilation hood.”

When it comes to pizza, Boston’s is similarly built for speed. The typical kitchen has three stacked impinger conveyor ovens, each set at 500 degrees Fahrenheit. The impinger carries food on a wire-mesh conveyor belt through a heated oven chamber at a consistent rate while surrounding it with jets of hot forced air. An impinger can cook one of Boston’s Ultimate Pepperoni pizzas or a BBQ Chicken pizza in perhaps half the time it would take a conventional oven.

On two of the impingers, the belts are set to run at seven minutes, which is sufficient to cook the pizzas that provide much of the concept’s profitability. The remaining impinger is set at three and a half minutes to toast sandwiches and melt the cheese on pastas al forno, or oven-baked pastas.

The two seven-minute impingers also come in handy for cooking hamburgers and salmon fillets. A 100-percent Angus beef patty goes through the impinger in a special pan that makes grill marks and applies heat thoroughly.

“We don’t even do burgers on the grill anymore,” Boswell said.

When it comes to salmon, Boswell brags about the impinger’s consistent and fast results.

“The rule of thumb is that an inch-thick piece of fish normally takes 10 minutes in a regular oven,” Boswell said. “But we’re able to cook any fish in seven minutes.”

“I’m an old-school guy. I was trained by Europeans,” he added. “But I can cook salmon better in an impinger than any other way now. It’s just amazing. You load everything into the dish, stick it on the conveyor and out it comes in seven minutes, done.”

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