Chefs know how to develop recipes and cook foods to perfection. Yet what’s often overlooked are the crucial details around being able to scale those recipes to accommodate normal, slower and peak moments of demand, while maintaining the food quality that was originally defined.
With wage increases and minimum wage pressure threatening profits, chefs and operators alike are pressured to trim staff and avoid increased labor expenditures. However, if the operation supporting the menu isn’t designed to flex with demand, one of the first levers many operations pull is throwing increased labor at the increased demand.
Fortunately, there are other, more affordable levers to be pulled. Modern kitchen equipment such as heated holding cabinets can provide solutions to extending the ability to serve quality product as well as helping to expedite products that are needed urgently. Using precise temperature and humidity control, these devices can maintain cooked food perfectly either in a ready-to-serve state or in a nearly cooked state for rapid finishing.
But to use such equipment optimally takes some “backward thinking,” says Ben Leingang, corporate executive chef at Henny Penny in Eaton, Ohio. His message is to sit in the customer’s seat. As a chef or operator, put yourself in your customers’ shoes. It is the best-- maybe only-- way to understand the optimal way to build a process that delivers the best quality food to that valued end consumer.
“It is important to consider exactly how they want that food to taste, the texture they want and the temperature,” Leingang says. “From there, we look at the steps required to serve it in that condition—whether the kitchen is in a normal rhythm or just been flooded with customers.
“To get everything done perfectly when you’re busy, it is virtually impossible to produce all of your items ‘to order’. You’ve got to build in some holding capabilities to get through a rush and build in breathing space allowing your team to focus on items that have to be cooked ‘to order’ or will not work in a holding environment.”
His favorite example is the challenge of fried chicken, a dish that typically requires a 15-minute cook time and a five-minute rest before spending a minute or two in transit to a diner. Customers, however, aren’t going to wait that long in most situations, so batch-cooking is essential. Determining just how much and exactly when it is needed requires researching historical sales data to identify service peaks.
“Then the chef has to see how much labor he has on hand during all dayparts to meet that demand,” Leingang says. “If he doesn’t have enough to make it the same every time, does he consider cooking and holding more food?”
“So many folks want to cook from scratch. Holding helps us do that, just not a la minute. We rely on certain types of equipment to help us through the rush and ensure the best product hits the table every time.”
Low temps lower costs, cut losses
According to Leingang, utilizing today’s modern combi ovens function as precise low-temperature ovens capable of cooking foods over many hours, even days, to achieve exceptional tenderness and moisture retention. Such high-product yields not only reduce food cost and boost guest satisfaction, but since these devices can run unattended overnight, they also consume power during low-rate, off-peak periods, saving operators even more money.
Leingang says the incredible consistency achieved with this equipment comes with computer-programmed simplicity that reduces the need for highly trained labor.
“When you have employees of varied skill levels, and you’re trying to train them to cook every dish the same way every time, you’ve got a challenge on your hands,” says Leingang. “The kitchen technology available today is awesome in that it can manage the cooking in ways that an employee can’t.”
Consultant Ed Doyle echoes Leingang’s comments, saying soaring labor costs and decreased skilled kitchen labor makes modern kitchen tech nearly essential.
“You have to mitigate the cost of cooks making $16 an hour, having fewer of them and yet increasing their productivity,” says Doyle, president of RealFood Consulting Inc., headquartered in Cambridge, Mass. By using modern holding cabinets to stage cooked food for finishing to order, he says, “you can use cooks that aren’t very skilled, guys who can take a perfectly staged piece of halibut out of the cabinet, mark it on the grill, plate it and sell it for $30.”
From the customer’s perspective, consistency is king.
“When a guest can get that same result every time, they are comforted…this is a favorite dish they can count on,” Leingang says. “When they don’t get consistency, they look for another favorite dish-- or worse, another restaurant.”
Old meets new
Doyle insists that the ability of holding cabinets to stage food for rapid finishing is underutilized in most kitchens. He says too few chefs understand how precisely and safely modern cabinets can heat and pasteurize food, and then hold it just below finishing temperature throughout service. When it comes to what hungry customers want, speed thrills.
“You can do an 8-ounce burger cooked perfectly to temp and send it out the door in three to four minutes when you have a bunch of them staged in a cabinet at medium-rare,” Doyle says. “When all you have to do is hit it on the grill and maybe add some cheese, you increase productivity.”
He calls this style of cooking “really disruptive technology” that forces chefs to think differently. When they see these advanced cooking methods in action, he says it’s much easier to understand how they work in conjunction with traditional cooking methods.
“The best scenario is when you pair this new technology with old school cooking methods,” Doyle says. “We have a client who brings split chickens up to about 156 degrees in the holding cabinet, and when he gets an order, he breads it, fries it and is done in five to six minutes.”
“That’s getting a high level of product consistency from really limited labor,” he says. “How do you go wrong with that?”