The Next Big Think

Chris Styler / September 2005

Having trouble sorting out the new technology driving this fall's crop of kitchen equipment? Take a step back: technological innovations tend to come in cycles. Engineers, chefs, and designers use the latest technology to build on the first, small swell of an idea until there is real momentum. Then, before you know it, the waves come crashing onto the beach. After a temporary calm, the cycle begins again. The year 2005 finds us in that quiet period between the wave sets, picking up pieces of driftwood and figuring out how to make something more interesting than a glass-topped coffee table.

What's new this year is not necessarily the breakthroughs in equipment and design—although there are plenty of those—but how they are being managed, massaged, and merged.

I'm cooking as fast as I can No one likes to wait, whether it's in a drive-through line or at a linen-draped banquet. That there's a push for faster cook times isn't earth-shattering news; what is new is the degree of sheer speed delivered by the latest round of equipment and the new world of possibilities that it opens up.

Lincoln's Dual Technology Finisher (DTF) blasts food on its conveyor belt with heated forced air from above and below while browning it with infrared heat from above. (A harbinger? The DTF's conveyor belt can be set for as little as seven seconds.) According to Garamy Whitmore, senior application specialist with Lincoln Food Service Products, "Customers already serving toasted sandwiches and looking to do it faster, as well as those adapting from regular sandwiches to a toasted version (and there are plenty), are our target group." Infrared takes the moisture off the surface, promotes toasting, and allows for shorter preheating and cooking times than those required by conventional cast-iron grills and a much shorter recovery time between batches. As Whitmore explains, "Infrared alone tends to fail under load. That's where impingement comes in."

The claims of speed are seconded by Valentino Mennitto, corporate chef of Fazoli's, who got his first DTF in the company's Lexington, Kentucky, test kitchen a year and a half ago. "They're now in seven of our 375 restaurants," Mennitto says. And they could be in more if he achieves the kind of results with pizza that he had with sandwiches: two-minute, 15-second cook-time reduced to one minute and 40 seconds. "That kind of time savings is a big advantage in the quick-serve restaurant."

Steamers are making something of a comeback and will continue to do so as long as they don't revert to what John Johnson calls "the old-school autoclave type of steamer." Johnson, culinary arts instructor at Madison Area Technical College in Wisconsin, has had a Vulcan PowerSteam gas convection steamer since its prototype days. "They take the energy that normally would have gone up the flue to generate more electricity. It's incredibly fast; things take about half the time they did in our old steamer."

No stranger to high-speed cooking, TurboChef, which has been around since 1991, currently offers three products for those with a need for speed. The C3, by combining impinged air (circulated through the cooking chamber at up to 60 miles per hour) and "smart" microwave technologies that operate for certain parts of the cook cycle, can cook a rack of lamb in two and a half minutes, according to the company's marketing manager, Brian Pember. The Tornado model adds an irradiant browning element to the mix and is even faster than the C3. It was engineered for lighter fare like sandwiches, pizzas, and chicken wings and was rolled out in a big way—into 18,000 units of the Subway sandwich chain—in early 2005. The High h (for heat transfer) Batch, introduced in July of this year, cooks items as large as a 16-inch pizza using impinged air and an oscillating rack system for even texture and color.

With its smaller footprint and venting-free functioning (thanks to a built-in catalytic converter that eliminates grease and odor), the C3 is showing up in all kinds of places, from convenience stores ("They've been trying to get into the foodservice gray area for years," observes Pember) to pool halls. In short, the Tornado, C3, and DTF are a boon to operators who need food fast, don't have a lot of space (not to mention ventilated space), and are working with personnel who are not trained culinary professionals. The TurboChef products, for example, feature preprogrammed menu options, push-button operation, and "smart cards" that allow only managers to reprogram controls.

"I'm a huge fan of TurboChef," declares Adam Perry Lang, chef/owner of Manhattan's Daisy May's BBQ and president/owner of Culinary Stars, which offers consultation on HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) and other services. He uses two Tornados for panini and some frozen products in a bar concession at the Q Lounge billiards room, also in Manhattan. He cites the high-powered microwave (around 2,700 watts, versus about 900 watts for a home model), which is kinder to food than its domestic counterpart, and the fact that he can forgo exhaust and fire suppression systems as the Tornado's main draws.

Perhaps not part of the back-of-the-household world yet, Merrychef ovens are nonetheless already cruising in the fast lane, with some 10,000 units currently in operation worldwide. A 50-plus year old British company, Merrychef owns some of the original patents on microwave/convection technology and plans to introduce a new line of microwave/impinged air ovens in early 2006 that will push all the hot trend buttons, including accelerated cooking, small footprints (they'll fit a quarter sheet pan comfortably), lack of need for ventilation (also thanks to a catalytic converter), and no dependence on highly skilled workers.

Each of the new ovens will be equipped with a microchip-embedded plastic key that managers can use to reprogram the settings (timing, temperature, percentage of the cook cycle during which the microwave runs, and so on). "Let's say you're a 1,000-unit chain," Merrychef USA's president Bruce Beck explains, "and you've got a menu change coming up. All you have to do is pop your timings into a template we provide. We send you out reprogrammed keys, and on the launch date of the new menu, you're all set." Beck sees the combination of "de-skilling" the cooking process and the mobile nature of this new technology as components of a new set of tools. "Now we can travel to where the masses congregate—cruise ships, hotels, kiosk situations, wherever," he predicts. "You can cook anything really fast, but we can cook quality food fast. It's now about cooking to order, not cooking to hold, which will reduce waste."

Customization goes mainstream

Big-scale customization is still on a tear. In 2004 Jade Products manufactured 17 full-scale custom Waldorf suites, according to Chris Thompson, the company's general manager. By June of this year they were already up to 24. But a trend is emerging for small-scale operatorss who don't have a million bucks to drop on a top-notch kitchen. Gary Jacobs of Manhattan-based Pascoe-Jacobs Associates feels that software has made customization less expensive, more common, and more vital. "What was once considered a costly luxury is now deemed essential to getting the most from every square inch," he states.

In Denver, Bruce Lisbin, vice president of Universal Stainless ("number two or three in the business, depending who you ask," he quips), has seen dramatic change. "Five to seven years ago," Lisbin says, "foodservice orders were around 80 percent catalog orders and 20 percent custom. Today those numbers have reversed." All kinds of operations, from chains to independents to supermarkets, are taking the plunge. "People are using their space better. What they're finding is a savings in labor costs that makes up for the price of customization." Just as the trend cuts across industry sectors, it embraces everything Universal manufactures—sinks, counters, overshelves, work tables, cafeteria lines, and so on.

Ron Rivellese, vice president of Spec Source in Stony Brook, New York, hasn't seen an increase in customized walk-in boxes, per se, as walk-ins have always been fairly easy and inexpensive to customize. But he definitely has seen how customizing the space surrounding them can help increase sales. "We're working on two projects now where walk-ins figure big." Rivellese says. "One is a freestanding bar. With alcohol sales down somewhat, some of our clients are adding food to the sales mix." But getting food into the mix in an operation where there is no history of it, or where prep and cooking space is limited, is tricky.

Some of Rivellese's clients are building additions to their operations that are encased in traditional walk-in box exteriors but which house more than the walk-ins themselves. Contained in such an extension is storage and prep space. Combine that added space with bar-top equipment that may not require ventilation and fire suppression systems, and you've got instant menu. "But be careful that everything you're planning is up to code. Codes change from town to town," Rivellese warns. A similar project on Rivellese's agenda is the designing of self-contained compartmentalized housing for utilities, dry storage, and a large walk-in refrigerator. Staff will enter the dry storage area through a door to the main building, then move on to walk-in refrigerators and freezers.

Good things come in small and portable packages

During his stint at the White Manor Country Club in Malvern, Pennsylvania, chef Ralph Fernandez and crew wheeled their gear and coolers out to greet groups of golfers midway through their outings. Working with a line of MagiCater propane-powered grills, Fernandez met duffers on the ninth hole with a revivifying batch of fajitas. Currently docked in Philadelphia at Moshulu, a AAA four-diamond restaurant that happens to be aboard the largest four-masted sailing ship still afloat, Fernandez is still wheeling it out. Now wrapping up their third season, the operators of Moshulu have turned the ship's previously underutilized upper deck into the Bongo Bar and Deck. The entire line consists of an eight-foot MagiCater grill, used partly for grilling and partly as a hot table. "Backyard fare with a three-star twist" is how Fernandez describes the menu on the upper deck, which bobs about three stories over the water and features live music, a 40-seat bar, dining space for 150 guests, and two separate reception areas for 200 to 500 guests. "I believe we can do it all up here," Fernandez insists, citing an area to work with that's close to a football field and a half in size. "We've seen about a 30 percent increase in food sales, from three-quarters of a million to a million dollars. And with all the publicity this top deck is generating, we think it's only up from here."

Several major developments—faster cooking, portability, and customization—come together in the Electrolux Dito Libero Line of countertop cooking equipment and the Libero Point mobile rolling countertop unit, which can hold any combination thereof. The inspiration for this line was in part a response to operators who see a trend toward bringing the cooking to the dining room. "We were looking into how to bring the food out of the kitchen—more of a display kitchen right in front of the guests," states Angelo Grillas, product manager for the Dito Libero line. These portable units include a panini grill, a two-hob induction burner, an infrared cooktop, a griddle, and an induction wok, all with the same sleek look. "Infrared is hotter than flame, but induction is more precise," Grillas points out. "Operators already have options. We plan to develop this technology into other formats as well."

Members of the Dito Libero clan are turning up in airport corridors, schools, and corporate cafeterias, which can extend a cold buffet line by adding any two of these hot units to one of its Libero Point units, which, like the TurboChef pieces and Lincoln's DTF mentioned above, don't demand ventilation (except in certain portions of certain states). In place of a catalytic converter, the Libero Point eliminates airborne grease and odor by using an air cleansing system that drives fumes toward one side of the mobile unit, where they are filtered. The air filters are never replaced; just cleaned by being baked at 450°F and returned to the unit.

Rick Caron, chief technology officer of Enodis, the equipment giant that includes Scotsman, Frymaster, Delfield, Garland, Lincoln, and Ice-O-Matic, among others, is feeling pretty mobile himself. "A big trend is to bring the cooking out to the people," Caron observes. "Our customers are asking for this. In practically every meeting we have with the big chains, they're asking how to get into more display cooking. It's the theater of cooking. People relate freshly made food to healthy food." Caron sees the trend reaching from Subway (where sandwiches are made in front of customers) and the big buffet chains that have already incorporated live cooking stations all the way to casual dining chains, like Houston's and Champs, that feature dining rooms fitted with a glass wall for viewing the kitchen.

Sanitation is not a dirty word

You can't blame Adam Perry Lang if he gets frustrated from time to time. Perry Lang has done exhaustive research on food safety, HACCP compliance, and the requisite equipment. "I know it's the next huge area of industry focus for the coming years," he says. "But there's not a lot of info out there. I had to study hospital foodservice to begin my journey." The grail Sir Adam seeks is equipment that promotes food safety, increases quality, and won't break the bank of small and midsize operations like his. Quick-chill is the first dragon he's out to slay.

"We all know we can chill food within safety parameters, but can we spare the quality as it relates to both flavor and appearance?" he asks. Perry Lang would like to be able to put more emphasis on the CCP (Critical Control Point) part of HACCP. "This equipment can monitor food when it is the most vulnerable to damage—when it's heating up and cooling down," he explains. "In this context, you're talking about food safety but also creating systemization, training staff more efficiently, reducing product waste, and delivering better quality."

There are a few companies that Perry Lang believes are onto something in quick-chill systems for businesses like his. "Servolift makes a modular quick-chill unit that, although large, makes better use of space than most," he reports. "It's more or less a tunnel system that doesn't hit food with freezing air, which sucks moisture off the product. It's a graduated kind of process." Traulsen is also on Perry Lang's radar, as is Alto-Shaam, maker of a modular system that revolves around a combi-oven and a quick-chiller.

Linked to the food safety/quality issues at the other end of the spectrum—where food is being cooked rather than cooled—Perry Lang cites Rational, maker of a line of combi-ovens, as dedicated to and truly concerned about the smaller operator. "They've got excellent training up and down their entire system."

The monitoring of food temperature as it rises or falls is an essential part of overall food safety. Many measuring devices are available, but one that seems to have it all is the Raytek FoodPro Plus. It measures surface temperatures without coming into contact with the food itself (thus any possibility of cross-contamination is eliminated) by measuring the infrared energy given off by the food, whether that food is hot or cold, and translating it into a digital temperature readout. It also reads internal temperatures via the simple extension of a probe. The surface temperature capability also comes in handy for chocolate tempering and candy making.

Lights! Ventilation! Action!

"Basically, in any foodservice operation, we have to be able to breathe, see, heat, and cool," says Food Arts contributor Mark Stech-Novak (see "Soul on Ice in Hell's Kitchen" page 38), the brains behind Restaurant Consultation & Design. "We pay an awful lot of attention to the last two but not the first two." Stech-Novak is, to put it mildly, on top of the trends. He asserts that the two forms of artificial light present in today's kitchens, incandescent and fluorescent, will shortly be demoted as efficiency-challenged on the basis of technology currently in the pipeline. Incandescent light, he says, gives about 50 lumens per watt; fluorescent, about 15 lumens. "LEDs [light emitting diodes], the same technology that lights up a computer screen, have been around for a long time, but only recently has it been possible to have white-light LEDs and to ‘gang' them for illumination. Our business is a major consumer of energy, and it's about time we started thinking about it". Stech-Novak points out that LEDs currently produce 30 to 40 lumens per watt, but that's quickly changing; in a short time, LEDs will outperform both standard methods of lighting. In fact, Stech-Novak is so confident that he is installing only LED undershelf lighting in Michael Mina's restaurant, scheduled to open early next year in Atlantic City's Borgata.

The development on the breathing/seeing/heating/cooling front that generated the most excitement at this year's National Restaurant Association show in Chicago was ventilated ceilings. They have been around (just not available in North America until now) for nearly two decades. Joe Profenna of Vent Master says the system, already National Fire Protection Association approved, is "very close to receiving an Underwriters Laboratories listing," which means we should be seeing a lot more of it. "We're treating the whole idea as part of a smart kitchen," Profenna says. "Architects and designers are excited about how this technology provides unobstructed sight lines, thanks to the fact that it is installed in the ceiling itself."

Tim Harrison, of Harrison Koellner in Mill Valley, California, is one of those excited designers. "The ventilated ceiling is something that we will use everywhere we possibly can. It is really a dynamic improvement over what is currently available. Besides considerations of looks and the fact that the fire suppression systems can be worked into the system, we'd like to get rid of ventilation hoods altogether: they hang down from the ceiling, block light, and generally interfere with sight lines."

Here's how a ventilated ceiling works. The hood plenum is located above the kitchen ceiling. Panels, similar to the square cartridge-type filters found in traditional ventilation hoods, are installed flush with the ceiling over each cooking appliance. The cartridge filters tumble air as it is exhausted from the kitchen, breaking up grease particulates into smaller pieces, making them easier to dispense. The filters are run through the dishwasher every night to be cleaned.

Recently Harrison's firm installed a ventilated ceiling at Lumière, Vancouver's sexy and wildly popular restaurant run by chef Robert Feenie. "The kitchen at Lumière is a 450-square-foot finishing kitchen," Harrison notes. "Because of the building's design—retail on the bottom, condos on top—the prep kitchen is located below street level. The finishing kitchen has very low ceilings. The old-style hoods would have hung about six feet two inches above the floor. It would have looked bizarre, but all of a sudden this itty-bitty postage stamp kitchen became a little jewel because of the ventilated ceiling." Fire suppression units are located above the ceiling as well as below shelves hung over the cooking equipment.

Stech-Novak points to another up-and-coming model that will most likely meld with "the breathing ceiling" for air systems that are even more improved: ventilation units that stream air past an enclosure illuminated with ultraviolet light. "The UV light attaches ozone molecules to airborne grease particles," he explains, "turning a sticky particle of grease into a harmless particle of dust. Instead of having a greasy, horrible duct upstream from hoods, you have just particulate matter being ejected." Time to breathe easier.

What's next?

We've shrunk, accelerated, customized, and cleaned up what we can for the moment. How is all of this really going to get us better product, less transient crews, and fatter bottom lines?

Caron sums it up: "Big innovations will come not from individual pieces of equipment; they will come from integrating the equipment, the labor force, and the work space—in other words, storing, preparing, dispensing, and merchandising food from the fastest, most compact, efficient, and comfortable work space possible."

Hard and fast proof of real trend integration comes in the form of an alliance between Enodis and the Halton Group, a Helsinki-based company that excels at designing indoor air systems and operates an "Innovation Center" in Scottsville, Kentucky. A main focus of the collaboration (aka the "High Performance Kitchen") and other initiatives is improving the comfort of individual workers. There are three ways to make a kitchen more comfortable.

First, reduce the amount of heat given off by equipment. Enodis and other major players are working to reduce the amount of heat generated by their equipment. (More gently priced induction units—which generate less heat than gas or traditional electric burners do—are helping, too.) The Lincoln DTF offers "Cool Skin" technology, which keeps the surface of the oven cool to the touch, and Delfield (also an Enodis affiliate) offers cold tables with "Liquitec" technology, which uses coolant to chill eutectic fluid that stays liquid at very low temperatures and stays chilled longer with less heat transfer. Less run time on the compressor, cooler kitchen.

Another technology, not yet widely available, that generates less heat and uses less energy—both directly and indirectly, says Stech-Novak, "is a pump that works based on the Peltier effect". Cold (or heat) is generated by running current from the same source through two different, but conductive, materials. These pumps can run directly on natural gas or methane, cutting out a big chunk of the waste en route from gas to power plant to turbine to electrical cable. They are also less expensive than most other pumps and can be used to cool or to heat, depending on the direction of the flow of current.

Second on the comfortable kitchen checklist is the use of less equipment altogether. Jade's Chris Thompson is a major player in his company's "Lean Kitchen" initiative and is working to make converts out of the likes of Applebee's and IHOP. Thompson says the idea is to look at each operation as a whole and eliminate all non-value-added steps and space. Currently under review is everything from how a server's order is transmitted to the kitchen to a reduction in the time it takes for a cook to get an order on the fire.

Jade will go to great lengths to prove a point. "We had the CEO and other folks from IHOP on our plant floor," Thompson offers. Space and steps are saved, among other ways, by organizing refrigerated drawers and sauté stations for proteins and condiments, respectively, directly beneath and above the cooking equipment. "Instead of doing a 180-degree turn, line cooks just dip," Thompson says. Hard Rock Café and TGIF have already latched on to Jade's concepts. And, like some other big manufacturers, Jade offers this kind of planning to both existing and new customers as a value-added service. "As we partner with corporations," Thompson says, "we can learn more about their operations and are able to reduce some of their operating expenses by creating more labor-efficient kitchens."

The third front in the war on inefficiency is dealing with the heat that is produced. Dean Landeche, Enodis' vice president of marketing, mentions one approach to stepping up efficiency: "We're identifying heat signatures and heat plumes of each piece of equipment using infrared photography, airflow analyses, and other technology and then building a ventilation system based on that data. Manufacturers have always had to vent their equipment. This is the difference between saying, ‘Gee, there's a lot of smoke in the air; let's wait for the wind to get rid of it,' and designing a building from the ground up to deal with these issues." Halton brings to the table a sophisticated working knowledge of how to capture heated air from the kitchen and incorporate it into air heated by the building's HVAC system, effecting more efficient heating systems and lower utility bills.

Caron cites a second approach: "Exhaust has never been designed to work with a specific piece of equipment. We're taking each piece and integrating it into the air handling system." Coupled with Halton's Capture Ray (that company's name for exhaust systems that incorporate UV technology), it is leading to cleaner, cooler, and more cost-efficient kitchens.

This new world is easily glimpsed through several prisms. First, start-up companies will include these meshed technologies in their business plan, producing a generation of kitchen crews that will never know the joys of standing over a poorly ventilated 12-burner range on a busy Saturday night. Second, existing operations, instead of overhauling entire kitchens, will install new compact and efficient workstations, with station-specific air handling needs, cooler equipment, and ergonomically sound features. Last, elements of these trends—like modular equipment and equipment requiring no ventilation—will make it into the kitchens (and bars, coffee shops, poolside lounges, and office lobbies) of operations that are just looking to add a little to the bottom line.