By Gregory Furgala
Take creme anglaise. It takes just sugar, egg yolks and milk to prepare the smooth, versatile custard, but making it demands constant attention. The yolks need to be beaten with the sugar and tempered, then gently heated and constantly stirred. For argument’s sake, let’s say it takes a cook 30 minutes to prepare (and that it doesn’t curdle in the process). In Ontario, you just paid $7 for the cook to stir cream and eggs. In Alberta, it cost you $6.80. In B.C., $6.32.
Or, that cook can just chuck the milk, yolks and sugar into a Thermomix, set the temperature and time, and walk away. You, chef, now have about $6 to $7-worth of labour to spend. It’s doesn’t sound like much, but cook to cook, item to item, and week to week, that $7 will add up.
Chefs have always looked for an edge in the kitchen, often finding it in the latest piece of novel gear. In fine dining, it’s allowed them to push the limits of what was thought possible on a plate, like elBulli’s spherified olive oil or the Fat Duck’s bacon and egg ice cream. But conventional kitchens — the neighbourhood bistros, the dumpling houses, the taco joints — still mostly run gas stoves for a clientele looking for a bite to eat without paying Michelin-star prices. That fancy, olive-oil-sphere-making kit can do more than just push culinary boundaries, though. If chefs buy right, it can save them money.
“You go into the restaurants between lunch and dinner,” says chef, instructor and culinary consultant John Placko, “and you see gas burners that are on and profits going up into the exhaust.”
Placko is passionate about high-tech kitchen gear, and he’s adamant that the neighbourhood restaurants need to take advantage of it, too. Those profits being sucked up into exhaust hoods, for example, could be recovered by switching to induction cooktops. Induction cooktops directly heat up the cooking vessel via magnetic induction, cooking food much faster than either gas or electric, wasting far less energy in the process. Placko also points to the additional savings on air conditioning that come with abandoning gas. Any A/C unit only needs to deal with the elements, not the fiery cauldron of a gas-burning kitchen. Placko’s convinced that over time, saving money on energy adds up to considerable savings.
Other kitchen equipment can enable lone cooks to do the work of two or three — no more labour-intensive creme anglais. Placko designed his restaurant, Bar 120 at Pearson Airport, to run with only a pair of cooks at a time. After prepping, they can finish a rack of ribs to order in three minutes in a TurboChef oven, an efficient marriage between a convection oven and a microwave. His one or two cooks can make fresh ice cream or pate to order using Bar 120’s Pacojet, which micropurees “deep frozen” frozen liquid ingredients, preserving their flavours and lending them an incredibly delicate texture. Bar 120’s breakfast is nearly all sous vide as well, which frontloads the actual prep before service so his small team can focus on the finishing touches during service. The equipment is pre-programmed and push-button, enabling the cooks to take on far more tasks than their counterparts hovering over a stovetop.
Flexible and Profitable
Executive chef Marc Lepine’s celebrated Atelier is a cornucopia of idiosyncratic kitchen gear. Freeze dryers, dehydrators, a cotton candy machine — all have been used at some point to execute the constantly changing menu. Lepine acknowledges that some of his toys are less versatile than others, but like Placko, sees the benefit that replacing kitchen appliances with an eye toward the high tech.
“Everything in the kitchen is portable — that’s probably the main feature of our kitchen,” says Lepine. Atelier’s kitchen, Lepine explains, is totally modular. It allows him and his staff to maximize the small confines of their kitchen by setting up only what they need, and like Bar 120, enables the fewest number of cooks to get the most done, trimming Lepine’s labour cost. And that “everything” includes the cook-tops Atelier uses as well. From the start, Atelier has used induction, allowing him to forgo a commercial hood, an expense that typically runs into the thousands.
Lepine concedes the drawbacks, though. Because his kitchen relies so heavily on electricity, if the power goes out, service goes with it. And if the equipment malfunctions, a rare but inevitable event, it needs to be sent off for maintenance, which could potentially hamstring his service until he gets it back.
Cost of Business
The initial cost can also be daunting. A single commercial induction burner can cost nearly $1,500 on the low end, while a full six-burner induction range can cost over $20,000. Even massive 10-burner, 5-foot long gas ranges typically cost half that. Before taking the plunge, it’s worth asking: will the long-term savings make up for the short-term cost? Because the latter is going to be steep. Over the long term, though, the cost savings are there, to say nothing of the ease of use.
“I enjoy not having the open flame,” says Lepine. “It keeps the kitchen a lot cooler. It’s mostly easy to clean up. You’re not getting that black, carbon-y kind of gunk all over your cook-top and stuff.”
“A gas range is something I don’t think I’ll ever miss.”