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EXCLUSIVE: What (and How) Chefs Want To Cook

“Have it Your Way” was a phrase coined by Burger King back in 1974. At the time, it seemed astonishing that we could get food fast and customized. Today, it’s the way of the world, especially the younger world. But having what you want, when you want it, doesn’t mean the same thing now as it did then.

Today, it might mean you want the most interesting new combination of food flavors, a kind of authentic cuisine you’ve never experienced or food that’s locally sourced, organic and allergen free. It may mean you and your friends want to eat together while each wanting to order something entirely different. Additionally, you want it as fast as humanly possible.

Chefs are faced with trying to fulfill their customers’ needs and often coming up against obstacles that the equipment they currently have can’t overcome. Making something authentic (modern consumers know when food is or isn’t authentic), fresh and fast is a huge challenge.

Fortunately, equipment manufacturers are recognizing these new demands and creating equipment that makes them not only easier, but downright simple to meet.

Pizza Right Now

Let’s look at the pizza industry. No matter where you go, pizza is still one of the most popular, customizable foods. But seeing that a pizza is made in a flame-fired stone hearth oven makes the experience even better.

Still, with the exception of Domino’s Pizza and its 30-min. delivery promise, we expect our pizza to take a bit of time, unless it’s premade and sitting under a heat lamp. What if you could get that authentic flame-fired pizza in 2½ min. while you stood in line and watched? That’s what the Wood Stone Fire Deck 9660, used in such concepts as Blaze Pizza in California, Project Pie in Colorado, Las Vegas and California, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, can do.

“This oven is rectangular shaped instead of round with radiant gas burners on the left and right sides,” says Tim Green, corporate chef for Wood Stone Corp. Because of the flames on both sides, there’s minimal rotation, he says, so the oven is easy to operate for high production. This way, you can have one or two cooks in front of the oven at the same time while customers watch. The oven’s high heat output and insulation allow you to cook hundreds of pizzas in a short period of time.

“People often have only 20 min. for a lunch break, so they need their meal fast. But restaurateurs have to have equipment that is high performance and that delivers consistency in order to make that happen. If I am doing a 2½-min. pizza, my accuracy has to be perfect,” he adds.

Fast And Furious

The microwave-convection technology of today’s accelerated ovens is another avenue to better and faster food. TurboChef, ACP, Merrychef and other models use radiant heat, high-speed air impingement and a side-launched microwave to cook food as rapidly as a microwave oven, but with the browning and crisping a convection oven offers. “Microwave-convection technology has transformed the industry,” says Karen Malody, FCSI, principal, Culinary Options, Santa Fe, N.M. “You can use these ovens to prepare foods that you couldn’t have thought of serving years ago. Because it is both convection and microwave, you can get a fully cooked item but with a crisp, brown finish. It works great in colleges and hospitals.”

Storm Hodge, director of dining, University of Washington, Seattle, uses accelerated ovens in many of his venues on campus. “The students want the flavor, the quality and the temperature of commercial restaurant food, but they don’t want to wait. It has to be fast. The microwave-convection equipment heats a sandwich in 60 sec.,” he explains. Proteins take just minutes.

The new Ovention Matchbox (from the inventor of TurboChef) delivers speed, as well. The 2013 NRA Kitchen Innovations winner uses separately controlled, precision top-and-bottom impingement only (no microwaves) to cook a multitude of items in quick succession. Like a matchbox, two cooking surfaces shuttle back and forth into the cooking chamber, which can instantly change temperature up or down 50°. The countertop unit requires no hood and can toast, bake and broil a wide selection of foods. A frozen pizza takes 2½ min.; you can cook everything from cookies to sandwiches, as well.

Hot Ethnics

Not only do modern consumers want food quick, they also are adventuresome in their food choices. When consuming ethnic foods, they want it to be the real thing. While chefs for years have tried to cook these cuisines authentically using the equipment they already had, what often resulted was hit or miss. Now the equipment for making this food properly is easier to come by and transforming many kitchens.

At UW-Madison, Maki-Mono & Noodles is a popular concept where visitors can make their own noodle bowlfrom a selection of broths, meats, vegetables and toppings. Freshly rolled sushi also is prepared and served daily. The foodservice department purchased a sushi case and sushi rollers and cutters in addition to large vats for making fresh noodles.

Some of the hottest new restaurants are not the ones using molecular-gastronomy equipment. Rather, they are going back to using fuels, such as wood and charcoal, and specifying the authentic equipment to produce the ethnic cuisines customers want.

At Fat Rice in Chicago, Chef Abraham Conlon is cooking what he calls Euro-Asian comfort food, using equipment such as clay-pot dishes cooked on grills over live fuel. He also has a Jade wok range for cooking his Chinese/Portuguese-influenced food. “We’re seeing a return to real cooking. We can achieve more earthy flavors with old-fashioned cooking methods. We use vintage cast-iron pans that are smoother than the ones produced today since they were polished twice,” Conlon says. The restaurant also has a gas rice cooker and an electric rice warmer to keep rice at a specific temperature during service.

Ethnic cuisines are huge on college campuses. UW-Madison and the University of Washington rotate global foodcourt venues. One day might spotlight a Mongolian grill on which students can design their own meals, the next day might feature Indian food cooked in a tandoor oven and the next day might include Brazilian chicken cooked on a griddle. The equipment used is mobile and can be moved in and out depending on the cooking style. Thanks to current technology, chefs can deliver a multitude of authentic cuisines without sacrificing real estate.

“We designed an equipment room that holds the equipment not being used. It allowed us to be able to have smaller ANSUL systems and hoods,” Hodge says. When designing the new residential-dining program, Local Point, scheduled to open this summer, he and his crew sat down and listed out every kind of cuisine they wanted to serve and then figured out what kind of equipment they needed to make that happen. Once they figured out what the biggest piece of equipment was, they set about finding the hood that would accommodate the piece when rotated in.

Hodge also says that the way much of the food will be prepared in the new dining program is what he calls “cook to flow,” where food is partially cooked then held ready to be finished off quickly in front of the customer, a two- or three-step cooking process.

Food On The Move

Younger consumers are driving a lot of the need for equipment that can cook faster while maintaining good quality, and now they’re determining where they want to eat it. “The younger peer groups prefer to eat around their friends and often at home, rather than in a restaurant. They don’t want to worry about driving under the influence. So they are more interested in take-out and carry-out. They can eat at home with their friends, and they don’t have to tip,” says Doug Fahrenholz, v.p. of the Foodservice Group, Wasserstrom Company, Columbus, Ohio.

That’s part of the reason he also sees the mobile-truck segment exploding. Not only can you get it “my way,” but you can get it where you are, when you want it. Fahrenholz envisions local and regional food-truck concepts eventually franchising and going national. Franchising, he says, will make it easier for people to get into the foodtruck business and benefit from name recognition of popular concepts.

There’s no doubt the industry is dealing with a customer base that is worldly, exposed, has instant access to information and is used to speed. Today’s chefs are equipping themselves to deliver on expectations.

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