In my first office-based job I had a manual typewriter and a ‘Banda’ machine. An office worker under 45 wouldn’t even know what these are, but some kitchens still work with the catering equivalent technology. Today, there isn’t much where new technology doesn’t play a part; we don’t buy new cars or computers with 20-year-old technology. We take for granted how newer models make tasks easier, quicker or just better. The way we travel or communicate is immeasurably different – but does this apply to the way we expect chefs to cook?
In our commercial kitchens, the equipment’s life is longer than other work-based ‘tools’ – usually 8–10 years. A piece of catering equipment costs the same as a medium-sized car. Yet somehow attitudes to updating are different. A combination oven is still seen as something to aspire to – however, the technology of using steam and convection is not new. It cooks in two-thirds of the time, saving on power and wastage.
TV chefs show the use of technology being used in cooking. Sometimes seeming more for the laboratory than the kitchen.
However, use of automation is now commonplace. We recently worked with one of our clients on a completely new-build kitchen and dining facility which featured last month in Independent Education Today. What a treat that was and how different to have a kitchen designed by caterers. One element we didn’t touch on in the article was the introduction of labour-saving appliances such as the combination kettle cooker/mixer. Something that is mostly used in commercial cake- and pastry-making but is finding its way into well-planned large-scale kitchens. It looks like a big fixed mixing bowl but stands alongside the cooking equipment. It is microprocessor controlled, has a paddle and can heat up or cool down.
If making Bolognaise, an expensive chef stirs the onions and breaks up the mince, so that it doesn’t cook in lumps. Using this machine, the stirring is automatic so the chef can focus their skills elsewhere. If needed, it will even cool down the sauce which can then be safely stored for later.
Do you often run out of mashed potato? The reason is that the process involves peeling and cooking large quantities of potatoes. Without a combi-oven means boiling enormous pans of water. Then transferring hot potatoes, in small batches, to a mixer to be mashed and ready for service. Our new equipment fills with water and boils. The operator presses the button which drains the water and sets to ‘mash’. 100kg of mashed potato all in the kettle and if need be, kept hot for service.
Of course, they need to be bought, installed with power water and drainage. So, for most schools the time must be right. But given the shortage of skilled chefs, it doesn’t take long to justify labour-saving devices in financial terms. It just needs a fresh look at what we are doing and the way we are doing it.
A prediction that robotics can replace people at work seems to be resurrected every now and again. According to a report in the USA, ‘robots will eliminate 6% of all US jobs by 2021’. There are also trials taking place for deliveries by drones and driverless cars. I have yet to see a robot proposed to taste the gravy and custard, but it can’t be impossible.
With the catering industry being such a ‘labour-intensive industry’, I can’t imagine that we will ‘employ’ robots, whilst we still require cooking to be an ‘art’. But then when producing those purple distinct smelling handouts on the Banda, who could have imagined where today’s classroom technology would have brought us…