What part does technology play in delivering outstanding cuisine? Charmaine Teoh looks at how high-tech equipment has improved the craft of cooking, and whether man and machine can co-exist
If anyone is to blame, it’s Heston Blumenthal. The English chef is (in)famous for using equipment more suited to a science lab than a kitchen to prepare food. Cue sous-vide scrambled eggs and vodka and green tea mousse ‘poached’ in liquid nitrogen.
Blumenthal may be the only chef in the world with an experimental lab attached to his restaurant but almost all commercial kitchens today rely on some form of high-tech gadgetry to prepare meals. Chefs and restaurateurs are attracted to devices such as Thermomixes, sous-vide machines and combi-ovens that roast, dry, steam, ferment and dehydrate because they are efficient and consistently produce items at a high standard.
This is particularly important if you’re a large eatery with a constant flow of customers serving one of the trickiest foods to cook perfectly: steak. For Hobart’s Frank, a next-generation grill is helping ensure the Latin American–influenced restaurant gets it right every time.
“Frank fuses the best of Tasmania’s fresh produce with South American flavours,” says Scott Heffernan, Frank’s chef and part-owner. “Cooking meat and vegetables over a real fire is integral to the restaurant’s style.”
The pride and joy of Frank’s kitchen is the new Parilla grill for Asado—an electric-powered solid-fuel grill that allow meats to be slowly cooked using charcoal or wood. The result is steak and other produce with a smoky, wood-fired barbecue flavour that has critics and customers salivating.
“The grill features ‘firebricks’ that reflect heat back and forth—it’s like UV cooking,” says Heffernan. “You can adjust the cooking temperature by raising the height of the grill using a three-inch joystick. The grill’s resting arm has a slow, gentle, radiating heat that allows the meat to rest really beautifully without getting cold. It’s such a versatile piece of equipment.”
In addition to Asado’s Parilla grill, Frank uses two Electrolux combi-ovens to cook everything from meats to cakes. “The oven keeps the meat moist and seals the outside beautifully. You can taste the natural juices,” says Heffernan. “The self-cleaning function is also an absolute joy.”
Another highly valued piece of equipment is the Adande refrigeration unit. “The beauty of the Adande unit is that we can adjust it to a precise temperature for our ice-creams,” explains Heffernan. “We get perfect quenelling every time. You can also set the Adande to store seafood perfectly. It gives you another day of super-premium product without the slight deterioration that comes with using a normal fridge.”
Frank’s Asado Parilla grill, Electrolux combi-ovens and Adande refrigeration unit were sourced from, and customised by, Stoddart Manufacturing and installed by Quality Equipment. “It’s been a great process to be able to work from the ground up, installing quality equipment and adding more to it to make sure it meets our expectations,” Heffernan says.
While Sydney chef Brent Savage has state-of-the-art equipment at his three restaurants, including Waldorf Bold gas ovens and Convotherm electric combi-ovens, his favourite gadget is an item increasingly found in many suburban homes.
“The one thing I can’t live without is the Thermomix,” says the 2015 Good Food Guide chef of the year and co-owner of Bentley Restaurant + Bar, Monopole and Yellow. “It’s essentially a blender that operates at different speeds and temperatures. It’s so versatile and in constant use at all three restaurants.”
Savage says that high-tech equipment plays an important but secondary role in helping him create new dishes. “The idea comes first,” he says. “I am still creating dishes and the equipment facilitates the making process.”
This sentiment is shared by Sydney’s N2 Extreme Gelato, which lives up to its name by using liquid nitrogen to create its products.
“Liquid nitrogen has been used in high-end restaurants to make sorbets for a while,” says Min Chuan Chai, N2’s founder. “What we’re doing is just scaling that up.”
Clad in white lab coats and transparent goggles, N2’s servers pour a specially formulated gelato solution (made from full cream milk and cream and fresh fruits and herbs) into KitchenAid mixers then add liquid nitrogen to aerate and freeze it. Due to a phenomenon known as ‘nucleation-dominated ice crystallisation’, the process forms a large number of microscopic ice crystals in seconds.
“The texture of our gelato is extremely smooth because of this unique freezing process,” explains Chai. “We can make gelato on demand and serve it warmer than usual, which gives it a stronger flavour on your palate.”
With high-tech equipment becoming almost mandatory in most commercial kitchens, what can we expect to see in the future?
There are already 3D printers that can create pasta, cookies, chocolate, savoury crackers, sugar-based cake decorations, even pizza. IBM has developed a computing system called Chef Watson that can generate recipes based on which chemical flavour compounds go together and which don’t. All you have to do is select a specific ingredient, a type of dish and a theme, and the system will present you with 100-plus recipe options.
With these technologies in production or in the pipeline, is it time for chefs to start putting away their toques? Absolutely not, says Savage.
“Recipes have always been a guideline of how to get food to a [certain] point,” he says. “The skill of the chef is balancing the taste, texture, freshness and timing of each dish. I don’t believe a machine can do that.”
Heffernan believes man and machine can co-exist. “A lot of young kids coming through here have been exposed to some challenging cooking techniques,” he says. “We take them in the opposite direction—cooking with fire is something basic that’s been happening since the dawn of time—and they are still excited and want to learn. For me, it’s really nice to see that combination of new and old all come together.”