A not-so-quiet revolution is sweeping commercial kitchens as restaurateurs discover the benefits of induction cooking, reports Jane Duru
You’re only as good as your tools, so the saying goes. And for chefs, imprecise temperatures, uneven heat and unreliable equipment can be the difference between a great dish and a merely good one.
But while many restaurants embrace technology when it comes to reservations, only a few take the same approach when installing new cookers. Gas, often viewed as the only choice for the serious professional, remains the most popular option for kitchens. But some chefs are starting to embrace an alternative that uses the latest in gastronomic innovations technology—induction cooking.
Phil Wood, executive chef at Sydney’s Eleven Bridge, part of the Rockpool Group, explains why the kitchen turned to Electrolux induction hobs two years ago. “Control and speed are definite factors,” he says. “With gas, you need to spend time with the burner to gauge what hot is and where hot is and you have to fiddle with it quite a bit. With induction, it’s a numbered system, so you can just set it to whatever you want. Instead of adjusting it like a DJ, you can just press play.”
Other high-profile fans reportedly include Jamie Oliver and Shannon Bennett of Vue de Monde. Induction hobs were used at Noma’s recent pop-up in Sydney, while the Crown Casino group and Broncos League Club are also Electrolux customers.
Eleven Bridge isn’t the only restaurant in the Rockpool group to use the hobs; owner Neil Perry has installed specially-built units in all of his Spice Temple restaurants. Meanwhile, Tetsuya’s made the switch to custom-built Marrone induction hobs in August 2014. “It’s 50 per cent more energy efficient, cleaner and more comfortable,” says owner Tetsuya Wakuda. “Reaching boiling temperature is 40 per cent quicker, and there’s less impact on other equipment.”
State of efficiency
Manufacturer CookTek claims that its powerful 3.5kW unit can boil a pint of water in 45 seconds and a gallon in under six minutes. The statistics may sound impressive, but the process of induction is intrinsically much more energy efficient—it is typically 90-95 per cent efficient compared to electric or gas. On a gas hob, metal pans are heated through radiation and conduction but around 35 per cent to 65 per cent of energy consumed is lost to the atmosphere, which can make for sweltering kitchen temperatures of up to 45°C.
With an induction unit, pots and pans are heated directly by placing them on a ceramic or glass plate that has an electromagnetic coil underneath. When the unit is turned on, an electric current runs through the coil, generating a fluctuating magnetic field. When an iron or stainless steel pan is put down, the magnetic field then induces smaller electric currents in the pan’s base, which excites the pan’s iron molecules, causing energy to be released in the form of heat.
However, innovation doesn’t come cheap. Hobs cost around 30 per cent more than their gas counterparts according to Tetsuya, depending on how powerful they are. Prices can range from $3,000 for a single zone stove top, to around $20,000 for a top of the range 4-zone top.
“It’s 50 per cent more energy efficient, cleaner and more comfortable. Reaching boiling temperature is 40 per cent quicker, and there’s less impact on other equipment.”—Tetsuya Wakuda, Tetsuya’s
For Phil Wood, the benefits far outweigh the cost. “There’s no heat produced from the induction hob itself, so the kitchen is a nicer environment to work in,” he says. “It’s definitely not as hot as gas although we’ve offset that by putting in a charcoal oven,” he laughs. The cooler environment is a point echoed by Tetsuya Wakuda: “The kitchen produces less heat, so therefore a better quality product results. It’s also easier to clean, as the surfaces are flat and can be wiped easily.”
Induction cooking also allows much more control over the elements of a recipe that call for greater precision and control, says Wood. “It helps with simmering sauces, poaching and confiting; all the more low-temperature cooking can be done on a stovetop rather than having to do it in an oven.” Plus, staff suffer fewer burns.
Greater energy efficiency means kitchens save money not only on the cost of fuel, but on airconditioning too. For Wakuda, the higher costs of installation have been offset by the “lower cost of ownership. We have a safer, cooler, more energy efficient kitchen,” he says.
Busting the myths
There are downsides, of course. High initial costs, the difficulty of repairs, and the need for more space puts some restaurants off. However, a common misconception is that installing an induction hob means buying a new set of pans, when in reality, anything made of iron or stainless steel will work fine.
As with any new technology, staff tend to go through an initial adjustment period. With no visual cues as to the level of heat, it can be difficult to judge how quickly something is cooking. However, Wood notes that once chefs have adapted to induction, training is much more straightforward. “Instead of having to show every step in a recipe, it’s like ‘set to 70°C, wait this amount of time,’ and it’ll do the same thing every time. There’s less tinkering.”
Think induction is only for high-end kitchens? Wrong. Wood points out that while high-volume kitchens may not see the need for precision, what they are missing is the advantage of speed. He cites the example of pulling pans onto a gas hob, and having to wait 30 seconds to a minute for each pan to heat up. “You’ve got to add that up over a day,” he says. “If you’re doing that a hundred times, that’s an hour and a half you’re waiting for pans to heat up. It would be less than half that time using induction.”
Coming of age
Wakuda blames “unwillingness to change” as the main obstacle to uptake, as well as an overwhelming lack of understanding of induction’s benefits. But these days, newer models have more features for chefs to exploit. So for those who need to maximise space, manufacturers now produce induction tops where the entire surface is available for heating, meaning you can fit more pans, just like a solid flat top. Some hobs even have an automatic shut-off feature to prevent burning.
While the technology has been around for decades, it seems only now it is coming into its own, as prices come down, technical features increase and sustainability is prioritised. And as the technology continues to improve, both Phil and Tetsuya are firmly in the induction camp. As Phil says: “If I had another kitchen I’d definitely put induction in again.”