For those about to wok

Asian restaurants in NSW have embraced the new technology.

Asian restaurants in NSW have embraced the new technology.

Great technology exists to make woks more environmentally friendly, but how do you get restaurateurs to try it? Sharon Aris reports on a program that has the answer

At the heart of most Asian restaurant kitchens is the versatile wok: useful for everything from boiling, braising, frying, steaming and stewing. It has, however, one vital flaw. Woks use an extraordinary amount of water. This is due to the heat this kind of cooking generates (where a continuous flow of water is  used to cool the cooktop), and the cleaning required (woks must be washed with every use). Detailed studies show the average daily water use of a conventional wok stove is 5,500 litres per day. In Chinese restaurants, which account for around half of all Asian restaurants, it can be as much as 8,000 litres a day.

There is however, a recently developed solution. It’s called the waterless wok stove. Instead of only using water to cool the cooktop, it uses a combination of air cooling and water taps that are triggered only when necessary. Tests have shown these can reduce water consumption by up to 5000 litres a day in busy restaurants. Sydney Water helped develop these, but they faced a problem—how to actually get restaurants interested in trying them out. Thanks to some enterprising thinking on the part of the Ethnic Communities Council (ECC) a unique partnership was developed between small business, government and non-government organisations and ethnic communities. Using funding obtained from the NSW Climate Change fund, bilingual educators were engaged to produce written materials,  promote and then individually visit restaurants that registered an interest in the new stoves.

Launched in 2006 by then Minister for Water Utilities David Campbell at Sydney icon  Golden Century, the event received good coverage in the Chinese media. A highlight of the night was Golden Century’s announcement they would be installing the waterless wok stoves in all their restaurants.

The program operates via a rebate, with additional support from the bilingual educators. Restaurateurs were provided with a list of waterless wok stove suppliers and were asked to provide the ECC with a quote, and, on receiving the quote, the educator would revist to sign an agreement. The existing stove’s water consumption was then logged for seven days, and following installation of the new stove, water consumption was logged again.

Eric Wong, general manager of Golden Century, says their reasons for installing the waterless wok stoves were really very simple. “It saves money, saves water, it’s good for the long-term environment and the next generation. It’s influenced everyone in the kitchen into thinking about saving water everywhere.” He adds: “If we try to let staff save water on the stove, it means in their minds they save on other things too.”

With training, Golden Century found the resistance from chefs to having to learn a different way of operating the wok wasn’t great, and within a month most were comfortable with the new technique.

Manufacturers continued to be involved in the project too. One of the earlier models, where the tap was operated by pushing it over the wok, had a very high wear-rate on the washers. The restaurants and the bilingual educators fed that information back to the suppliers and that model is no longer manufactured, with a knee-operated leaver now being the preferred option.  “You must discuss the problems with the manufacturers,” says Wong. “We try to sort the problems out so we’re all happy.” He’s still liasing with the manufacturers to save even more water.

Twenty-three restaurants joined the first phase of the project, with 67 woks installed in total, each on average saving 3,400 litres of water a day—which translates into an annual saving of several thousand dollars for each restaurant. Initially just for Chinese restaurants in Sydney, the program expanded to the NSW Central Coast and into the Thai and Vietnamese restaurants, leading to 103 more restaurants participating and another 161 stoves installed.

Helen Scott, project coordinator, says one reason the scheme has been so successful was from the start the steering committee was comprised of influential restaurateurs including Robert Ho, owner of BBQ King, and Raymond Chan, President of the Chinese Chefs Association. Nor would it have worked without the bilingual educators. “I’d speak and everyone would be polite and agreeable,” observes Scott. “But once I went back with the educators, there would be an enormous number of questions.”

Now there’s a knock-on effect.  “Many owners have told us they’re putting in waterless woks into their new restaurants. They’re doing that without the rebate, because the rebate was only available for retrofitting.”

Pattarapong “Joe” Khantong, owner and chef at Thai Princess in East Sydney, was already looking to replace his existing wok stove when he heard about the program from one of the Thai educators, who brought pictures of the products with her and also translated the brochures for him.

Two years down the track, his enthusiasm for the new stoves is undiminished as he also considers them to be a superior product. “It’s almost like new. It’s very stable and now I know how to clean it properly we’ve had no maintenance problems at all,” he says, which is very different from previous kitchens he’s been in. “Where I used to work there were always problems with the water systems and the equipment broke down because of all the water used. The plumber would be there every fortnight.” He says he’s not only saving on water use, but equipment wear too, because there is so much less water in the kitchen overall. Nor has he had the expense of having to shut down his kitchen because of breakdowns. But the biggest benefit remains environmental. “I’m proud to tell my customers I use the waterless wok. It’s very positive—it’s like using organics, it’s not just the money, it’s the responsibility.”

It’s been embraced by manufacturers too. Michael Fisher of Thai Kanteen in Mosman was first alerted by a maker about the program when he was looking to replace his existing wok stove. While suspicious the rebate initially led to some price inflation—a fact since counteracted by the entry of new manufacturers into this market—Fisher says one of the most fortunate elements of this is the stoves are made in Australia, so design modifications can still be done. But looking ahead, while he says if he were replacing a wok stove today he’d happily get another waterless one, he thinks the future will be in another technology—induction cooking. “Almost no heat or smell, and a real power saving, is a great equation.”

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