Has kitchen technology advanced to the point that we no longer need so many chefs?
We have a romantic image of the professional chef: someone who just needs access to blades, pans and fire to create wonderful food beyond the abilities of the rest of us. It’s the myth that sustains Masterchef and foodie magazines, but it’s a far cry from the reality of Pacojets, Thermomixes and teams dealing with the volume demanded by a modern restaurant. “There’s a machine for every job,” says Damian Heads, of Sydney’s Pony and Steel Bar & Grill. “If you can validate the volume, you can validate the machine.” But while those machines are undeniably useful, are they de-skilling today’s chefs? Do you need classical skills when an enormous amount can be done with the press of a button on a pre-programmed machine?
And the reality is, those machines are more reliable, in many ways, than an apprentice. If you have a recipe that states exactly what is required for the end result, and you can upload it to a combi oven via a memory stick, then that’s more efficient than showing an apprentice how to do it three or four times. And once the oven’s got it right, it isn’t going to leave you to work in a competitor’s restaurant.
Damian Heads stands on the side of the people (as opposed to the machines) in this debate. Partly because people don’t break as easily as machines: “The down side is if your Pacojet breaks,” he says. “So you should really buy two of them, plus the cylinders, and then it starts to become an expensive process.”
By contrast, he says, he has an apprentice who started two years ago, did six months as a lackey, six months on one restaurant’s larder section, another eight months on pasta, and is now making gnocchi and sauces over at Pony’s Neutral Bay site.
“The money invested in that person has created a machine that’s worth more than the equipment it would take to do his job,” says Heads.
But the reality is there are also downsides to training apprentices. Firstly, you have to find a good one. Then you have to hang on to them.
“I did my apprenticeship with a gas grill, wok burners, target top, basic ovens and the hot box was 70 degrees or nothing,” says Heads. “And I look at some of the machines available now and I think, ‘If I had that machine I could do this and this’—we’ve got four Rational ovens, and they can steam, you have complete control over temperature, time and so on, and you can upload your recipes from one to another one.
“And other restaurants have even better stuff. You should go to Baroque (in the Rocks, in Sydney) and have a look at some of the toys they have!”
“We’ve got the standard stuff,” says Peter Robertson, chef de cuisine at Baroque. “A Pacojet, a 20-rack blast chiller, Cryovac, combi oven, a range of different cooktops, liquid nitrogen doer … Something I’ve got on the wish list is a vacuum evaporation machine. I don’t really need one. It’s just a cool machine.”
Robertson’s perspective on kitchen skills and gadgets has been borne out by his experience both here and overseas. After cutting his teeth at Bilson’s, he travelled to the UK where he worked at Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck, as well as at progressive institution Tom Aikens.
“I do think the equipment is deskilling chefs slightly,” he says. “When I was at the Fat Duck, that was certainly their gripe. They said it was really hard to do what they did before, and really labour intensive, and they did lament the loss of these classical skills. But it’s every bit as hard to put out perfectly cooked beef every time—so if a machine can help you do that, that’s a good thing.”
Robertson believes the ease of use inherent in such machines doesn’t only make cooking easier, but enhances the training of apprentices as well. “There’s no longer a recipe where you set the oven to gas mark four, which is something I find really vague by current standards,” he explains. “With the new equipment it’s far more precise, which means I also find it easier to train the new guys—so it’s easier for us.
“I also think you find other ways to engage yourself as a result. So your meat cookery might be one step easier, but then you find you’ll do a more complex garnish. And if you can spend a minute extra on plating then you’re going to be putting out a better dish.”
And no matter how good the machines are, they can’t solve every problem. Damian Heads has an espresso bar below Steel Bar & Grill, and he says the hardest staff position he has to fill is the person making the sandwiches at the espresso bar.
“There’s so many details in sandwiches,” he explains, “and it points out where people skill is so important. At the moment, the chefs upstairs have to do it. It’s the job I keep getting dragged back into.”
The other issue with equipment, he says, is it becomes self-perpetuating: “When you do menu planning you consider the skills and equipment you have. I have a woodfire grill, for example, so I’m going to use it. That’s going to drive what I do on the menu.”
Perhaps the machines are taking over after all.