Switching to autopilot

You don’t need to be chained to the kitchen if you can program your oven to do it all for you.

You don’t need to be chained to the kitchen if you can program your oven to do it all for you.

New oven designs offer reliable set-and-forget cooking and use far less energy—but getting your hands on one can be a struggle

Knowing how to put a dish together is one thing. Making it sing is another. It’s the nuances that count—that unnamable something that lifts what’s on the plate to an art form. It may only be three or four per cent of a maestro’s overall skill set, but it’s the critical part. It’s not something you can program into a machine. Or can you?

The latest commercial ovens are giving it a fair shot. In the last decade especially they’ve begun to encroach on an area of expertise once reserved for veteran chefs—the ability to work the cooking equipment like a fine-tuned instrument. Now ovens can summon forth the right mix of heat and humidity all by themselves and do it with more speed and energy efficiency than ever—at least according to those who make and sell them.

Andrew Davidson, CEO of Australia’s only major commercial kitchen equipment maker, Goldstein Eswood, says vast improvements in user interface have increasingly allowed executive chefs to cede cooking duties to less experienced (and perhaps less talented) staff. And it’s not a problem if they’re an apprentice from Europe and can only speak a few words of English. “You can call up a pictogram of a chicken and tell your oven in detail how you’d like the chicken cooked. And it’s something that can be replicated by the kitchen brigade every time.”

It’s a critical competitive advantage, Davidson says, because the head honcho is probably not around to make sure it gets done right. He or she is too busy looking after the extended brand.

“What you are seeing more and more is that executive chefs are responsible for more than one restaurant. Neil Perry, for instance, is responsible for Sydney’s Rockpool and Spice Temple as well as a sister restaurant in Melbourne. He needs to know that the dishes are being prepared in the same way. Most of the industry seems to be moving in that direction.”

The pace of change in the tradition-bound restaurant kitchen culture is generally glacial, so the new generation of ovens has meant somewhat of a boom for makers and sellers. Restaurateurs are really starting to get on board with the new technology, Davidson says.

Up until a decade ago, the functionality of commercial ovens closely mirrored our home units. They were bigger and better built, but nuance control was minimal. Now the human touch is more or less programmable, Davidson says, at least when it comes to the supporting dishes and individually cooked ingredients that make up much a restaurant kitchen’s workload.

“The interfaces weren’t nearly as sophisticated.
The control technology has really come a long way, particularly when it comes to controlling things like oven humidity.”

The new Eikon Accelerated Cooking Oven from US based Merrychef/Manitowoc Foodservice, for instance, says it offers “an icon-driven touch-screen operation, enabling instant menu management with archive capacity, ethernet updates, operator training and service maintenance instructions”.

But unfailing predictability is not enough; the new ovens also have to use less gas. “The direction recently is all around energy efficiency and productivity,” Davidson says. “There are two sides to it—one is environmentalism and cost consciousness, and the other faster and more controllable cooking. There’s certainly been a much heavier emphasis on production.”

 “There are two sides to it—one is environmentalism and cost consciousness, and the other faster and more controllable cooking.” Andrew Davidson, CEO, Goldstein Eswood

Andrew Morris, sales director at Queensland-based equipment supplier Spyral, agrees the new technology is taking off. The problem is getting a hold of it. Unless the oven is Australian-made, it will have to be retrofitted to local safety standards. It’s a massive hurdle, Morris says, and has meant long waits for kitchens looking to upgrade.

The Middleby Marshall WOW series out of the US, a conveyer pizza oven that recently won a coveted “Blue Flame” award for energy efficiency combined with fast cooking time as well as a US National Restaurant Association Kitchen Innovations Award (as did the Eikon series), is a case in point. Demand is high, but so is frustration.

“We’re removing old stoves that are still in good working order and installing new high-efficiency ones like the Middlebys after they’ve gone through the regulatory process. But that can take months. Gas bills for restaurant owners are dropping by as much as 50 per cent. But because of the wait, we can’t even market these things because we don’t know when they’ll be available for buyers.”

Morris says “antiquated agency approval” is imposing long delays on the delivery of new high-efficiency ovens. Regulations have not kept pace with changes in the industry and are imposed by ill-informed but over-empowered state officials, Morris says.  They have not responded graciously to ongoing requests from equipment suppliers to bring the rules up to date.

“It’s very difficult for our side of the industry to push. It really needs to come from the whole hospitality industry. The latest stoves we import have to be re-designed at considerable cost. This all gets passed along to the buyer. The government departments in charge of these things are not moving ahead quickly enough.”

Most of the delay stems from the shortage of testing laboratories. Safety evaluation of gas-fueled products is divided between the Victoria-based Australian Gas Association, which has no laboratories, and the compliance management firm, SAI Global, which has laboratories scattered around the country but not in every state, Morris says. Getting stoves tested means contacting the regulatory authorities and waiting until a testing facility becomes available for a particular model, which will then be followed up with annual audits.

“The issue is that the industry is way over-regulated. It’s an absolute nightmare. Our government is constantly trying to push us towards conserving energy, but for commercial ovens the regulation is all over the shop. There are different standards in every state.”

Meanwhile, the switch from old to new continues as quickly as regulation will allow, Morris says. Some head chefs might see pre-set cooking programs as the enemy of spontaneity and nuance—the very things that make them stand out from the crowd. But as oven sellers and makers point out, there’s something to be said for knowing your baked artichokes will always be just so.

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