Teaching the Future of Foodservice Equipment

In education we have a simple, but ultimately complicated, mandate: to prepare our students for the future they will inherit. In many foodservice operations the functional demands of running a business and the need to balance short-term profits and long-term fiscal health often trump such thinking.

Chris-Koetke-4x6Christopher Koetke, CEC, CCE, HAAC
Vice President of Laureate International Universities Center of Excellence in Culinary Arts & Kendall College School of Culinary Arts Chicago
When it comes to culinary arts education, our focus is five to ten years from now. Given the speed at which the foodservice industry changes, educators embrace a great responsibility. Our students trust the education we offer will, indeed, point them toward success in the future. Thus, we look for the megatrends that will shape the future of foodservice without getting distracted by short-term trends or fads — which might get some mention in a quality culinary program, but will not earn star status by being incorporated into the curriculum.

When it comes to foodservice equipment, culinary educators look to achieve two distinct educational outcomes. The first is to simply familiarize students with equipment common to many professional kitchens. This actually goes beyond familiarization, as students need to know how to cook on this equipment and perform basic maintenance.

The second educational outcome is to prepare students to think about equipment that will shape the future of our industry. Thus, we ask ourselves, what are the major forces that will affect foodservice equipment in the future? For this second outcome, it is less about specific models or manufacturers and more about developing critical thinking skills.

Sustainability

There is little doubt that foodservice’s focus on sustainability will only grow as the future unfolds. The reason behind this is simple: On a global scale, our behavior as a human species only aggravates and accelerates the damage that we do to the planet. The human population continues to grow at unprecedented rates, which naturally leads to a greater demand for food.

From a foodservice perspective, further complicating matters is an increasing scarcity of water, greater global demand for energy and increasing waste output, all of which will drive up operational costs and put increasing pressure on profits.

For instance, many experts view water as the greatest resource of this century. Water will be increasingly necessary for growing food, industrial uses, energy production and everyday human needs. At the same time, water sources are becoming increasingly polluted, while climate change makes water cycles less predictable. Thus, water will become increasingly scarce and expensive to procure. For foodservice, this presents a serious problem, as water usage is critical to our operations. Among other things, we need water to cook, clean, serve to our guests and operate toilets.

Faced with the realities of sustainability, all of us in culinary education must instruct our students on foodservice equipment that minimizes water and energy usage. Induction cooking is one solution. Induction is far more efficient in transferring heat than the more common gas range. As a result and over time, induction will become a more prevalent and affordable cooking system.

Students need to learn about long-term ROI on pieces of equipment. For instance, water-efficient equipment such as steamers need to be evaluated for their operational savings over the life of the equipment and not just the invoice price. Two other water-intensive items include dishwashers and toilets/urinals. As part of a facilities class, students need to evaluate such things for their water consumption.

Until it no longer functions properly, ventilation is a feature in all restaurants that most people rarely think about. Ventilation, while critical to a restaurant, uses a tremendous amount of energy. Traditional ventilation tends to be energy inefficient because simple on/off fails to take into account the times when minimal cooking requires minimal ventilation. Thus, students in culinary programs need instruction on variable-speed hood systems, some of which can be completely automated to eliminate human error. The result of both of these steps — and certainly more efficient designs in the future — will result in energy conservation and less drag on the bottom line.

When it comes to sustainability, human behavior emerges as an oft-overlooked variable. Bad habits in the kitchen and poor decision making can result in unnecessary water and energy usage. Some of this falls under the heading of proper maintenance. Students need to learn how to make a maintenance schedule and recognize problems like poorly aligned cooler doors and dust buildup on condenser coils.

They also need to learn how to make power-up/power-down schedules so equipment is not sitting idle far in advance of when it will actually be used and to ensure lighting is not being used at the wrong times. Students need to learn how to track refuse and record it into different categories to better understand the opportunities to improve their operations. Finally, students need to learn how to minimize water and energy consumption in their daily kitchen activities. Educators stress this in daily kitchen classes to ensure students do not use water for thawing; ovens and deep fryers are not left on or preheated too early; and ventilation systems are used only when necessary.

Even for those operations for which energy saving is not a chief cost-cutting concern, energy reduction is where the world’s going, says Richard Young, senior engineer and director of education at San Ramon, Calif.-based Food Service Technology Center, the industry leader in commercial kitchen energy efficiency and appliance performance testing. Amid Americans’ growing concerns about climate change, competition will continue to drive all operators toward energy conservation.

Labor Savings

Before the recession, there was concern over finding adequate skilled labor to support the projected growth of the restaurant industry. During the recession, the focus understandably shifted to simply doing the necessary things to stay in business. With the last recession’s doldrums behind us, the issue of labor is back on the table. I speak to restaurateurs and larger foodservice companies who are struggling to find labor. Some of them are looking to international sources for new labor pools. Finding skilled kitchen talent will continue to be a megatrend as the foodservice world continues to expand.

Kendall 3-4722Plus, consider that consumers no longer limit themselves to three meals a day, nor do they all eat at traditional mealtimes. Indeed, among foodservice customers, the standard “day” is stretching earlier and later. For some, this means enjoying a lunch combo of freshly made soup, leafy green salad and iced beverage at a fast-casual restaurant at 2 p.m., and a fourth “meal” of the day of nachos or Buffalo wings at 2 a.m. Operations that fry an egg at the same time and on the same griddle as a hamburger patty can reap big breakfast rewards all day, with fewer personnel on the clock at any given time.

This trend has a direct effect on the kitchen equipment of the future, and our students need to learn to keep their eye out for it. While the idea that every from-scratch restaurant produces superior food that is attractive and even romantic, with a lack of skilled labor, a from-scratch restaurant can become a kitchen nightmare. One of the solutions for the industry’s future labor woes is continued technological advances in foodservice equipment. The culinary students of today need to follow technology closely.

The kinds of technology that can make up for a smaller-than-needed labor force include smart and programmable kitchen cooking systems, constant temperature monitoring from removable devices, and precooked (heat and serve) items that deliver high quality. Some of these already exist today, but future advances will make them more accurate, reliable and easy to use.

Food Safety

Food safety has always been a concern in the foodservice industry and is taught at all culinary schools. Foodservice equipment designers have also been very responsive to the need to create equipment that reduces the risk of foodborne illness. Culinary students need to be aware of these current advances. At the same time, they also need to be constantly researching what the future holds for food safety. This will continue to be critical to restaurant operations, as even one outbreak can be disastrous to the business by harming the patrons we intend to serve.

Kendall-2One area of certain growth is that of record keeping. Currently, record keeping remains challenging for many fast-paced operations. This can include cooking times and temperatures, holding times and temperatures, hand washing, etc. While there have been solid advances in both digital and paper-based solutions, there will certainly be more user-friendly options in the future. Similarly, the evolution in cleaning and sanitizing equipment that is environmentally friendly should continue. With the rise of more persistent and dangerous bacteria (i.e. superbugs), students need to keep food safety front and center and look for equipment that will further reduce risk.

Molecular Gastronomy

Different people have different feelings about molecular gastronomy. Whatever one’s personal opinion, clearly it has added many new techniques to the culinary repertoire. Molecular gastronomy has also added new pieces of equipment to the kitchen. While some of this equipment might not be around a decade from now, some certainly will.

Deciding which will be here for the long haul is a difficult, if not impossible, task. The solution is to teach students to use as much of this new equipment as possible, including: all uses for sous vide cooking and vacuum packaging, spherification equipment, anti-griddles, smoke guns, pH meters, precision scales and, certainly, the canisters for preparing foams. Learning about these new pieces of equipment and those that will follow does not replace mastering traditional cooking equipment, however.

One additional piece of equipment that has been part of our curriculum at Kendall for the last decade is the vacuum tumbler. This is certainly not a new piece of equipment, as the meat industry has been using it for many years. Bringing it into the kitchen is now increasingly common and should be part of any culinary curriculum, as it is a very effective tool with which to produce moist and flavorful meat. Additionally, its ability to pull soluble protein out of raw proteins helps in many preparations where it is helpful to “glue” proteins together.

When Less Equals More

Consumers demand more food options at more locations more of the time with extended hours of operation. This new customer lifestyle speaks to a wide variety of opportunities for which foodservice equipment is the solution.

CKoetke-Kendall-DSC 3133Food trucks, for example, go to their customers rather than the other way around, serving people where they’re likely to congregate during peak meal times. Colleges and universities capitalize on cooking platforms that execute several functions well, in nontraditional spaces and with fewer personnel. Hotels accommodate guests quickly in the wee hours of the night with select room-service items prepared on higher floors in vent-less space. Curbside takeout at full-service restaurants, too, allows guests to bring home an experience that’s a step up from that of traditional drive-thru. Even posh restaurants are experimenting with outdoor kiosks offering flavorful, upscale items on the fly.

More operations are breaking out of the boxes they’ve placed themselves in to let people know where to find them, while redefining the locations where food transactions take place. This evolution has highlighted the need to teach our students not only how to design commercial kitchens capable of serving large numbers of patrons, but also smaller and highly functional kitchens when space is at a premium. The result is not only a focus on innovative kitchen designs, but also on multifunctional equipment that can be downsized or retrofitted into unique surroundings.

Editor’s Note:

Last year Kendall’s School of Culinary Arts celebrated its 80th anniversary. So FE&S invited Kendall’s Chris Koetke to discuss how the foodservice equipment-related education for today’s culinary students helps prepare them for tomorrow.

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