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Advantages of Chef-Designer Collaborations

Foodservice designers who don’t include chefs in their designs, particularly when it comes to the corporate dining arena, miss out on a range of opportunities to keep the process flowing smoothly. Collaborating with the chef early on, and certainly before specifying equipment, avoids a multitude of issues. It is far better to gain buy-in from the chef on equipment and kitchen layout beforehand vs. watching them struggle with the kitchen setup after all the decisions are made.

Chef Rommel Mendoza has seen many missed opportunities in collaboration as corporate executive chef — Retail Brands and Joint Venture Director for Thompson Hospitality, a division of Compass Group. He regularly travels the country, and Canada, consulting with regional chefs to bring new menu ideas to the table, train and evaluate food and systems. As a trainer, he’s seen countless chefs struggle to learn or deal with the equipment and layout they were not privy to prior to roll-out.

Forecast Trends

As a designer, it’s important to get a handle on overarching food trends moving toward the mainstream rather than just fads. Chefs like Mendoza can help with this. And, while no one will race out to immediately invest in a boatload of Szechwan hot pots or woks, the bend toward regional, specific ethnic cuisines remains an important food trend to consider when designing a foodservice operation. For example, Mendoza, a Filipino, travels from one Compass location to another he shows regional chefs how they can incorporate dishes from his ethnic background into more progressive menus using traditional equipment and what’s on hand. He will also show them how to incorporate equipment such as rice steamers and smaller-scale woks, which operators can use for non-Asian-specific cooking too, when appropriate.

“I once helped a client incorporate Hawaiian cuisine, which is trending right now,” Mendoza says. “Unless the client is willing to put in an in-ground oven, we come up with other ways to make dishes like Kalua pork and ribs using the equipment that was there.” Collaborating with chefs to see what’s on the horizon food-trend wise, therefore, might justify specifying an extra inch of cooking/storage space here or there for things like a wok or an extra steamer or a combi oven for rice. It could mean considering something as small as a three-tiered metal steamer, an item Mendoza has used for making Asian dumplings, Filipino muffins and more.

Understand Flow – Truly

While many foodservice designers have a pretty strong grasp on customer traffic and flow, it’s not uncommon to overlook movement of cooks and other culinary staff, and not just in and around the kitchen. Mendoza prefers to work with a designer early in the design process because the nitty gritty things like how the foodservice operation receives deliveries and how the cooks enter and exit stations or refill items play a vital role in the overall efficiency and production of the kitchen and servery.

Chefs also can identify the busiest times of the day and know details about customer patterns. In one error of not consulting Mendoza before a design, a design team for a university foodservice project developed a long salad bar but it cut off a walkway to one of the stations. As a result, customers had to double back and walk around the bar. Mendoza believes he could have caught the glitch earlier and would have added other elements, such as suggesting more undercounter refrigeration at each station so that the cooks don’t have to wrap everything up and transfer it to a central walk-in cooler at the end of the night.

Other flow-oriented areas to consider: With “frictionless experiences” becoming a thing, does the foodservice operation need cashiers? How might the lack of extra cashier lines open up a space to include more chef-driven stations or expanded salad bars? Culinary-minded collaborators can help bring new ideas to the table.

Consider Local Concepts

Mendoza has helped many accounts bring in local restaurant brands to take over a station during a lunch period or even on certain days throughout the work week. “These hybrid stations really offer a ‘wow’ factor and people enjoy trying new foods, right from their own community,” he says. Specifying such equipment as extra hot wells (or ones that can convert to cold wells) and possibly an induction burner or small flattop would make sense for a rotating “restaurant” station in this regard.

Modernize Action Stations Without Threatening Throughput

Mendoza recommends as much out-front cooking as possible in today’s modern cafeterias, and certainly, many foodservice designers agree. Or, if that’s not feasible, maybe it’s a line of hot wells holding food that’s made just minutes prior by a cook standing in front of a flattop grill or other equipment just behind the serving line. The principle of freshness would still apply while not slowing down service by making everything a la minute. Chefs like Mendoza know about the volume potential of their cafeterias and can offer valuable insight in peak production times and patterns.

Focus More on the Food and Improve Food Display

“You want to really promote the food and make it look sexy and appealing on the line, and thankfully, there are so many new ways to display food these days,” Mendoza says. Having the chef on board to get these ideas before specifying all the equipment can really help.

 Some questions to consider: If the foodservice operation will use hot wells, can heated tiles or other more inventive ways of hot-holding food serve as a viable option? What about colorful ceramic vessels in different shapes and sizes set over a heat source or layering banana leaves in a hot well to give off a sweet smell and showcase authenticity?

Work Together on Post-Installation Issues

This is a biggie, and fortunately, many foodservice designers know this. But there’s nothing more infuriating, Mendoza says, than when you go to prep for a busy peak period and there’s a faulty cord or one hot well isn’t working or there’s a brand new, sparkling piece of equipment and you go to turn it on and it doesn’t turn on. If the designer has already walked away, all of these problems fall directly on the chef’s shoulders. That’s one way designers and other product members of the supply chain risk bumping themselves out of the repeat business game.