Keeping the foodservice equipment marketplace up to date with the latest menu and concept trends.


Starting (and Succeeding) From Scratch

The commitment to a made-on-site menu frequently means having a well-trained kitchen crew and a thoughtful back-of-the-house strategy to support them. 

feat The Henri DC 0672Shrimp toast on brioche at The Henri, a contemporary bistro in Washington, D.C., where from-scratch items dominate the menu.Before the pandemic, there was a movement in foodservice toward fresher ingredients and more in-house preparation. But for some operations, the matter of mere survival forced them to push those considerations to the proverbial back burner. For example, a few operators chose more economical and labor-saving options, such as replacing fresh ingredients with pre-prepared items. With consumers getting back into the swing of regularly eating out, though, does demand still exist for food prepared from scratch on-site? Or do inflationary pressures and the desire for fast service make it a nonstarter for diners?

John Franke, founder/president of Dallas-based Franke Culinary Consulting, says “made in-house” remains a critical menu descriptor for operators. “I think people appreciate it and want it,” he says. “The companies I’ve worked for and continue to work with are still committed to that sort of from-scratch cooking.”

Matt Camilleri, managing director of RealFood Hospitality, Strategy and Design in Boston, agrees. “I don’t think that’s going to go away, especially with the independent operators that take pride in their prep and production process,” he says.

But even for chain restaurants, on-site prep with locally sourced ingredients can still be a major point of differentiation that brings in customers. Whiskey Cake Kitchen & Bar, part of the FB Society restaurant group, promotes the 10-location chain as serving farm-to-table dishes and cocktails out of a from-scratch-only kitchen and bar. Thomas Dritsas, Whiskey Cake’s culinary concept chef, says that the chain sources around 60% of its ingredients locally and even grows some of its own herbs on-site for its bar drinks. Keeping the emphasis on fresh ingredients and prep represents a plus for both the customers and staff, he says, as it preserves “the romance of working and experiencing an item when it’s available — whatever the window is — and should be prepared and consumed in its most simple form.”

It takes a certain kind of crew member to work in a from-scratch kitchen, says Frederik De Pue, chef/owner of The Henri in downtown Washington, D.C. The Henri, which opened in 2021, is a 120-seat contemporary bistro with a private dining area that can seat up to another 100 people. The centerpiece of The Henri’s equipment lineup is a French rotisserie in which De Pue cooks everything from porchetta to Maine lobster. “You probably get a better quality of people in a concept where everything comes in fresh because they want to learn, they want to be educated,” he says. “They want to come to work and do something different on a daily basis.”

Dario Monni, owner of Chicago’s Tortello, also a restaurant emphasizing fresh preparation, says you have to be “extremely attentive of who you bring in as employees.” In a small (37-seat) storefront restaurant that opened in 2019 in the city’s trendy Wicker Park neighborhood, Monni’s staff hand-makes pasta used in such traditional dishes as cacio e pepe and vegetable lasagna. Since the pasta-making area sits right in the front window, both diners and passersby can watch the artisans crafting the pasta. “My labor is pretty high because I’m making everything from scratch,” Monni says.

In some cases, in-house prep can require extra staff training. At Whiskey Cake, Dritsas says, “our kitchen crew is trained side by side with experienced chefs who are well-versed in handling fresh product.” As it implements seasonal menu changes, the chain brings its chefs together to educate them on the new items “so we all have clear standards and systems established, which are taken back into their locations [to] train their staff,” he says.

feat WC BakeryDiners can watch the bakery in action. Photos courtesy of Whiskey Cake

Knowing the Differences

Some basic culinary differences exist between a kitchen that focuses on from-scratch prep and one that doesn’t, and they go deeper than just the food prep aspect. First, a from-scratch kitchen demands a strong leader, says Greg Christian, founder and CEO of Beyond Green Sustainable Food Partners in Chicago. In addition to serving as a consulting practice, Beyond Green runs a feeding operation for preschools that makes 5,000 meals daily, 95% of which are made from scratch. “You have to be a stronger leader to manage a cooking kitchen,” he says, partly because training people in scratch cooking often entails “untraining” them of their old habits. “The hardest part of a transition is that people have to unlearn things, and people have an immunity to change. These two things combined make it super tough to go a new way.”

Franke agrees on the need for a strong leader “because it’s not as easy as ‘go open a bag and pour it in there.’ A place that’s [producing] in-house or mostly prepped on-premises is going to start at the top with someone in charge who’s a strong leader and has some culinary chops,” he says, although he adds that “it doesn’t mean they have to be a Michelin-trained star chef.” From a technical standpoint, Franke and Christian agree that advanced knife skills are essential for crew members in this type of kitchen.

By its very nature, a kitchen handling a higher quantity of fresh product has to be extremely flexible. “There are times we receive produce for a featured dinner where the produce never hits a cooler,” Dritsas says. “It comes directly from the farm to the chef, who prepares the items for our guests to enjoy — and that item is gone.”

Serving product at the peak of freshness can also require a change in delivery schedules. Rather than receiving a large weekly order from a broadline distributor, many of these operations receive smaller, more frequent deliveries. Christian says, “We get deliveries every day, all day, with smaller vendors who are flexible and more affordable. But you need a brain in the operation who can manage multiple vendors coming daily. The puzzle is more complex.”

Monni adds that especially in a space as small as his, “you need to be extremely attentive to what you order. You need to be able to order and use all products really quickly. It’s a common [effort] between myself and staff to make sure that ordering and stocking is done correctly.”

feat WC GardenHerbs from the garden are used in bar drinks.

Making Space Work

More frequent deliveries require a rethinking of cooler and storage space, which is one of the special considerations in designing a from-scratch kitchen. According to Camilleri, “You almost have to look at it from a production planning or facility layout structure.”

As with most restaurants, the fresh food coming in immediately goes to some sort of storage, whether it’s refrigerated or ambient temperature. While an emphasis on fresh ingredients might at first seem to necessitate larger cold storage, the quick rotation of product actually allows for smaller coolers. De Pue jokes that while most restaurants have refrigerators the size of a garage, his coolers are closer to a size that would fit a motorcycle. At Flamant, his bistro in Annapolis, Md., “I don’t have a walk-in freezer,” he says. “I have a double-door undercounter freezer. That’s it. And we do about 150 covers a day.” His refrigerators are only slightly larger, but they’re “getting filled every day. I think it’s important that your fish comes in fresh every day, that your meat comes in every day.”

It’s a similar situation at Whiskey Cake, Dritsas says. “Our freezer is about the size of a small refrigerator that you would put creamers and other stuff in at other restaurants,” he says. “Because we have a very robust bar program, most of our freezer space is used for craft ice.”

Workspaces — and the need to keep them separated to avoid cross-contamination — take on a new importance in from-scratch kitchens. “When you’re looking at designing your kitchen, you’re going to have more definition to stations,” says Camilleri. That means separating the “raw proteins — chicken, steak — things that have to be contained from a cross-contamination standpoint,” he says. “You’re providing more hand sinks adjacent to prepping areas. And probably more dedicated prep sinks — one could be dedicated to produce washing.”

That can, of course, lead to extra costs, cautions De Pue. He points out that it can become quite expensive to have each station have access to running water or a fridge or freezer.

Undercounter refrigerators and freezers with worktops can do double duty, providing storage and increasing usable workspace. Franke says he’s gotten away from speccing full-size coolers. “Worktops are more functional. You get more space; you get to do something on top of it,” he says.

And if the equipment doesn’t have a worktop, it can sometimes be made into a worktop. Dritsas explains that Whiskey Cake has installed larger and deeper sinks in its prep area to accommodate washing fresh vegetables. To increase their functionality, he says, “we mount cutting boards that get inserted into the sink and become flush, so when you’re not using the sink, you can accommodate one or two more bodies to help facilitate the prep.”

feat The Henri DC 0653 1The centerpiece rotisserie.

Equipping for Freshness

Choosing the right equipment is essential when dealing with fresh ingredients. For Camilleri, that means blast chilling and shock freezing, not just for convenience but for the integrity of the food itself. Sometimes, he says, traditional freezers allow moisture to get into a product and “it’ll expand that product. Adding water to anything obviously takes away from the food integrity.” He believes American kitchens are a full 10 to 15 years behind their European counterparts in the usage of blast chillers and shock freezers.

A sous vide machine plays an essential role in De Pue’s kitchens. “I think it’s a must today,” he says. “It preserves your ingredients. You have cooking techniques that allow you to tenderize a duck breast or whole chicken or whatever. I’m fond of it because you can really control the freshness and quality of a product.”

Franke believes there isn’t a significant difference in the types of equipment a kitchen that’s doing from-scratch prep needs because like any other type of kitchen, from-scratch kitchens still need basic equipment “to execute cooking bacon, making desserts or firing items on the line,” he says. “I haven’t found where I’ve [needed] more equipment for a from-scratch kitchen — maybe a couple more cutting boards.”

feat The Henri PDR ALLThe private dining room can seat up to 100 guests. Photos courtesy of The Henri

Kitchen to Customers

As the final step of the service process, staff education can become an invaluable tool in communicating the benefits of fresh preparation to customers. Monni says his pasta makers love being right in front of the customers. “They love to express themselves and educate people on what they are doing,” he says.

Whiskey Cake instructs its front-of-the-house staff about the items it serves and where those foods come from, Dritsas adds. “We take our teams to those sources via field trips to connect the two worlds together,” he says. The restaurant also hosts whiskey pairing events throughout the year where chefs create seasonal menus. “We invite the producers to talk to guests face to face about what they do and why they do it,” he says. “What better way of hearing the passion and purpose of a product than [by] connecting the artisan who is producing it to the end user?”