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Kitchen confidential: the secret chef on automation

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Chef is happy to embrace technology in the kitchen, but only if it supports the people working in it

I am no Luddite, but I’m not, by any stretch of the imagination, an early adopter. When it comes to technology I tend to wait a few years before fully committing to anything new, shiny and electronic. While I own an iPhone, I’m several incarnations behind current models and my kitchen was populated with utilitarian (and mostly analogue) kit as opposed to the shiny, computer-operated gadgetry that is now available to us.

A small price to pay

I adopted a similar approach when it came to business management and front of house technologies. The ancient point-of-sale (POS) system I inherited lasted about two years before my general manager finally insisted it be replaced by something more reliable and less Neolithic. Admittedly, it did change the business significantly, even if it was used to only a miniscule fraction of its full potential. Tracking margins, average spend and stock became easy and it even helped to catch a thief.

Admittedly the sound of a ticking printer vomiting out yet another check didn’t quite have the romance of a waiter quietly intoning: “Ca marche, chef, table six, four covers tasting menu,” and handing me a hand-written ticket, but it was a small price to pay.

Last summer’s brief consultancy secondment to a $5m project a few thousand miles away from my hometown was a different story entirely. Here the owner took the view that if it could be mechanised, automated or digitised it should be. Paper, in all its forms, was a virus to be eradicated at all costs, whether it was a supplier invoice or kitchen docket. Tedious weeks were spent inputting scores of minutiae of data into expensive software systems. I undertook a month- long search for a fully automated kitchen display screen setup. Not only would this rid the kitchen of the scourge of paper but would ensure we would no longer require the front of house to undertake the task of calling away tables.

Rota systems were created with an app and all communication was electronic. Orders had to be placed using yet another computer programme, which relied on the data input being correct and prices remaining unchanged. Recipes, complete with exact quantities and portion sizes, needed to be uploaded in order to enable minute-by-minute gross margin calculations. Invoices needed to be reconciled against orders, which in turn needed to be reconciled against weekly stock counts. All this at the same time as running a busy kitchen and trying to cook two, sometimes three, services a day.

Replacing relationships?

Despite how it sounds, I’m not rallying hard against progress in all its forms. Refrigeration monitoring technology has the potential to save thousands of dollars in lost stock, not to mention the prevention of food-borne illnesses. I shudder to think what I have spent over the years on polishing glassware and cutlery, but modern cleaning systems eradicate this at the push of a button. New ovens and other kitchen-based advancements have eased the chef ’s job no end and I certainly won’t be going back to an antiquated POS system any time soon.

However, where that particular owner was wrong was in thinking that machines and software could replace relationships and proper management. In this most personal of industries, one that lives or dies by the strength of the relationships that are formed on every level, no technology should ever be relied upon to such an extent.

Trust, communication and understanding still remain at the root of what we do and what I witnessed while away from home was a swift erosion of morale and motivation, with no thought from the owners given to the relationships that really matter: those between management and staff, chef and supplier, and kitchen and front of house. In the space of just a few months two head chefs, two general managers, a bar manager and a sommelier had followed me out of the door. And what happened to those expensive kitchen display screens that would revolutionise the way service ran? They sat upstairs in the office, gathering dust, as that little printer reliably kept on spitting out tickets into the hands of another new head chef.

The secret chef