Special report: Innovation back of house

The commercial kitchen is a dynamic and fast-paced environment, in the activity of the chefs and in the technologies used. Jim Banks considers current innovations and those coming over the horizon

The concept of the commercial kitchen has evolved over thousands of years, from the days of ancient Greece and Rome, through the first well-planned and structured cooking areas with cast-iron stoves of the Song dynasty at the end of first millennium in China, through to the first establishment known as a restaurant in 18th century Paris, to the ergonomic and increasingly automated kitchens of today.

This evolution has seen incredible leaps forward in back-of-house technology, whether for cooking, refrigeration, food prep or dishwashing. That process of innovation continues today, as machines take over more and more manual processes. On this journey, there have been many major milestones, and there are many more to come.

Cost, customers, codes

The 20th century was all about electrical appliances, plastics, and the standardization of processes. The 21st century will focus on digitization, robotics, data analysis from connected appliances, sustainability and more flexibility in the design of menus.

“Now, there are three overarching themes: cost, because margins in foodservice are so tiny; customers, whose priorities will influence foodservice operations; and codes, because as they change – particularly in regard to sustainability and the push to all-electric or zero-waste kitchens – that will force manufacturers and operators to innovate,” says Tarah Schroeder FCSI, executive principal at US consultancy Ricca Design Studios.

“The cost of construction has been going up a lot, so there are now higher contingencies on projects, and it is hard to see what a project will really cost a year from now,” Schroeder adds. “In response, cost-cutting can also include changes to the operation itself to deliver a menu and meet customer needs with less equipment and a more streamlined design. It is also about doing more with fewer people. That has a big influence on design and the adoption of technology.”

Hot-side revolutions

Cooking is the core task in the commercial kitchen and the technology it uses has consistently evolved. Since the days of the wood-fired stove, the biggest innovation has been the combi-oven, first introduced by Rational 40 years ago. Now used all over the world, combi-ovens allow both steaming, with moist heat, and convection, dry heat. It also has a combi-steaming method combining the two in one appliance.

“I started selling equipment in this industry 60 years ago, and have been in consultancy since 1969,” says UK-based consultant Ken Winch FFCSI, who has designed kitchens at London’s Claridge’s hotel, Windsor Castle, Buckingham Palace and the House of Commons in Westminster, London. “Ovens changed from conventional gas with some electric, and big roasting ovens have disappeared as combi-ovens replace convection ovens.

“When the microwave was introduced, it was going to be the answer to everyone’s problems – it wasn’t,” he adds. “Traditional boiling pans and steaming ovens have been replaced by the tilting and non-tilting pressure cookers and Bratt pans that do just about everything. They offer much more convenience and versatility. Operators are always asking how many functions they can get out of a piece of equipment.”

Automation arrives

The combi-oven instantly replaced up to 50% of conventional cooking appliances and enabled shorter cooking times, as well as reducing the consumption of energy and water. Crucially, they also take up less space in kitchens where real estate is at a premium. Although combi-oven technology is constantly improving, the main thrust of innovation in cooking is now automation.

“There are many benefits to automation, not least because clients are struggling to find skilled staff to run what they have,” Schroeder says. “That is a significant need that operators haven’t had before, and salaries are going up with inflation, so operators are open to new ideas. Automation is the way the market will go, and having the technology to deliver a flexible menu, and be able to keep up with food trends as they change.”

In fact, cooking is no longer the sole preserve of people. At Spyce in Boston, there are no cooks, only robots that take orders from a kiosk and then cook bowl-based meals in under three minutes.Then there is Flippy, the burger-flipping robot, which acts as a fully autonomous kitchen assistant. Designed by artificial intelligence (AI) specialists at Miso Robotics, it helps commercial kitchens boost productivity, ensure consistent quality and allow human employees to focus on front-of-house service.

“The use of robotics will be for mundane, dangerous and repetitive tasks,” says president of consultancy FoodSpace and chair of FCSI Technology Committee Joseph Schumaker FCSI. “Not just Flippy the robot, but actual workhorse robots to help with BOH flow by chopping tomatoes, removing a pan from the oven or assembling a sandwich or a salad. These technologies have existed since the 1950s but the tipping point in foodservice will be camera technology that can see and translate a task into robotic action.”

Cold-side and climate change

Paradigm shifts have also happened on the cold side, the blast chiller being the latest game-changing technology. Now used in commercial kitchens across the world, it has become an integral part of the food preparation process for any business that needs to reheat pre-prepared foods.

Since the invention of the refrigerator in 1842, blast chilling is the most radical reinvention of the cooling and food storage process. By rapidly cooling to a low temperature, it pushes food quickly through the danger zone – between 8˚C and 60˚C – in which harmful bacteria might proliferate, meaning it has a huge impact on food safety.

As well as guaranteeing food safety, the speed of the cooling process results in the formation of smaller ice crystals, so texture, flavor and color are better preserved and there is little loss of nutritional value. Blast chillers, however, consume a lot of energy, so results must be balanced with financial costs and an impact on energy efficiency. Energy consumption is a key concern in refrigeration, and in back-of-house equipment in general as John Thomas FCSI of Sangster Design in Australia is keen to point out.

“In the future, fridges will use more environmentally friendly gases to reduce emissions and they will be sealed systems, so won’t leak as much because there are no valves,” he says. “Maintenance costs will also come down, and they will run better for longer, and at lower cost. Win, win, win and win.”

Thomas pioneered the use of R290 refrigerant-grade propane for commercial refrigeration units, due to its low environmental impact and nominal global warming potential (GWP), though it was initially a hard sell. “We saw lobbying against those fridges, which are now in use everywhere,” he explains. “Some manufacturers even looked for a ban on them. Now, we are looking at other kinds of refrigeration using the magnetocaloric effect. These fridges could use no gas at all.”

Critical skills

According to some studies, magnetic refrigeration could reduce energy use by 30% and requires no refrigerant. The principle behind it was discovered back in 1881. It relies on the property of exotic materials including gadolinium and dysprosium, which heat up when exposed to a magnetic field and cool down when it is removed, which creates the opportunity for temperature exchange.

“Small magnetic fridges are already in use in some hotels,” says Thomas, who is actively engaged in projects in Sydney that will feature zero-carbon kitchens.

“Some say the drivers of innovation are cost reduction and creating faster workflow, but these are just excuses. Sure, you want to save money but that is not sustainable in the long term,” he adds. “How much faster can you cook a meat pie? It might take 25 minutes in your grandmother’s wood-fired stove and 12 minutes in a combi oven, but how much difference does it really make to cook it any faster?”

Whether in cooking, food preparation and storage, or warewashing, Thomas believes consistency and sustainability are the key factors. “Operators are short of staff with critical skills, so any technology that can replace staff is good,” he says. “The real answer, however, is the focus on responsible environmental management – doing more with less as the world’s population grows.”

A connected and sustainable future

The direction of innovation in foodservice is linked with sustainability. Cooking technology is increasingly all-electric, equipment is becoming less energy-intensive, and connectivity is enabling efficient operation.

“Connectivity is still taking its time and manufacturers are ahead of all of us,” says Schroeder. “There are so many benefits to enterprise-level control for the operators. Monitoring of equipment in the kitchen, or across multiple kitchens, helps to control energy efficiency. But even us designers are still trying to understand it, so there needs to be a lot of education.”

“It’s about predictive analytics, AI and machine learning,” says Schumaker. “If I could access the operator’s data and it tied off to inventory management, waste logs, guest feedback, dollar value of each client and external data feeds – all of which exist in different systems that don’t talk to each other – I could create an app and the computer could start doing the ordering for us, recommending specials we need to run, predicting how many pies we will sell tomorrow with high accuracy and much more.”

Thomas not only sees magnetic refrigerators as a potential game-changer, but also foresees a day when dishwashers use no water. “I look forward to the introduction of the waterless dishwasher,” he says. “It is an idea I am pushing, but it needs boffins to work on how agitation, velocity and steam could be used instead of water. If water is scarce, we will find a way to adapt.”

The cycle of back-of-house innovation is getting shorter. The advent of game-changing technologies such as the combi-oven or the blast chiller could come much more frequently in the future, as digitalization, sustainability and automation become the guiding themes of investment by operators. The kitchens of the future will look different, and that future is close at hand

Jim Banks

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