What is a healthy kitchen?

Many professional kitchens are now changing to become healthier, more comfortable places to work. Jim Banks considers the drivers of changing attitudes

In the past, the stereotypical commercial kitchen was cramped, hot, noisy and uncomfortable. To some, that was part of its appeal – a challenge to be endured in the name of fine food. Now, with a labor shortage and greater insight into the health hazards posed by such environments, attitudes are changing.

Today, the focus is on creating kitchens with the wellbeing of staff in mind, though this trend is not entirely new. “Even in medieval times they put wooden floors down so the cold didn’t get into chefs’ bones,” says Frank Wagner FCSI of German consultancy K’Drei and the chair of FCSI for Germany and Austria.

“The concept is simple,” he adds. “Make enough space for people to work, with enough light and ventilation, clean air to breathe, a comfortable temperature and an acceptable level of noise. And give people the right tools – equipment that does not break all the time and that is easy to clean. A cheap kitchen means you will lose labor or your quality will not be good enough. A better kitchen means you can find the right people.”

There is a regulatory drive to make kitchens more hospitable. In California the Indoor Heat Illness Regulations require employers to implement control measures for any work areas where the heat index exceeds 87˚F (30˚C). But that is only one reason operators are looking closely at staff wellbeing.

An artistic place

“People say it is a regulatory drive or because of complaints from workers about the hostile environment but I don’t buy either of those,” says Paul Bartlett FCSI, of US-based KitchenSolutions Consulting. “The biggest change is that the kitchen is now a legitimate place where aspiring artisans can do artistic work as a chef. Once people aspired to be leading guitar players, now they want to be chefs.”

“It does matter to operators,” he adds. “The days of chefs throwing knives at you are over. Restaurants try to treat staff well to retain employees as you need a good team in order to win in this industry. So, you need to create a good place to work.”

In fact, the labor shortage is probably a more powerful driver than anything else.

“The next generation is coming,” says Andrey Livchak, director of global R&D at ventilation company Halton. “People consider kitchens to be a hot place and older generations say if you don’t like the heat then stay out of the kitchen, but there is a generational shift in attitude because younger people have more choice about what to do. The pandemic has changed people’s minds, particularly about air quality and thermal comfort. The workforce in the kitchen is precious.”

“There is an outdated view of the kitchen as hot, cramped, noisy and inhospitable, but there is a change happening among owners who want to keep hold of their staff,” says Alexandra Ricciuti, chef and combi business development manager at Vulcan Equipment. “Millennials and Gen Z want a more civilized environment to work in.”

Clearing the air

Many changes can be made to create a more comfortable kitchen environment, but perhaps the most important is to design better ventilation systems.

“Making these spaces efficient, reducing the distance people have to walk, making the flooring less slippery, will all help, although kitchens will always be high-energy, high-stress places to work,” says Ted Doyals FCSI, principal at Ricca Design Studios.

“Ventilation is the biggest thing,” adds Wagner. “The wrong ventilation is killing chefs, which has been known since the 1960s. Ventilation is actually easy. All you need to do is feed fresh air into where chefs are working. If a chef stands in a cloud of fresh air then that helps a lot, and it is more about design than technology.”

Gaylord Ventilation and Halton are often cited by consultants as prime examples of innovative design. No longer is brute force used to exhaust a kitchen, there is now more finesse in how venting and cooling are achieved.

“When it comes to thermal comfort, a study by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) showed that people were opening oven doors to get warm when it was cold, or walking into the freezer to cool down,” says Livchak. “Productivity drops by 25% if temperature is more than 4˚C above thermal comfort levels, which affects labor costs and retention rates.

“Air quality also leaves a lot to be desired,” he adds. “There are many particulates in a kitchen, particularly small ones known as PM2.5 that stay in the lungs and create potential disease. Hood performance and air distribution systems have an impact on PM2.5, so we have new indoor environment quality sensors with all of our ventilation systems.”

These sensors monitor CO2 and volatile organic compound (VOC) levels, temperature, pressure and particulates. Halton has also rethought its ventilation systems in light of the pandemic and the need to combat airborne infection in indoor spaces.

“We are looking at overall restaurant design and using thermal displacement, air-quality sensors and design to reduce airborne pathogens,” Livchak explains. “For existing construction, we can take air from the restaurant, filter it, disinfect it with ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI) and return it.”

“We also have a live project running to optimize the design of the whole restaurant, not just the kitchen,” adds Kamal Moumen, Halton’s head of R&D in France. “Air from the dining room can go to the kitchen because of the difference in air pressure, so there is a risk to the health of employees in the kitchen. To protect employees, especially in the time of Covid, we can separate the dining room into smaller areas with local air supply and exhaust to keep infection in one place rather than spreading to the whole dining room or kitchen.”

Kitchens fit for the future

With productivity and staff retention both burning issues for the foodservice industry, the wellbeing of employees will only become more important.

“We need to make kitchens as efficient as possible to retain staff and one of the first things to come up is poor workflow,” says Doyals. “More people need to be on staff if things are not well laid out, an inefficient kitchen drives up stress levels, and a poor layout will drive staff away. They will leave for better managed and better designed workplaces.”

As well as designers, equipment manufacturers are also looking to improve hot-side working conditions.

“At Vulcan, our range line is modular so it can be put together in any way, so designers can think about a person moving down the line as they work,” says Ricciuti. “We even think about where the hinges should be put to make the oven more comfortable to open. We can help to make the kitchen a place you want to be and where you feel more productive. If operators want to succeed, they should be thinking about that. It doesn’t have to be like being in the trenches or going to war.”

Designers, owners and equipment manufacturers all need to work together to create more hospitable kitchen environments that maximize comfort, wellbeing and productivity. Wagner, however, believes there is one other crucial ingredient.

“We were recently in a high-end restaurant in Berlin with a very nice kitchen environment where the chefs produced amazing quality food in a relaxed and calm environment,” he says. “I asked the owner how he achieved it and he said all he did was ‘not hire idiots anymore’. I’ve done this for 30 years and no one has said that to me before. A toxic environment does not create good quality and people will not stay.”

Jim Banks

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