Function junction

Is technology evolving to suit caterers, or are caterers evolving to suit technology?

Tallulah Speed spoke to two university kitchens about their approach to equipment and how it impacts their operation

Like death and taxes, ‘advances in technology’ has the ring of eternal inevitability to it, as new equipment supplants old, and developments that address a breadth of everyday obstacles are brought out at an ever-increasing pace. A natural focus of this furious innovation is the kitchen, with meal-making being one of the most diversely functional and physically rigorous activities still widespread in a world that has otherwise moved primarily online.

From ovens to freezers, modern kitchens are entirely reliant on technology, and modern commercial kitchens doubly so. But when it comes to kitting them out, should it be advances in equipment dictating the menus or changes to menus dictating the equipment? We spoke to two universities that both boast top catering operations, but take very different approaches to technology behind the scenes.

Gavin Brown is General Manager at the University of Sheffield, an HEI with a highly lauded and extensive catering division that covers 15 cafes and an international food court, some of which are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. As the food and drink offering has grown within the University so too has the workforce, and in employing students they have created a much more flexible workforce, with shifts aligned to complement the peak hours of the business.

For Brown, keeping abreast of new innovations is a vital part of the commercial kitchen. “We have built our menus and our business around equipment improvements driven by technology,” he says. Currently at the University of Sheffield that means impingement ovens, for a style of cooking that uses air-movement principles similar to convection ovens. While conventional convection ovens move air using a fan, impingement cookers feature nozzles that funnel the heat directly onto the foodstuff, for quicker and more efficient cooking.

“The cooking process is fast and efficient with no compromise to quality,” comments Brown. “We can cook a rump steak chargrilled medium-rare with chips and fresh salad in less than three minutes – and the quality is not compromised. Plus, we can cook hot deli sandwiches in 60 seconds; whilst a customer waits for a coffee their hot deli sandwich is cooked, so both are ready to go at the same time.” It’s easy to see how this kind of advance would have huge benefits for both caterer and customer, with the improved oven speed increasing the production volume within the kitchen, cutting queues and improving the customer experience in the cafeteria.

Impingement ovens aren’t the only new technology Brown’s team are benefiting from. Induction cooker technology has enabled the University to develop live cooking stations, where the team cook authentic fusion food, as well as flame-grilled burgers and hand-stretched pizzas. Because heating through electrical induction leaves the workstation safe to touch, cooking front of house is now much more accessible to commercial caterers, and the University of Sheffield has truly capitalised on this, with theatre cafes, bake houses and theatre bakeries. The popularity of open kitchens in restaurants has proven the advantages of in-situ catering, giving the customer complete confidence in the product, creator and cooking method.

Despite an enthusiasm for new cooking advances, Brown is clearly aware of the limitations of technology, and tells me that, at the University, vending machines are used only for self-service. “We have built our business around creating a live interactive customer experience,” he states. When it comes to fostering a brand and inspiring loyalty, machines may cut queues but they’re ultimately unemotional and unlikely to galvanise the hearts and minds of hungry students. Instead, the University has a strong team of multi-skilled staff making goods front of house, instilling confidence in the quality and freshness of the products sold. As Brown puts it: “Bringing your kitchen and catering team out from the kitchen and recognising they are a selling tool will offer added value to the customer experience.”

At Manchester Metropolitan University, five years of restructures, a reduction in catering staff and a move to less spacious environs has left the team with an entirely different set of criteria when it comes to choosing catering equipment. For them, the best kitchen technology is not necessarily the latest or most advanced, but rather the most flexible, and robust. “We use traditional designs really,” says Jacqueline McPeake, Head of Catering at the University, “because it needs to last. It needs to be robust enough to manage the quantities.”

Winners of ‘Best Catering Service’ at the 2014 CUBO awards, McPeake’s team were recognised by judges for the creation of their highly popular ‘world menu’, incorporating Mediterranean and Middle Eastern foods while using ingredients that were sustainable, seasonal and locally sourced, in-keeping with the HEI’s green credentials.

But the success of their cuisine has meant a surge in output, with a huge rise in demand throughout the University. The two catering areas at the Business School alone take over 2,000 transactions daily, more than double the projected 900.

With such high demands on the kitchen, it’s easy to see why McPeake’s team elect for hard-working equipment over futuristic bells and whistles. “We don’t have any dynamic kitchen equipment because we’ve got limited space,” she comments. “So the things we do ask for are multifunctional pieces such as Bratt pans, where they can be dual purpose.” McPeake lists the most useful piece of equipment in their kitchens as a Rational oven, “because they’re flexible, we can pre-program them, they’re easy to clean, easy to maintain, and we can use them for large functions where we need quality and consistency.”

The heavy-duty nature of the Rational oven makes it a great choice for behind the scenes catering, but similar to Sheffield, Manchester Metropolitan have tuned into the benefits of induction hob for front-of-house food creation. “In our newest location on the Birley campus we’ve got an induction hob on the counter in the service area, which allows us to have a chef’s theatre,” confirms McPeake. “So we’ve been able to bring in a street food menu, which has been really successful. And that’s directly as a result of the equipment we’ve got.” The daily changing street food menu complements the world menu, while offering a fresh new slant courtesy of its WYSIWYG credentials.

While space plays a big factor in this kitchen, there are still time-saving technologies without any significant volume. One of McPeake’s top recommendations is the Digitrak fridge and freezer monitoring system, which connects all refrigeration systems to a central computer, logging temperatures and alerting staff to any sudden changes. Keeping a consistent log saves time for chefs day-to-day, but as an insurance against open doors or electrical faults spoiling food stock, the system is invaluable.

Additionally, outside of the kitchen advances in equipment are improving the student experience degree by degree. The new vending machines coming to campus feature media screen technology, meaning users can actually digitally manipulate their chosen product to view nutritional information or other salient packaging information. Although perhaps not life- (or even day-) changing in the grand scheme of things, the screens represent another small step towards the devolution of power from the provider to the consumer.

As student numbers swell, demands on university kitchens are only set to rise, while diverse and sophisticated menu requirements also seem likely to further complicate operations. Keeping appraised of emerging innovation is an essential part of any manager’s remit, but the validity of new acquisitions need to be weighed against several factors, including budget, space, flexibility and longevity. With even the most complex equipment fundamentally just a tool, whether your kitchen is fitted up to the eyeballs in next-gen technology, or wall-to-floor with tried-and-tested traditional catering equipment, in truth it’s the staff who operate them who are the genuine game changers.

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