Any way you slice it, chop it, or dice it, food preparation equipment is a key to kitchen staff productivity. Most menu items require at least one ingredient to be diced, sliced or processed in some way. Almost without exception restaurants depend on preparation equipment to speed these processes along. Since your operation depends on food prep equipment for quality, quantity and consistency, it pays to know what you should have in the well-equipped kitchen.
The slicer is an important basic preparation piece. There are a variety of slicers on the market with many options, but for most operators, getting a fast, consistent portion- controlled slice is key. Slicers for the most part will slice just about any foods including meats (raw and cooked), vegetables of all sorts, cheese and many other products.
Most slicers are gravity feed models that have an angled blade and carriage to help the product slice using its own weight and allow sliced product to fall away from the blade naturally. The operator manually moves the carriage with food back and forth against a motorized rotating blade in semi-automatic models.
Fully automatic models are similar except the carriage moves back and forth automatically, leaving the operator free to do other tasks while product is being sliced. An automatic slicer is most useful for operations requiring a large volume of bulk sliced product. Some of the more expensive models can even automatically portion sliced meats. An important feature to look for, especially if you require a lot of thin sliced meats, is an automatic indexing carriage. It automatically pushes the product against the blade at each slice to ensure a consistent thinly sliced meat. There are also some high-end slicers with computerized controls that can slice meat or cheese in a variety of patterns, ready for use in an attractive deli platter. They're ideal for party tray creation.
Most manufacturers' slicers are quite similar in operation and appearance, but the differences are in the details. Most machines use either a 10- or 12-inch hollow ground blade, which is suitable for most production work. A larger blade diameter and a higher amperage rating usually mean a more powerful unit. Useful extra features to look for are built-in knife sharpeners and built-in antimicrobial protection.
Safety features are not to be overlooked. The most important thing to look for is how the machine is cleaned. New models are typically very easy to clean with few parts to be removed in the process. Select a slicer that you find easy to disassemble for cleaning. Many machines can have the knife guards and carriages easily removed without tools for cleaning. Features like easy tilting carriages save a lot of time in getting to the blade for cleaning.
Many food preparation tasks go beyond straight slicing. Suppose you need either diced potatoes, shoestring french fries or julienne carrots, or all three. The food processor is the one piece of equipment needed. Most can perform many cutting actions with speed and consistency. The number and sizes of the different cuts are only limited by the number of “plates” made for a particular model.
There are both continuous feed and bowl type processors on the market. Where consistent cut is important, typically a continuous feed machine is used. Although the unit is capable of doing many other products, vegetables are the most processed food type. The typical unit consists of a motor base, a continuous feed and discharge chute and space for one of a selection of removable round cutting plates between the chutes. The continuous feed of product ejects the cut food through the discharge chute, which can be positioned above a pan or container. The food is cut only once and a uniform consistent product results. Each cutting plate is made to produce a very specific cut. Some manufacturers make as many as 35 attachment plates to meet special preparation requirements.
The other processor type, the bowl processor, does some products similarly, but most processes are different from the continuous feed models. These machines have a cutter bowl, which allows the food processor to work like a blender or vertical cutter/mixer. Food processed in a bowl can be chopped, blended or even pureed. The bowl attachment can be used to mix ingredients or even to knead dough. The cut for vegetables, of course, will be less consistent, but can be a very fine chop. Most bowl type food processors are quite fast, especially the larger models. Where consistent cut is important, typically the continuous feed machine is the unit to use.
For the most flexibility in various types of food processing, choose a processor with both a bowl and continuous feed attachment and a variety of processing plates. These are the hybrid combination models that are capable of doing both fine consistent vegetable processing and vertical cutting and mixing as well. These combination models have a single motor base which can be used with a continuous feed attachment or a bowl for cutting and mixing. The combination unit may be the right choice if there are a variety of products to be done.
What size unit should you buy? The average unit needed for most restaurants has a one-half horsepower motor. These units are adequate for a small- to medium-sized restaurant. A one-horsepower model will usually suffice for larger operations.
A common pitfall of food preparation equipment purchasing is over-buying. Too often operators select unnecessarily large slicers or processors that are more expensive than need be and aren't used to full capacity. If you want to save money, buy the smallest unit that meets your needs. Look at the manufacturer's production claims and you can usually see some very large processing capacities for small machines.
Dan Bendall is a principal of FoodStrategy, a Maryland-based consulting firm specializing in planning foodservice facilities. A member of Food-service Consultants Society International, he can be reached at 241-314-0660.