Some believe display cooking is a fad and will soon go the way of leisure suits. I argue that it’s a trend that is here to stay. There is no doubt the wow factor of an open kitchen is a vital part of a restaurant’s overall appeal.
Open kitchens are popular with guests for three main reasons. First, they provide a certain level of action or entertainment. People tend to be more comfortable where there is activity and the display kitchen offers the sizzle of the steak and the flame of a grill. Next, guests like to know where their food is coming from. Having the kitchen open says the restaurant has nothing to hide. Third, food away from home is about an experience and an open kitchen offers both a design and a culinary experience
Many equipment items can be easily adapted to the open kitchen. Some look better than others or provide a cooking process that is especially pleasing to watch. Then there are some items that tend to be suited perfectly for the cooking style. We will discuss several of those items, including induction cooktops, pizza ovens, rotisseries and ranges.
We say wood-burning “style” because while it may look like wood is the fuel source, an increasing number of these ovens are gas-fired. Real wood ovens are becoming less popular largely because of increased restrictive fire and exhaust emissions regulations.
Most wood-burning-style pizza ovens are shaped like igloos. Typically they have a massive stone hearth, firebrick sides and can weigh as much as 3,000 pounds. The bulk of stone and brick is key to the oven’s most important feature, its ability to store heat. Recovery time when doing high volume is generally not an issue. The ovens are also surprisingly energy efficient.
Most ovens range in size from about 9 to 30 square feet of cooking surface. The overall diameter of an oven with a nine-square-foot cooking surface is about five feet when all the fire brick and insulation are added. This small unit can hold up to 10 pizzas at a time and produce up to 100 pizzas in an hour. Pizzas can be baked in as little as three minutes, but may take five to seven minutes depending on toppings.
Induction cooktops have found their way into restaurants in a big way. The induction units have become a regular component of many buffets and open cooking areas where sauté or stir-fry work is done. They have a wonderful, clean look and do a great cooking job in an open kitchen.
The advantages of induction are that it is quick, clean and energy efficient. Induction is generally cheaper and safer to use than traditional gas or electric burners. The heat to your pan is instant and they use full power only when there is a magnetic load to heat, making them often less expensive to operate than gas or electric burners. Induction cooktops are generally safer, especially in buffet applications, than similar gas or fuel burners because there is no open flame and surrounding surfaces are relatively cool.
One of the most important factors in getting the most out of your induction cooktop is choosing the right pan. Not just any pan will do and not even any iron pan will cook well. Pans have their own efficiency based on their construction. The best pans are said to be the multi-ply metal pans made for induction. The drawback is the cost, generally two to three times that of a typical kitchen sauté pans.
The Display Line
Ranges of all sorts can be used in a display line. Some units look better than others and the way the cook line is arranged can also affect appearance. Island ranges make an especially attractive cooking display if you have the necessary space. These cooking groups have only recently made an impact on the American dining scene, but will become more popular in coming years. The great thing about an island cooking arrangement is that it merchandises well and, when operated properly with trained staff, can help put on a tremendous show.
An island unit is essentially a two-sided range battery with every needed cooking equipment item mated together in one piece without walls or tall range flues between. Most U.S. manufacturers have recently added the style to their offerings. The functional advantage of the island range is that it allows food product to be passed around the battery during the cooking process. Chefs can communicate back and forth better than in the traditional line cooking battery.
Just about every type of cooking equipment can be built into an island range. Open burners, fryers, griddles, broilers and even bains marie and salamanders can be fitted exactly where needed for your particular menu demands. Work top space and shelves can also be included. Every unit is custom made, which explains its higher cost over a traditional range lineup. Island units are also more costly because they have a special finish, brass trim, side rails or other features to provide an impressive appearance.
There may be no better way to merchandise many menu items than in a rotisserie. The eye-catching array of succulent foods rotating while cooking is irresistible. Whole chicken is by far the most popular rotisserie cooked food. Manufacturers, however, are now promoting other foods to broaden the use of rotisseries. In addition to the typical skewer spit, some equipment makers produce several types of baskets and other devices to hold various products. For example, several manufacturers make narrow baking pan attachments and promote baking of pastas and casseroles in the rotisserie. Others have baskets to hold items such as fish and vegetables. On most units you can merchandise several products simultaneously.
One important note: Don’t overestimate your rotisserie needs. It’s a bad move to have a rotisserie with nothing cooking on it. Having a small unit always full of product is more appealing than a large empty one.
When selecting display-cooking equipment of any type, there is a wide range of costs. But even if your budget is small, there are options that can enhance your restaurant and the food you are trying to sell.
Here are two last points to which all operators should pay close attention. First, don’t underestimate smaller details of your display kitchen, such flooring, walls and counter surfaces. High quality materials, including natural stone and unique tiles, will greatly enhance the wow factor of your kitchen. Second, stress to your staff the importance of cleanliness. Your open kitchen begs guests to look, so make sure it’s remarkably clean. And make sure your display kitchen staff has clean uniforms and exercises top-notch sanitation. Both these points will help make your display kitchen a memorable experience for your guests.
Dan Bendall is a principal of FoodStrategy, a Maryland-based consulting firm specializing in planning foodservice facilities. He is also a member of Foodservice Consultants Society International. He can be reached at 240-314-0660.