Display kitchens are a trend that is here to stay. There is no doubt the open kitchen “wow factor” can be impressive and is now a very popular feature in many of the hottest restaurants and onsite station concepts.
Open kitchens are popular for three main reasons. First, they provide a certain level of action or entertainment in a restaurant. People tend to be more comfortable where there is activity and the display kitchen offers the sizzle of the steak and flame of the grill. Second, guests like to know where their food is coming from — and that doesn't mean from a can and microwave! Having the kitchen open tells the customer the restaurant has nothing to hide.
Finally, food away from home is about experience and an open kitchen offers both a design experience 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. Among the best are induction cooktops, pizza ovens, rotisseries, and ranges.
We say wood burning “style” because while it may look like they burn wood, almost all of these ovens in onsite applications are gas fired. Real wood ovens have increased restrictions from fire and exhaust emissions regulations.
Most wood-burning “style” pizza ovens have a massive stone hearth and fire brick sides. They can weigh as much as 3000 pounds. The bulk of stone and brick are 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 are round and range in size from about 9 to 30 square feet of cooking surface. Ovens at the smaller end are most common, but they are still large compared to most other cooking equipment. The overall diameter of an oven with a nine square foot cooking surface is about five feet when all the fire brick and insulation is added. This small unit can produce quite a volume of pizzas, however. Pizzas can be baked in as little as three minutes, but may take five to seven minutes depending on toppings. A nine square foot oven can hold 8-10 pizzas at a time, so with experience it is possible to bake up to around 100 pizzas in an hour.
Induction cooktops have found their way into foodservice in a big way. They 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.
Induction is quick, clean, and energy conserving. It is also generally safer to use than traditional gas or electric burners. The heat to your pan is instant and it uses full power only when there is a magnetic load to heat. The safety factor is especially important in buffet applications 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 they are generally two to three times the cost of typical kitchen sauté pans.
Ranges of all sorts can be used in a display line. Some equipment seems to 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 space they require. The great thing about an island cooking arrangement is that it merchandises well when operated properly with trained staff.
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. This configuration is new to American kitchens and American range manufacturers, although most U.S. companies have recently added the style to their lines. The functional advantage of an island range is it allows food product as it is being made to be passed across the range battery and side to side to complete each step of the preparation process. Also, chefs can communicate back and forth better than in a 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 bain maries and salamanders can be fitted exactly where needed for your particular menu demands. Work top space and shelves can also be designed in where required. Every unit is custom made, which is one reason for the upcharge in cost over a traditional range line-up. The other reason for higher cost is the units often have a special finish, brass trim, side rails, or other features to provide an impressive appearance.
Rotisseries are very effective display cooking items. There is hardly anything more tempting than an eye catching array of succulent foods rotating while cooking in its own showcase. They do a great job on offerings from traditional mouthwatering chicken to roasts, vegetables and ribs.
In addition to the typical skewer spit (rods pushed through chickens or forks to hold chickens in place,) some equipment makers produce several types of baskets and other devices to hold various products. For example, several make narrow baking pan attachments and promote baking of pastas and casseroles in the rotisserie. Others make various styles of baskets to hold fish, vegetables, or other items that can't be cooked on the typical skewer. On many units different types of product holders, skewers or baskets can be used at the same time.
Still, don't overestimate your rotisserie needs. There is one thing worse than not having a rotisserie, and that's having a rotisserie with nothing cooking on it. Having a small unit always full of product is more appealing than a large empty one.
Two last points are important to note. First, don't underestimate the importance of the surroundings in your display kitchen. Choose floor, wall, and counter surface materials carefully. High quality materials like natural stone and unique tiles, blended well with the rest of the décor, will greatly enhance the overall customer experience. Second, stress to your staff the importance of cleanliness! You are featuring an open kitchen, begging guests to look. Don't let them look at an unclean area. It is a great disappointment to see a display kitchen only to look at days-old splatter on the walls and trash on the floor. Ensure that staff have clean uniforms and exercise good sanitation practice. 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 that specializes in planning foodservice facilities. A member of Foodservice Consultants Society International (FCSI), Bendall can be reached at 240-314-0660.