Any way you slice it, chop it, or dice it, food preparation equipment is a key to kitchen staff productivity your operation. Many, if not all, menu items require at least one of its ingredients 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 preparation 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 important.
Slicers for the most part will slice just about any foods including meats (raw and cooked), vegetables of all sorts, cheese, and many other common products.
Most slicers are called 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.
The fully automatic models are similar except the carriage moves back and forth automatically, increasing productivity since the operator is 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. The indexing carriage automatically pushes the product against the knife at each slice to assure 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. The machines can stack sliced product or arrange in vertical, horizontal, or circular shingles for building party trays of cold cuts.
Most manufacturers' slicers are quite similar in both operation and appearance but the differences are in the details. Most machines use either a 10 or 12” 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 anti-microbial protection built into components of the unit.
Slicer 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 removable without tools for cleaning. Features like easy tilting carriages save a lot of time in getting to the blade for cleaning.
The best slicers have features that protect the operator from the blade edge while cleaning to reduce accidents. Features as simple as rubber feet on the slicer base to keep the unit from moving easily are helpful. Some have electrical interlocks that prevent the slicer from running while certain parts are not properly in place. Another good feature for automatic slicers is a carriage that won't start moving unless it is in proper position to avoid getting bumped. Some automatic units do not start again without resetting after a power outage.
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 you need. 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 processor 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.
Many food processors are available with a wide range of attachment plates. Some manufacturers make as many as 35 attachment plates to meet the special preparation requirements of most any operation. You can get just about any cut you need. For example, one manufacturer makes eight different sized julienne plates just for one processor.
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 range of units is wide to fit an operation's needs. The average unit needed for most restaurants has a 1/2 horsepower motor. For the large establishment, a one-horsepower model will usually suffice. Even a one horsepower unit takes up less than two square feet of counter space but can produce a whole lot of food. Using the food processor for preparing vegetables can be a true labor saver.
Another processing item that is relatively new on the market and often incredibly useful is the blixer, a hand held unit similar to a blender but with features of a food processor. These units come in a variety of sizes as well as different horsepowers depending upon your needs. Blixers are great at mixing salad dressings or making purees. Their high speed cutting and mixing blade make them unique.
Don't get into one of the more common pitfalls of food preparation equipment purchasing: over buying. Too often, operators select unnecessarily large slicers or processors that are more expensive and wind up not being used to full capacity. 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 that specializes in planning foodservice facilities. A member of Foodservice Consultants Society International (FCSI), Bendall can be reached at 240-314-0660.