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Expert dishes out thoughts on the future of induction cooking
For years, induction cooktops have been a staple of high-end and well-designed homes in the U.S. and Europe. But in the U.S. restaurant kitchens, chefs and kitchen designers are slowly waking up to the benefits of induction cooktops. We tapped Dan Farmer, the general manager of CookTek, to talk about what’s taking induction cooking to the commercial cooking space. CookTek focuses on inductive cooking solutions for the front and back of the house.
To start, can you talk a bit about some of the newer applications of induction cooking?
We’re starting to see it in display cooking concepts where customers pick the ingredients and the workers assemble your order in front of you. There are some concepts that will use four to six of our built-in woks in that build station, and once you pick all your ingredients, they dump them in the wok, give them a little 45-second stir fry and pop them into a bowl. That visual is a nice little add-on, and it adds a lot of appeal. The back of the house is a different story. One thing that induction does really well is, it boils water fast. So you see a lot of chefs using it for a pasta station. In some restaurants, you have product that comes in bags and sits in a freezer until it’s ready to be cooked. Put that bag into a slow boiling pot of water, and that’s how you would thermalize it. Another place you’ll find induction are stations that don’t need a hood. Some great examples of this are heated carving tables, warm buffet stations, or planchas that can be used to sear proteins quickly – like tuna, steak, or items cooked sous vide. You throw all of the desired ingredients together in an induction wok to heat up the contents and help mix the various flavors together.
In the residential setting, we talk a lot about the learning curve with induction. How are chefs and cooks adapting?
Our culinary team talks about this a lot. There’s definitely a bigger emphasis on prep, because induction is going to heat the metal fast. Gas is slower. With gas, most chefs are going to set a gas burner at three-quarters for sauté, then walk away and salt their pasta or chop some vegetables, and come back two or three minutes later when the pan is hot. If you do that with induction, the food will be almost fully cooked in those 2-3 minutes, and you wouldn’t have had the chance to turn it once. It’s much more important to have everything prepped ahead of time. Acclimating to the efficiency and speed that the pan heats up will give chefs all the experience they need to be able to do even gentle things, like a cream-based soup or a salted caramel. Another aspect that chefs need to consider is the pans’ construction. In order for induction cooking to work, chefs need to use pans made with ferrous metal so that heat is conducted efficiently. There’s a little bit different education for the chef from that standpoint, but by taking a refrigerator magnet to the bottom of a pan and seeing how attracted it is will tell you if your pan is compatible.
What are some of the things that are holding induction back?
The availability and the cost of gas has really put a dent in the adoption of induction technology. Cooking with gas as a source of power is inexpensive, however, it requires an exhaust hood, which can be one of the biggest costs in the back of the house, and the installation can cost even more than the hood itself. But restaurants that aren’t cooking with gas might not need a hood. We see newer restaurants expressing more interest in full induction, one, because it may not require a hood, and two, because some areas away from cities just don’t have access to gas utilities. The next question is, and this might come down to the building inspectors at a county or city level: What are you cooking. Is it greasy enough to require a hood? Some fire code agencies will look at it based on the power rating. For example, if it’s 1,800 watts or more, it might require a hood. Others might look at the menu to make a determination.
Can you give us a sense of what you’re working on in terms of induction? Look, design, aesthetics?
We’re looking to do a little bit of a reimagining of our countertop lineup and part of that will be looking at how we can utilize glass, what we can add to it, what kind of things we can put underneath the glass to add to the user appeal. One of the things we wanted to explore for 2018 is the way SCHOTT can make a deep bowl in the glass sheet. I think for some applications, it might be more attractive than dropping a glass bowl into a metal frame. We also recently had an inbound inquiry from Dubai. They wanted to know if they could have their cooktop in white glass instead of black. That’s a simple question, but this is coming all the way from Dubai. For most manufacturers, there’s no customization. What you see is what you get. I want to get to a point with our induction cooktops where customers can say “I want the 2,500 watt induction cooktop but with a blue backlit white top. And I’d like to have certain colors stream through that.” And the ability to do that is there, just nobody’s offering it in the marketplace. On the catering side, we can put an induction house underneath a sheet of granite and send the current through the granite to the chafing dish to keep it warm. We call it incognito because there’s not Sterno, no gas, and you don’t see anything happening, you just know that that chafing dish is warm.
What are some the things you’ve seen in residential cooking that you’d like to see in commercial cooking?
Residential induction ranges often come with visual indicators of how high the power is or whether the area around the induction coil is hot. In commercial, it’s still early. I’d like to incorporate more of that kind of under-glass lighting to show visual cues for how hot a cooktop is, or how much energy is being used.
What’s the blue-sky next step in commercial cooking?
We have a platform for countertop cooking where it’ll walk a line cook through each step of a recipe. Let’s say you manage a major chain restaurant – which traditionally has a lot of turnover – and you have a new line cook every so often. How can we speed up the education process? One way to do this is by having a touch screen with instructions. Pick the recipe and it’ll say “put the pan on, next step, add more noodles next step, sauté the mushrooms first, and add them to the cream-based sauce.” It’ll automatically turn the power up or down depending on where the chef is in the recipe. It walks that hourly employee through the recipe process, so you can execute that recipe consistently, time and time again, exactly the same as a different branch location 2,000 miles away. And I could see that adapting into the commercial back of the house range, within the next few years.