Going stir crazy

Theatre cooking has become an integral part of the contract catering offer in many business and industry sites.

Not only does it demonstrate the skill and flair of the chef, it also allows interaction between kitchen and customer and serves as a valuable element in the customer experience.

It was a desire to develop this experience for its customers that led independent contract caterer Bartlett Mitchell to revamp its facilities at the Office of the Gas and Electricity Markets (Ofgem) headquarters at Millbank, London, calling on Ruislip-based catering equipment installers WilcoxBurchmore for assistance.

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While there was already an open kitchen situation where customers could have stir-fries cooked to order, it was by no means the ideal set-up. Although orders could be placed directly with the chef at an open counter, the actual stir-frying took place at a gas-powered cooking line along the back wall, denying the customer the chance to fully engage in the preparation of their dish.

Armed with a vision of a cooking station that would strike a balance between improving service levels and increasing energy efficiency, WilcoxBurchmore set about creating a tailor-made lunchtime dining solution within the existing footprint.

Cathy Wilcox, director of the company, worked closely with the caterers to formulate and implement a bespoke design that best answered the needs of the catering staff and the demands of the customers, while at the same time slashing energy use.

She also had to bear in mind that with about 1,000 people on site, the nine-strong catering team is tasked with feeding between 500 and 600 customers in the two-hour lunch break on a daily basis. Given the stir-fry bar’s popularity, service needs to be swift to prevent customers going elsewhere for their food.

With WilcoxBurchmore identifying induction as the way forward, the section was equipped with a Varitek front-of-house induction cooking system from BGL Rieber built into an attractive granite-topped servery.

The self-ventilating unit requires no canopy and features interchangeable slot-in modules for wok cooking, pan work and direct cooking. “The Varitek is a really nice piece of kit as it has different cooking mediums — it has got induction and a griddle,” says Wilcox. “They were looking for design innovation in terms of a solution to the queues they had, but also in providing a different meal experience.”

The need to have an abundance of fresh ingredients close to hand, from which customers can select the components of their stir-fries, required sturdy refrigeration units capable of holding large quantities of fresh produce in the most energy efficient manner. Ofgem wanted undercounter refrigeration to maximise worktop space at the back if needed during service. Gram was suggested as the most energy efficient solution and provided a good value-for-money offering, according to the distributor. “In our opinion, Gram is one of the most — if not thee most — energy efficient refrigeration companies,” says Wilcox.

Consequently, two Gram Gastro 07 1/1 Gastronorm counters, each with two refrigerated sections, were installed along the back wall underneath a stainless steel worktop.

Offering a capacity of 255 litres each and a digitally controlled temperature range of +2/+12°C, the units fulfill the energy efficiency requirements of the venue and further boost the site’s green credentials by using environmentally-friendly technology in the form of natural refrigerants and foaming agent.

Another key piece of equipment, also selected for its energy efficient properties and performance, was a Hatco QTS-1 salamander. One day a week the stir-fry bar transforms into an omelette station, with customers choosing their preferred ingredients which the chef cooks and then finishes off under the salamander.

With a similar requirement for speed as the stir-fries, the omelettes created the need for a salamander that would heat up in double-quick time in addition to offering energy efficient operation. With a rapid heat-up time and a plate detection switch to the rear, the Hatco salamander only ever uses energy when it’s required rather than constantly throughout service and can offer energy savings of up to 79%, according to the manufacturer.

Wilcox says the QTS grill is the fifth that the company has now installed. “They are expensive, there is no getting away from it, but they are absolutely fantastic in that they heat up in eight seconds,” she says. “And because they are motion sensitive they will only utilise the elements when the dish is put underneath.”

While WilcoxBurchmore’s work on the dining area is complete, it won’t be the company’s last visit to the site in 2012. Ofgem has now asked it to refurbish its coffee bar later this year and Wilcox is relishing the challenge.

“The project is about making the bar more efficient and I have got some really good ideas, so I am really looking forward to it,” she admits. “We are in the initial stages of design now although they are not going to be doing it until September or October. There is a lot of staff onsite but they miss a lot of people who just want grab-and-go instead of a full meal, so we’re doing a coffee-deli bar with a little section opposite that has a hot and cold grab-and-go offering.”

For WilcoxBurchmore, the very fact that Ofgem has invited it back to redesign its coffee bar area is the best endorsement it could have had that the work it carried out on the kitchen met the client’s goals.

See pictures of the fit-out in our exclusive online picture gallery here.

View from the operator

As the body that regulates electricity and gas markets in Great Britain, Ofgem understandably has to take a rather firm stance on internal power consumption. So when it came to refurbishing its staff food facility, the immediate priority was to assess how it could provide a service in the most sustainable way.

Jim Beaver, contracts manager for Ofgem, says energy efficiency was the most important factor when selecting new catering equipment. “We have government targets for the overall reductions in energy use we have to achieve,” he says.

“The catering operation runs for two hours solid every day all week; that adds up to a lot of hours over the course of a year and makes a significant impact on energy use. Any kit that comes into the building has to be as energy efficient as it can be.”

Additionally, while the kit needs to consume the least amount of power practically possible, it also has to stand up to the rigours of high daily usage during peak dining periods.

“One of our key performance indicators is the queuing time for the customer from entering to leaving with their food. It must be no longer than four minutes,” he reveals. “It is now a much quicker turnaround and besides halving the time of serving customers, the interaction between them and the chef is now there.”

With energy efficient kit from Gram, BGL Rieber and Hatco now installed, the catering team at Ofgem is examining how other themes for the station can be developed using the new equipment. “During the summer months, for instance, there will be a hot salad counter featuring ingredients such as mackerel, chicken, beef, salmon and prawns,” he says. “It’s opened up a lot more possibilities. With the level of versatility available, we could have a weekly menu just for that section.”

Spec sheet

Equipment supplied by the following brands was used during the course of the fit-out:

BGL Rieber Induction cooking system
Gram
Gastronorm undercounters
Hatco Salamander
Storer
Counters

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