Andrew Seymour investigates the impact that the exploding vegan and vegetarian trend is having on catering equipment specification and kitchen design:
With many restaurant chains now jumping on the vegan and vegetarian bandwagon, there has been debate in the industry about how products such as vegan burgers are prepared in kitchens. For instance, at Burger King, the vegan patty is cooked on the same grill as meat burgers, which has courted controversy for not being truly vegan.
The operator has gained some unlikely support from Veganuary, the influential non-profit organisation that promotes the benefit of vegan diets. It has leapt to Burger King’s defence and suggested that the fixation on the method of cooking is missing the bigger picture, arguing that insisting the chains cooks all of its plant-based burgers on a separate grill would “severely limit” the availability of this option as it would require a significant level of kitchen restructuring.
While there is clear logic to this argument, it is important to note that there are people who do not want to ingest any form of animal product, including even trace amounts. Therefore, do professional kitchens need to overhaul their infrastructure if a site is making any sort of drive into vegan food?
Irene Keal, marketing director at catering equipment distributor Sylvester Keal, thinks you only have to look at the scrutiny that Burger King and other chains have faced to see why it makes sense for operators to consider having dedicated equipment to deliver vegan dishes.
“Many big corporations and smaller independents are trying to appeal to a broader range of diets which is why more plant-based dishes are being made available,” she said. “However, a lot of these foodservice businesses are coming under fire for their preparation methods, with many operators using the same cooking apparatus for both the meat and vegan options. To comply with vegan practice, caterers need to introduce separate cooking equipment to prepare any plant-based product.”
John Benson-Smith, the award-winning chef and F&B consultant at johnbensonsmith.com, agrees that the increase in the variety of vegan dishes on menus certainly has an impact on kitchen design and equipment choice.
“My belief is that vegan food certainly needs to be cooked on separate equipment and prepared in separate areas. I think the industry needs to start taking itself more seriously and investing more heavily in equipment, as well as being more demanding in terms of layout, space and design.
“Whilst we visit some excellent kitchens for clients who are happy to invest and are interested in food quality and having a good ethos and are genuinely fanatical about food, unfortunately there is a great number of kitchens and businesses who don’t take the industry seriously and don’t demonstrate a pride in their metier. Often companies fail to invest sufficiently and this results in them using sub-standard cheaper equipment which is unfit for purpose.
“Customers should expect those who are in the food industry to demonstrate their skills and show their professionalism, to be experts and specialists in their field — and operate accordingly. We would hope that the industry stops resisting change like it has with the allergens, poor examples of which we regularly see on a daily basis, and a lot of establishments remain very customer unfriendly or are treated by chefs as customers who are ’just being awkward’.”
David George, catering consultant at DGCC and Greene King’s former food development chief, believes that rising demand for plant-based dishes requires careful thought about design and equipment choices moving forward.
But he cautioned: “Both common sense and commercial viability must be taken into account, especially with so much pressure on capital expenditure including purchasing, maintenance, utility costs and not to mention labour costs. Ideally anyone designing kitchens of the future or planning on making changes to current templates should take the opportunity to plan in operational methodology and creating segregation where possible, covering delivery, storage, prep, production and service.”
In terms of preparing vegan food, use of the correct utensils and appliances combined with solid training and operational practice shouldn’t make it too difficult for businesses to adopt this policy, especially when all operators should have processes in places for allergens.
The same is also true of the cooking of products, but this takes on the need to ensure segregation, as during service it’s inevitable in most businesses that meat and vegan foods are going to be cooked at the same time.
“Whether there is direct contact or potential for cross-contamination of spraying fats or odours, appliances have to be capable or adaptable to prevent this if you are going to market the foods as vegan. If you take the view currently a catering business must adopt a proven practice of separate tools of the trade to prepare and serve, for example, dishes that contain gluten ingredients for consumers who have an intolerance to gluten, then operators could potentially take the view could a similar practice be applied for vegan products, albeit this is not going to be detrimental to health.”
The decision on whether to bring in separate equipment isn’t necessarily as black and white as it might seem. As one operator explains, while some vegan customers might demand this, others might consider that the net impact of doing this is damaging in other way.
“If you look at generation Y, a very high percentage of them are going down the vegan avenue for environmental reasons. But from a lifecycle perspective, if you want it to be cooked in different equipment, you need to have another fryer. So there is the manufacturing of that, which is a big environmental implication, and then you have got the extra gas consumption of that additional fryer.
“So actually you can’t just look at it on face value because even making these decisions can have another environmental impact elsewhere. We have got a couple of sites where we are putting bigger gas supplies in so we can run more equipment.”
Whatever the stance, it is clearly a sensible move for businesses to review their foodservice procedures and endeavour to introduce changes that ideally don’t cause disruption to speed of serve, quality of food or workflow ergonomics.
According to George: “One thing’s for sure, kitchen space is at a premium in the vast majority of commercial kitchens and therefore simply doubling up is certainly not an option and, to be honest, not necessary. Also separate equipment may not be viable, so this is where manufacturers have to up their game on innovation of multitasking appliances to accommodate different food styles and subsequent requirements.”
He suggests that to help operators’ workflows and menu dish execution challenges, R&D activity should be directed towards effective cavity partitioning, surface segregation or similar functions to facilitate vegan food creation rather than producing two or three separate appliances to do so.
“I am currently creating a new menu combined with designing a newbuild kitchen for a client due to open later this year and I have planned segregation in areas of preparation and storage together with certain key equipment dedicated to vegan produce where practical and possible to do so, which will be complemented with focused training and operational education in ensuring best practice is applied.”
If sales of plant-based products take off in the way that analysts expect, distributors will need to consult with operators to review their kitchen models and be prepared to adapt.