Approaching the row of hissing bench-top steamer ovens, I remembered what Lloyd the Sous Chef had said about opening them - be bloody careful! Behind me I could hear his curt commands to the line of busy chefs and cooks, and the ceramic clatter of many plates being dealt onto benches. This was my first shift in the giant kitchen and amongst this line of gleaming steel machines I felt like an escaped lab-rat. I checked the first steamer's timer – 30 seconds to go.
“Chef - where's the steamed veg?” yelled Lloyd. I said nothing and fretfully watched the timer. 20 seconds to go. “Chef! Vegetables please!” Lloyd shouted again. “Just coming chef!” I called back. A bit panicked now, I snapped the steamer switch off and waited for the pressure gauge to hit zero. Lloyd was silent but I could feel dark psychic waves coming from him. The pointer dropped under 50 degrees, then 40 degrees and then . . . bugger it. I stood to one side, jerked on the handle latch and - boufff!! - with an audible thump of released air the door flew back on its hinges, and a big cauliflower and red cabbage smelling cloud of steam blew past me.
As the steam cleared I grabbed the first of six perforated trays filled with steamed veg and rushed it out front. I slid its contents into a warm service bowl and rushed back for another tray. When I brought it to the line, dodging the twisting, moving chefs, I was confronted by a pissed-off looking Lloyd.
“What the hell is this?” he said, holding out the first bowl of steamed veg. Around us cooks were grinning and guffawing. “It's the veg you asked for Chef,” I said.
“What? Pink cauliflower!” thundered Lloyd. I looked into the bowl. It was full of perfectly cooked cauliflower florets . . . all stained pink. I had put the trays of red cabbage above the cauliflower in the steamer.
“You're wasted here,” said Lloyd, as a wave of merriment rolled down the line. “You should be in fucking interior decorating!”
After that I quickly learnt to ask questions about everything to do with any new machine I was going to use.
Kitchens have different kinds of machines to help the crew process and cook large amounts of food. Have a squiz at the potato rumbler - a revolving drum that tumbles the spuds around and around. Its abrasive interior is as rough as low grade sand paper and wears the skins off taters. Water is continuously flushed through the rumbler, washing away the worn-off peel. Don't forget it's on - otherwise kilos of nice potatoes will get turned into useless little marbles.
Anything needed in bulk can be knocked up in the Bratt pan - a giant electric fry-pan, nearly two meters long with deep sides. Things like the classic brown beef stock can be made in this big machine.
Start off with a half litre chug of oil and get it hot. Brown off eighty kilos of beef and veal bones, eight kilos each of rough chopped onions, carrots and celery, pushing everything around with a metre long wooden paddle until it’s caramelized. Add a couple of A 10 tins of tomato paste totaling six kilos and gently fry the paste to release the flavor. Gurgle in ten litres of red cooking wine and use that wooden paddle to to release all that cooked-on crusty goodness from the pan's bottom. Utilise the Bratt-pan's attached water hose to fill it up to the hundred and fifty litre mark. Add a proper handful of black peppercorns and a bouquet garni of thirty cracked bay leaves and four bunches each of thyme and parsley. Lower the big lid, lock it off and set the heat to a good simmer. Six hours later slowly open the lid and inhale the beefy goodness.
Now rotate the control wheel on the side of the Bratt pan to tilt it like a tip-truck. Under the spout place a strainer sitting in the first of seven twenty litre buckets. Keep turning the hand wheel to fill each bucket.
One of the most valuable machines in the arsenal is the bowl mixer. These beasts are heavy-duty all-steel versions of the domestic ones and can deal with a hundred and forty litres worth of ingredients at a time. Universally loved by cooks, they take the ache out of tedious mixing jobs - egg whites, whipped cream, mashes, dough, dressings, mayonnaise, cookie mixes and anything else that requires serious elbow grease. The biggest ones stand on the floor, run on a three point seven five Kilowatt motor and weigh six hundred and fifty kilos. These mothers of all mixers cost anything up to fifty thousand bucks.
The detachable mixing bowl is called the bombe and these babies can cost four grand, so dropping them and ruining the mounting clips is a big no no. As all metal in the kitchen soaks up heat, it's well recommended to pre-cool the bombe in the cold room before whipping and beating things that need to stay cool.
Bowl mixers that sit on benches should not be left unattended. They might weigh a lot but with a heavy load, or on high speed, they can 'walk' along the bench. In one hotel kitchen I was working in, a chef making dough, got chatting away from the mixer. It was on a reasonably slow speed, but full, and as the dough came to together in a lump the mixer went walkabout. There was a horrendous sound - a huge clanging, cracking noise that made everyone jump in fear. The 130 kilo mixer had crashed to the floor, cracking floor tiles, bending levers, snapping off a bombe clip and buggering the engine. The chef got sent on a rocket to Russia.
We could talk about turbo woks, rotisseries, panini presses and about a thousand other bits of vital gear, but in the end two things always dictate what machines a kitchen has - the menu and the volume of service.
Unfortunately for cooking professionals the rapid progress of technology and the quest for efficiency and profits is creating the ultimate piece of equipment - the robocook. These machines will be quicker, cleaner and way more economically viable than their weak human counterparts. They won't get hernias or flip out on drugs. They won't need holidays or pep-talks, and best of all - they are self cleaning. I suspect that the only flesh and blood in the kitchens of the future will be the meat about to be cooked by a gleaming steel and graphite machine.