I had a problem. The power was out, unlikely to be fixed for days, and I didn't just have a whole cold room full of food, but three freezers full too. Cyclone Grace was moving away now, but she'd left fifteen million dollars’ worth of damage in her wake. Five hundred and seventy millimetres of rain had fallen. Down on the coast there was massive flooding. Landslides and fallen trees had ripped down power lines and closed roads. Portable power generators were suddenly as rare as rocking horse poo. I knew what the solution was – do nothing.
The whole region was a disaster area, so the eighty-seat bistro was going to be bereft of customers for a while. I emptied the reach-in fridges and cooked a huge lunch for two local staff and a few mates cut off from work. In the next thrre days, not once did I touch the cold room or freezers. I lived close by and when the power came back on, it took me mere minutes to get to the kitchen. The cold room temperature display showed eight degrees – not ideal, but pretty good considering. I turned the power back on at the mains, fired up the coffee machine, checked everything electrical in the place, cleaned the reach-ins and had two flat whites before the cold room hit the temperature required.
I opened the cold room door. Twenty litre buckets crammed onto the floor were filled with water and empty ice bags. I took them out and checked all the food. The fruit and veggies easily passed muster. I tasted some milk and cheese - all good. I opened jars and tubs, sniffing and tasting. Everything was tickety-boo. The freezers were fine too, still below zero, and filled with all the freezable food from the cold room.
I know the tropics, so cyclones, heavy rain and long power outages weren't a novelty to me. As the storm formed, I had got half an iceberg’s worth of extra ice. Our kitchen hand lived next to the bistro and when the power failed, we sprang into action. Working by flashlight we filled twenty litre buckets with all the ice in freezers and positioned them by the cold room door. The meat and seafood in the cold room, all previously packed in easy to handle tubs, was quickly brought out. Then the buckets of ice went in. The cold room door was open for about a minute. We filled the freezers with all the expensive protein and that took another minute. With a bit of forethought, I'd saved thousand dollars’ worth of stock. The walk-in cold room is the chilly heart of the kitchen and no-one wants it going into cardiac arrest. In a kitchen like this one, semi-remote and in the tropics, a back-up generator is ideal. We got one after Grace’s visit.
Even when the power is on, maintaining the temperature of cold-rooms, fridges and freezers is not something that can be done half-baked. First job in the morning? Cast a thermal eye upon fridges, freezers and cold rooms and check they’re chilling at 4° or freezing at -18°. Air flow to these essential white-goods cannot be impeded by boxes of soft drink, broken table umbrellas or runaway tea-towels. Evaporator fan vents, coils and compressors must be kept clear of ice, dust and fluff.
Maintaining proper temperatures during service is another story. Gauge needles and digital number displays rise and rise as service hits, and fridge doors open and close, often several times a minute. The kitchen’s ambient heat gets in amongst all the cold food and this influx of heat can cause the reach-in fridge’s fans to ice up.
Now an insane heavy-metal noise fills the kitchen; fan blades spinning at a few thousand RPM against the ice. Industrial music and German hard-techno have nothing on this baby. Kitchens are noisy, but this sonic assault will cleave your skull in twain. The immediate solution is to turn the unit off until the ice melts. Remember to turn it back on though!
In humid climes the evaporator pans that collect fridge waste-water overflow quickly. Plastic buckets are used to collect this water – on the top shelf of cold rooms and tucked under reach-ins. If left to sit for days–the water goes rancid and knocking this kitchen juice over creates an awful stink. Another reason to keep a sharp eye on these crucial machines.
Food must be covered against the Antarctic dryness of the cold. Uncovered food takes but a few hours to get as desiccated and crusty as Tutankhamen’s nasal passages. Very importantly, all this air-proofed food must be individually dated with the day and week. Some smarty-pants invented seven separate colour coded rolls of stickers with each day of the week printed on them. It’s a cute idea, but busy crew use a rolls of masking tape and permanent markers. And always put these items back in the same spot! Not under tea towels and prep lists damnit!
Cold rooms and fridges have a maddening flaw – they are a finite space. Sometimes events, functions and tour groups mean that shelves are packed solid and tubs cover the floor. You can't actually get inside the cold room until you have taken some food out. With this perched on that, stacked on this under that, removing things becomes a time-consuming game of Jenga.
With cold-rooms as packed as this, the necessity of rotating stock in the cold room – moving the oldest food to the front – becomes even more essential. Otherwise awful entropy takes over. Food grows funky green Afros, jars noxiously bubble, and spoiling fruit and veg release dribbles of rank liquid. A cold room is set at four degrees but things still go off – just more discreetly. Whenever I’ve been job hunting, I'd always give the cold room a good sniffing. If something smelt bad in there at four degrees, then it had to be really stinking. Like the place.