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Opinion: techno chefs in training

Hi-tech haute cuisine

As a kid, my favorite cartoon was The Jetsons, and one of the show's most memorable images for me is Jane Jetson whipping up a five-course meal for George, Judy and Elroy in a matter of seconds with a few taps of a button. Now, as an adult who likes to tinker around in the kitchen, I'm always on the lookout for the latest gadget that will make my own cooking more efficient or taste better, which admittedly isn't that difficult a task.

My at-home experiments, which more often than not are accompanied by a symphony of smoke alarms, got me wondering how top chefs are more effectively employing technology in their kitchens. My chat last week with Dave Arnold, director of culinary technology for the French Culinary Institute in New York City, gave me some great food for thought on how technology is lending a hand in high-end cooking.

Technologies traditionally used in the commercial and industrial sectors are now starting to trickle into the kitchens of some of the world's most revered restaurants, Arnold said. In fact, he joined the institute last year to help spearhead the development of a food technology lab, set to open this October, that will serve as a haven for chefs-in-training to explore how to use technology to refine cuisine and also as a testing ground to bring new ideas into the culinary community.

"There is a big movement for chefs to use more and more technology, not only in terms of new equipment but in the form of ingredients," Arnold said.

One such technology shift is occurring in the sous vide (French for "under vacuum") style of cooking, in which chefs vacuum-seal meats in plastic bags for slow cooking in lower-temperature waters. This technique can prevent flavour or moisture from seeping out in a hot oven or in hot water and can allow chefs to more precisely control temperatures of the meat while cooking.

To aid in this type of cooking, chefs are looking to technologies to more precisely control temperature, a task that for many restaurants is still handled manually. For example, equipment used in laboratories to keep temperatures at a constant state, such as immersion circulators manufactured by companies such as Poly Science, a division of Preston Industries, are now finding their way into high-end kitchens.

"For chefs, a matter of one or two degrees can have a huge effect, especially with fish," Arnold said.

Some chefs are even playing around with devices such as rotary evaporators, which are used in chemical labs to gently evaporate solvents, as a way to preserve flavours in liquids that would typically boil off, Arnold said.

There is also a new movement in the culinary world to adapt ingredients, such as gums and enzymes, that have been used for decades in the industrial food world. For example, gums used to preserve stability in salad dressings that sit on supermarket shelves can provide unique textures and flavours in dishes, Arnold said. Another industrial technology being adapted for restaurants is spray-dry powders, which are used industrially because they're cheaper to ship than liquids.

"But it's also a really cool new ingredient – vinegar powder, for example, is fantastic on French fries," Arnold said. "That's the kind of ground shift occurring. What's different is they're not using it to save money, they're using it because it's a great ingredient in its own right and it allows you to get an effect you couldn't get before."

Part of the food technology lab's goal is to provide a testing ground for such equipment and ingredients, which present high-cost barriers for many chefs.

"There are many food technologists and food scientists who have had technologies, ideas, procedures and ingredients under their belt for many years, but there has not been a pipeline between them and chefs. What we can do is parse out for chefs what will be good for them, go and find it in the industrial world, and help them apply it. If we can find some new gum or gel that will produce a particular effect in a sauce we'll do it," Arnold said.

"Anything that controls temperature or humidity or slices, chops, blends or pulps in a new and different way is interesting to us. There are some people who like to say that they don't want technology in the kitchen, that it takes away from the romantic notion of a chef tasting sauces and making adjustments here and there, that they're less in touch with the food, but frankly I don't think that's the case. A great chef can cook an amazing meal with a stick and a fire, all these pieces of technology are just another tool in their toolkit."


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