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Sat 9 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

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Clinical catering

Small restaurants can still survive on the the flair of their chefs alone, but larger catering teams now have to rely heavily on technology to control their operations.

Small restaurants can still survive on the the flair of their chefs alone, but larger catering teams now have to rely heavily on technology to control their operations.

Only a machine could run InterContinental Hotel Group's new development at Dubai Festival City.

The amount of money we’re spending on technology is phenomenal.

But the F&B operations at the 498-room InterContinental Dubai Festival City, 316-room Crowne Plaza Dubai Festival City and 212-apartment InterContinental Residence Suites are run by one man, executive chef Geoff Haviland, with the help of his 280-strong team and an army of high-tech machines.

"The amount of money we're spending on technology is phenomenal. It plays a huge role in modern catering operations in regards to communication, procurement and finance and of course cooking," explains Haviland.

It's cooking, regarded by some as an art form that seems to have been streamlined the most, and Haviland admits it's a shame that some chefs have begun to lose their basic skills.

"But my commitment to the guys is to get them to the next level, and nowadays you have to be computer proficient. In a small restaurant you can still take your orders manually on a bit of paper, but you have to be computer literate if you want to get anywhere in the world of hotel catering," he says.

"The good thing about technology is that it's designed to make chef's lives easier."

"From my point of view it means that I can improve the consistency, and we're running a business so consistency and quality are the two main things that guests remember."

Haviland points out that chef still have to cook the food, they just have to cook it to an accurate recipe.

"Food quality is still down to creating recipes, doing the tests on the recipes and getting them perfect. If you can replicate these recipes then you'll always be guaranteed good quality as well as consistency. And that takes a lot of time and a lot of training.

"The basics of cookery don't change; cooking an egg is still cooking an egg. It just means that we have a slightly different approach, and everything can be a little bit more clinical."

"With chefs nowadays, rather than just pointing them at the stove and saying cook this, we have to do a lot of in-depth training on the different ovens because they're highly complicated."

Combi Steamers

The ovens that Haviland's staff has to be trained to use are Combitherm's combi-steamers.

"The technology involved with these is unbelievable. Each of them has a computer in it. I use them for my regeneration cooking, a cook/chill system that also requires the use of blast chillers and blast freezers," he says.

This means that if he wants to cook 750 chicken breasts, then they can be placed on trays, wheeled into the ovens on trolleys, and cooked to one of 1000 preset recipes.

"It goes in there, and is cooked perfectly. Then I wheel the whole trolley out of the oven and straight into the blast chiller, which is next to it. These will flash-chill it in a matter of minutes, which haults the cooking process," he explains.

Following this, all of the garnishes will be put on plates and the whole pre-plated meal wheeled to the banquet kitchen where the regeneration process, as the food is reheated through a combination of heat and steam, occurs.

"This is remarkable. Gone are the days of having all your guys lined up plating food."

"With this it can be done ahead of time and you can pre-plate the majority of the dish and then finish it off with sauce and garnish. It makes such a difference," says Haviland.

"And because the recipe is set in an oven you eliminate 99% of the chance of human error. In this industry, wherever there's people involved that's where you'll get mistakes. Machines don't make mistakes it's the operators."

Haviland explains that his role has changed dramatically due to the introduction of these technologies.

"The new technology and new ideas make life easier for us, or at least streamline the operations a bit more."

"But what I've found is that I was in the kitchen a lot more cooking and giving demonstrations, and now I spend a lot more time in the office overseeing things," he says.

TempTrak

Part of the reason for the increased use of technology is the introduction of health and safety regulations like Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCAP).

And in order to ensure that his operation applies to the new rules Haviland utilises a wireless TempTrak fridge monitoring system.

"I've got all my fridges throughout the three properties hooked up to this and I can access it through an icon on my computer so I know exactly what the temperatures are."

"Every two minutes it monitors exactly what the temperatures of all my fridges and freezers are and you can actually use it to monitor the heat of your dishwasher units as well," he says.

"The benefits of this are huge, especially nowadays where HACCAP has been introduced and food safety is one of the top priorities of the Dubai Municipality.

This technology proves due diligence and you can't compromise it. You can't cheat it, so when the Dubai Municipality inspectors come around I just print off a monthly summary and that's it."

Like all technology, the TempTrak eliminates the need for excess manpower, as "the alternative would be to have guys going around doing fridge checks, or temperature checks of the food in the different freezers and putting it on a bit of paper".

"That can be fudged. We have to highlight areas where we make mistakes. It's just human nature you've got to cover your back. If it's all handwritten you can fudge the books," says Haviland.

Escalation alarm

The system's escalation alarm is activated if the temperature of the fridges goes above a preset ‘danger zone'.

"We've set certain critical limits for all of our fridges. It will send an e-mail and an alert will pop up on your desktop," explains Haviland.

"First the e-mail goes to the hygiene manager, then engineering and then it will go to me. If it's not addressed in the first 90 minutes then it goes to the next person."

FBM system

One of the most labour intensive technologies employed by Haviland is the Food and Beverage Materials Management system, a recipe and inventory management system linked to a purchasing system.

"We enter all of our recipes into this system. When we send out to buy something it's entered in the system as per the invoice and the cost of every recipe in the system gets updated," explains Haviland.

"FBM is a whole new can of worms, because you have to put in all your ingredients - 15-20,000 different items."

"You can build up your basic recipes, and then use those as sub-recipes for the more complicated recipes, and from those you design menus."

"There's a lot of computer time being put in here. I've got four guys on the computers non-stop, updating recipes."

Total Quality Management (TQM)

Eye Opener is a Total Quality Management System for Haviland's breakfast operations.

"Breakfast is one of the key meal periods for the hotel rating system for guest satisfaction, so we have this software designed by IHG worldwide," he says.

"The guys all have to be trained on the software. You still have to do a lot of maintenance and monitoring of the buffets, but to do this you have to access files on the computer. It all takes time to learn."

Room service

Haviland explains that room service is one of the key areas of a hotel's catering operation, but that a foolproof system is yet to be created: "The room service items are the most ordered items, things like wanton noodle soup."

"These are items that are ordered by everyone on a regular basis so you have to have the basics down pat," he explains.

"We find that room service is one of those areas where, because you're talking to a person on the end of the phone, there's room for human error. So anything that can make it faster and eliminate any breakdown in communication would be welcome."

One way that Haviland is dealing with the first issue is by employing CookTec's FlashPack - a self-contained induction unit that magnetises an alloy disc encased in a rubber mould, heating it up via magnetic waves.

"I'm using it in my room service operation in the Crowne Plaza. If someone wants a hamburger, rather than put it in the trolley, then in the elevator, wheel it up and set it all out, we set it on a tray and give it to a waiter with the plate on top of the heated disk."

"It keeps the plate warm, meaning a handheld tray can be used to get it to the room much faster," he says.

So the use of technology has expanded into hotels' room service operations, but a solution is yet to be found to the second problem - a breakdown in communications.

"The front and the back of house never seem to be able to get the communication right. In a lot of hotels you often get staff and guests speaking a lot of completely different languages.

"It can sometimes be a total nightmare when you're trying to communicate from the house keeping to the front and back end of the kitchen, 24-hour room service never seems to work," says Stewart Ramlogan, managing director of UK firm Enterprise Intelligence LTD, which has just launched its AS1 room service application to try to address this very problem.

Enterprise Intelligence director Rhonda Keskin explains that the firm discovered a need for the technology while travelling around different hotels.

"It doesn't matter if you go to a three-star or up to a four- or five-star hotel, you'll always encounter problems when it comes to the room service. With this system we feel that in-room can't go wrong," she says.

The AS1 is a web-based sales, management and marketing system, all-in-one for in-room services, which provides customers with a graphic interface to place their order and sends the information to a front of house application, which shows the hotelier the room number, the order, time of the order and date of the order.

"The application flags the order in red after 30 minutes to show that it hasn't been processed. This is polled on a five, 10 or 20 minute basis and that information is 100% accurate because the order goes in real time to the front of house application," explains Ramlogan.

"We supply two applications, one for front of house and one for the kitchen. So the kitchen can actually press the button to process or cancel orders, and the front of house can see the progress of the order so there is no miscommunication."

The system also has a language matrix so the customers system can be in one language, the front of house system in another and the kitchen system in a third language, completely eliminating the language barrier.

"We aim to have a system up and running in a hotel within 24 hours of receiving its specifications, and it would have no impact on the IT infrastructure," says Ramlogan.

Keskin adds that the biggest bonus is simplicity: "Everything is done with one touch of a button. There's no staff training and no management training required."

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