Chefs are moving away from handwritten spreadsheets to laptops, tablets and smartphones, thanks to the latest in software technology aimed at making life easier in the kitchen. Ross Bentley reports
While a thorough knowledge of food preparation techniques and a flair for combining tastes have traditionally been the qualifications for succeeding as a chef, it would seem an ability to use technology is now an additional requirement.
In recent times, there has been a marked increase in the amount of technology aimed at the kitchen, from automation and hygiene systems to nutrition analysis and menu planning software.
Much of this technology comes in the form of additional software modules that can be integrated with, and use data from, catering management systems or even electronic point of sale (EPoS).
According to James England, sales and marketing director at Fourth Hospitality, many of these technologies also allow chefs and kitchen staff to move away from handwritten spreadsheets to laptops, tablets and smartphones - meaning information can be more easily accessed and shared, errors eliminated and analysis carried out much easier.
Here, we have assembled examples of the latest development in this area
Responsibility deal drives investment in nutrition software
Traditionally, nutrition software systems have been widely used in the cost sector. Catering contractors working in NHS trusts, care homes and schools - areas where there is a duty of care to consistently offer nutritional food - have typically adopted the technology to ensure they provide balanced meals for their diners.
Following Jamie Oliver's campaign to improve school meals, legislation has been introduced to ensure local authorities provide school dinners with adequate nutrition across 15 different elements each week. This development has seen more schools adopt technology that enables them to plan menu cycles more easily and ensure they conform with legal obligations.
In recent times, we have seen more operators in the high street adopting nutrition systems on the back of the Responsibility Deal, an initiative launched by the Department of Health (DoH) to involve businesses in improving public health.
Just as the retail sector labels all its food with details about calories, fat content and salt levels, so some chain restaurants are making this information available. Pub giant Wetherspoon's, for example, offers details on its menus that makes it easier for customers to choose food that matches their dietary requirements.
Other operators may not go as far as publishing healthy food options on menus but may make it available on request. Most large contract caterers will use systems, so they know the nutritional value of their meals throughout their business.
The rise in the use of nutrition software systems in the profit sector then, has been driven both by the DoH, which has encouraged the hospitality sector to engage with food service labelling, and a significant growth in consumer awareness, which is generating an increased requirement for nutrition information availability.
Nick Prime, managing director, Fretwell Downing Hospitality
Kitchen automation for Union Jacks
Jamie Oliver's new restaurant venture, Union Jacks, has adopted QSR's kitchen automation system that, according to the chain's managing director Simon Blagdon, "speeds up service, improves food quality and delivers significant cost savings".
Union Jacks' first site is expected to open in Holborn, London, this month and more are planned for 2012. The restaurant has been billed as a place where "wood-fired flatbreads meet great British flavours".
The software, called ConnectSmart Kitchen, uses on-screen graphics to help chefs determine which food items to focus on and how to prepare those items. It also assigns items to individual chef's workstations based on the prep times of each item on a particular order, so that all items for the order complete at the same time.
The system has already been used by chefs working at venues in the Jamie's Italian chain - another of Jamie Oliver's restaurant brands.
Carluccio's looks into nutrition
Hospitality software supplier Fretwell-Downing Hospitality has supplied its nutritional analysis tool to a number of operators including Carluccio's. The all-day Italian café and deli chain has been using the tool for over a year to extol the health benefits of an Italian diet and analyse its menu based on the McCance & Widdowson nutritional tables.
Chief operating officer Sarah Murray said the tool "has enabled us to begin to tackle what we initially thought as a complex task in a simplified manner".
Another Fretwell-Downing Hospitality client, Arena Leisure, implemented Saffron as part of its menu planning ahead of catering for athletes at one of next year's major sporting events. Project culinary leader Tom Burton said: "Saffron has been effective in helping us present menus that provide a range of nutritionally balanced dishes. The automatic analysis, as part of the normal costing routine, has been a real bonus."
Five ways to get the most from your chef and kitchen software systems
1 Make the system work for you - ensure that the technology is flexible enough to be configured to your way of working. Technology shouldn't be one size fits all
2 Buy technology that is easy to use and quick to learn
3 Software delivered over the web, as software-as-a-service, will give you a lower cost of entry, access to latest versions and reduced maintenance costs
4 Make sure your software is scalable, so it can grow as your business does
5 Keep your system up-to-date - maintain product entries and prices on a regular basis, as this can save time and pain in the future
James England, sales and marketing director, Fourth Hospitality
Electric risk management at the Corinthia hotel London
Kitchen staff at the Corinthia hotel London used an electronic risk management audit system provided by health and safety experts Check Safety First to improve the management of food hygiene processes in the run-up to the hotel's opening earlier this year.
The system, called E‑Cristal, is an online tool with a step-by-step guide which makes the process of monitoring and maintaining food hygiene standards easier in the hotel's restaurants, the Massimo Restaurant & Oyster Bar and the Northall.
"As a new hotel, it's important that we meet the highest standards from the start. Check Safety First has helped us realise the critical areas that need considering in the development of the hotel, with its E‑Cristal solution providing an effective way of ensuring that standards are met consistently, so that the reputation of the hotel is not compromised," said the Corinthia's general manager, Matthew Dixon.
Menu and cost planning software
Fourth Hospitality has launched a mobile version of its menu and recipe planning StarChef software, enabling it to be accessed in the kitchen or the restaurant via Kitchen Display Unit, iPhone, iPad, PC and all other smartphone and tablet devices.
Similar to the core StarChef package but simplified for read-only recipe information access, StarChef Light provides real-time pictures, costings, recipes and nutritional data to multiple sites, meaning head chefs and general managers can easily and quickly check the latest agreed recipe standards are being met and maintained.
Kitman food cost control
Food cost control management software supplier Kitman has launched a free downloadable system for small operators, which can be added to at incremental cost.
Available from the Kitman website, the free system, designed to improve cost control and margins, allows chefs and managers to add up to 35 recipes and 150 products. If they wish to upgrade to include more recipes and products then this can be done in accordance with the packages listed on the website.