Techno chefs in training

By Shelley Solheim, IDG News Service |  Personal Tech

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 high-tech 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 technology 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 flavor 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 sous vide 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 Inc., are now finding their way into high-end kitchens.

"For chefs, especially with fish, a matter of one or two degrees can have a huge effect," 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 flavors in liquids that would typically boil off, Arnold said.

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