Out on display cooking

Removing the barrier between cooks and customers makes for a better experience.

persian lamb kabobs

Display cooking evokes the senses—sight, sound, smell and taste—which creates intrigue and invites the guest to investigate,” says Paul Houle, assistant director of culinary operations at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who offers six display cooking stations such as made-to-order burritos, Vietnamese pho and Persian kebabs. “It’s a way to interact with our customers, a conversation starter that symbolizes freshness.”

Houle isn’t the only one fostering transparency between the kitchen and the customer. Many foodservice operators have embraced display cooking in their facilities. Two others are SUNY Fredonia, which offers made-to-order pasta and stir-fry display stations; and Fairview Hospital, in Great Barrington, Mass., where pasta and quesadilla stations are on display. “This style of cooking creates a sense of control for our customers,” says Kelly Holmes, CDM, dietary manager at Fairview, who recommends polling customers to discover their desired stations.

Display stations are extremely successful sales generators, reports Houle, whose display stations are nearly 40% more popular than other stations. Dean Messina, assistant director of dining services at Fredonia, says his display stations outsell others two to one.

Remodeling for display

Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, in Columbus, recently remodeled its BistrOH Café with display cooking in mind, due to its success as a test market for emerging food trends. The café now offers a wide variety of stations, from gyros to hummus, ancient grains and pho.

“This has enabled us to get all of our back-of-the-house staff out in the front of customers, instead of being hidden behind the swing doors,” says Katie Kelley, sous chef at BistrOH Café, who reports the center’s display taco bar accounts for up to 25% of daily sales.

Likewise, Stanford University transformed Florence Moore Dining Hall into an open kitchen design featuring multiple display-cooking stations to invite students into the entire cooking experience, explains Chandon Clenard, senior executive chef of performance dining.

“Students are able to have a dialogue with the culinary staff, providing a sense of community and comfort, and customize the menu to their individual needs, which gives us an opportunity to create a culinary experience reminiscent of home,” says Clenard.

Mise En Place

The secret to display-cooking success, chefs say, is mise en place. “Thinking through how the dish [will be prepared fastest] is paramount,” says Houle. A few tips:

  • Create a schematic and flow sheet of how guests will order through the line and how the food should be plated, suggests Kelley.
  • Cut all items into approximately the same size to ensure even cooking, says Messina.
  • Pre-cook all proteins, pastas and steamed/blanched veggies. Keep in mind that “items that will lose color and vibrancy [should be] prepped just before meal service, while other things that have a more stable shelf life [can be] prepped a day ahead,” says Kelley.
  • Ensure all sauces are either ready to use or a la minute, and keep pans hot and ready to go.
  • Store ingredients in undercounter refrigerators, says Clenard. “It allows culinary staff to have a sufficient supply of mise en place nearby, while also ensuring ingredients are stored at safe temperatures during service.”
  • Likewise, opt for simple dishes. “Too many specialty items create questions that will inevitably slow down our line,” says Kelley. Adds Clenard, who recommends serving popular dishes at multiple stations to prevent a crowd from forming in one place: “Our menus include dishes that have a balance of flavor and nutrition, while avoiding an excessive number of steps to build the dish.” It also helps to employ trained staff with engaging personalities who can quickly articulate the options and help guide guests to quicker decisions, says Kelley.

Design & Equipment

“People eat with their eyes first, so it’s important to make the station visually appealing,” Messina notes. “Design your station so the customer can see all the ingredients, rather than having to explain to each customer what’s available.”

Although Messina uses both gas ranges and induction burners, he reports induction maintains a constant temperature better than gas with minimal interference. Induction also produces a negligible amount of residual heat, and you don’t need to maintain a hood system. Holmes and Kelley also use induction cooktops, which boast portability advantages as well.

But gas has its advantages. At Stanford, an electronically controlled, gas-fired grill allows just-in-time cooking of dishes from around the globe, including Indian dosa, Mongolian barbecue, Spanish seafood a la plancha, and Chinese scallion pancakes, says Clenard. Many of the school’s display stations feature other specialty cooking equipment, such as a meat-carving station beside an eight-spit rotisserie oven that can cook up to 48 chickens at once. A stone hearth oven is used for pizzas, calzones, flatbreads, open-faced sandwiches, breakfast sandwiches and paninis. “With this equipment, my imagination and menu can go even further,” says Clenard. 

persian lamb kabobs on grill

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