Dream Kitchens: ACF Chefs and designers talk about the optimal kitchen


By Amanda Baltazar

When you spend all day — and sometimes all night — in a kitchen, it becomes an important place. It’s the “heart of the house” and the full-time office for most chefs.

But what makes a good kitchen into a great kitchen, or even a dream kitchen? Great flow, effective equipment, plus some toys and ergonomics go a long way in meeting chefs’ dreams.

Chef Matthew Thompson, CEC, CCA, would love a kitchen with enough space — particularly one with enough room for staff to eat at a common island. “It’s a really important part of the dining and culinary component — being able to celebrate food,” says Chef Thompson, chief culinary officer for Harvest Table Culinary Group, a foodservice contractor based in Philadelphia and primarily serving the B&I and college/university segments. “We spend so much time eating behind a steering wheel or out of a paper bag.”

There would also be a spot where students could watch cooking demos. This would ideally contain a cooktop and some prep space on one side, with some stools on the other side, giving students the ability to easily jump in and be interactive, he says.Screen Shot 2022-09-09 at 10.30.19 AM

Premium Comfort

Factoring the comfort of chefs and cooks into kitchen design is becoming more and more important, says Sean Callnin, FCSI, executive principal at Ricca Design Studios, a Colorado-based foodservice design consultancy with offices around the country.

Heat and grease are two factors that make kitchens unpleasant to work in, and the way to monitor those is with equipment that produces less heat and has a great ventilation system.

Lately, “there’s been a huge push for the electrification of kitchens, and that’s growing and it’s not going to go away,” Callnin says, noting that it’s going to take a lot to convince some chefs to step away from gas — even partially. This, as some states and municipalities around the country (California and New York to name a couple) enact or consider gas bans for new buildings as a way to reduce carbon output.

In terms of ventilation, “Half the restaurants I go into, I can immediately feel the grease in the air, even in the front of house, so you can only imagine how bad it is in the kitchen,” Callnin points out. “You want to make sure your kitchen has a 10% negative pressure so when the kitchen door opens to the dining room the air does not go into the restaurant.”Screen Shot 2022-09-09 at 10.30.04 AM

This all comes down to the exhaust hood, he says, which must be the right size for the location. Don’t keep CFMs (cubic feet per minute) and exhaust levels too low to save costs, he says, “because you run the risk of the hood not capturing properly.” And, if you change out the equipment under a hood, check to see that both still work in tandem. An exhaust hood that can’t keep up with what’s beneath it will spew grease and smoke into the air.

“Once you start to feel it, it starts to spill out into the front of house as well,” Callnin says.

Ergonomics = Body Care

There’s more to a well-equipped kitchen than just looks. Kitchens should also be designed for ergonomics to prevent unnecessary moves and twists and
to protect people who perform the same tasks
day after day.

Callnin is a fan of installing some counters that can be adjusted for tall chefs. The standard counter height is 32 inches, but some chefs prefer counters at 38 or 39 inches. However, these can be rendered useless when that chef moves on to another position. Having adjustable counters means anyone can use them, including someone in a wheelchair.

Callnin is also a fan of rubberized flooring because it has some give and protects joints. These floors are typically made of non-porous materials that hold up well against sanitation chemicals and are easily cleaned. Some even have some traction to prevent skids.

For the most part, Callnin avoids mats because they’re not easy to clean, and they can be heavy to pick up when needing a wash. They can also pose a tripping hazard and make it difficult to smoothly wheel carts through a kitchen.

Labor-Saving Equipment

Multitasking equipment like combi ovens and turbo ovens bring a lot of advantages to a kitchen. First, one piece of equipment takes up less space than several — a huge bonus for a small kitchen. They can also be pre-programmed with recipes and other settings, making them easier to operate; plus, they give chefs the option of many cooking processes like steaming, roasting and even hot-holding in one. On the downside, they’re expensive, although prices have come down in recent years.

When ACF Chef Dan McGee started working at Swissôtel in Chicago, he was hesitant to use combi ovens, “but now I don’t think I could work without them,” says the executive chef and director of food and beverage for the hotel. “It’s the technology, ease of use, programming, changing humidity, heat and temperatures that are so great, and you can just hit a button.” He loves that these are especially helpful now with the shortage of trained staff and says another advantage is that they’re connected to the cloud so it’s easy to upload new recipes or receive alerts for equipment malfunctions or maintenance issues.

The combi oven Chef McGee uses at Swissôtel also helps with banquet operations because food has to travel from the kitchen up to the 42nd floor for major events.DSC03786

“We cook food about 75% of the way through, then we roll it into a blast freezer and chill it down really quickly,” Chef McGee says. “When everything is cold, we plate the food, so there’s no pressure. When the captain calls the chef for the hot food, we know it takes eight minutes in the combi oven, then we put covers on and roll it up to the 42nd floor, where we add sauce and garnish. In the old days, you’d do it ahead and it would sit in the hot box and dry out. Now we have 100 times better food quality.” Cooking food this way, he says, also takes around four people, versus the 15 he’d need otherwise.

Chef McGee is also a big fan of the newer blast chillers on the market that are smaller in size compared to previous models. Not only do blast chillers automate food-safe cooling processes, but they can also proof, bake and blast-freeze to enhance shelf life, he says. Blast chillers are also programmable like combi ovens, so a pastry chef could refrigerate and proof breakfast pastries overnight and bake them off in the morning with little to no intervention.

Executive Chef Michael Matarazzo, CEC, at Farmington Country Club in Charlottesville, Virginia, has been enjoying the new blast chiller in his kitchen, which underwent a renovation last year.

“It does everything but your taxes; from a cooling perspective, it extends the shelf life and ensures a safer product.” He also uses it for ice cream and sorbets and to flash-freeze items he needs to store. “Because of the rapid freezing, the process significantly decreases the amount of ice crystals that form in and on food, ensuring low moisture loss upon thawing.”

The blast chiller also records all data, and that information can be transferred to a flash drive “so we can track everything and know we’re in compliance with HACCP and food safety guidelines.”

Specialty Pieces

Another favorite piece of equipment for Chef Matarazzo is his indoor smoker, which he uses to make charcuterie in- house and to smoke brisket, pork shoulders, chicken and ribs. He also uses it to prepare shrimp, scallops, salmon and oysters “for hors d’ oeuvres and smoked seafood displays for events.”

In addition, Chef Matarazzo favors his new cooling well that was custom fitted for the kitchen. “We use the cooling well for large containers and pots of stocks, soups and sauces; the blast chiller is only effective for shallow pans of food,” he says. “The only effective way to rapidly cool such large amounts is with a proper cooling well.”

Sous vide is a method of cooking favored by Chef Peter Stine, campus executive chef and district culinary champion with Sodexo at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. “It opens up a whole new element in the kitchen,” he says. “You can do more. If you’re marinating things, it takes a fraction of time to get the same flavor from it. It allows you to gently cook things like fish at a low temperature, and it helps retain moisture. It’s a longer process in a lot of cases, but it retains a lot of flavor.”

Chef McGee enjoys his electric plancha, another specialty piece of equipment. These, he says, “have hot points so it might have six zones, and you can control heat on each zone. You can hold something like hollandaise at one heat, then over here cook an egg, and over here do bacon. And at night if you’re sautéing or doing sous vide, you have several points to cook on.”

Efficiency and Flow

Before the renovation at Farmington, Chef Matarazzo says, the kitchen was segmented with lots of corners, and it wasn’t very open. “It wasn’t conducive for safe traffic flow and wasn’t directly connected to event spaces so it was a journey to get from the plating table to the diners,” he says. “Now there’s a direct route, so food is warmer when it gets to the guest. That affects menu writing, too. There are things I wouldn’t have put on a menu before, just based on the travel distance.”

A kitchen with unbroken lines of sight also helps tremendously with communication, Chef Matarazzo says. “It’s easier to get a hold of people because you’re not trying to call out to someone who’s around three corners and in a different room.”

A kitchen has many moving parts — and people. Thanks to some better design practices and equipment possibilities, however, chefs these days have more tools than ever at their disposal when it comes to tackling labor shortages and uncomfortable working conditions. It’s all about dreaming big.

This article was originally published in the September/October 2022 issue of National Culinary Review. Click here to download the issue.