Star Trek has a lot to answer for. Aside from the Klingon language classes and that one chap in IT who insists on saying, “Beam me up, Scotty” every time you share a lift, there’s the small matter of cheating an entire generation out of perhaps the coolest foodie gizmo going. The replicator, a regular fixture in The Next Generation, was a machine capable of synthesising meals – and cocktails, the cocktails are important – on demand and out of thin air.
Sadly, it never saw the light of day beyond the script pages of science fiction. Damn you Gene Roddenberry! Coming back to Earth, though, we don’t have to feel let down by the lack of foodie magic in our lives. While tech companies focus on new screens and voice controls in the kitchen, let's put those to one side for a moment and look at how tech – some of it expensive, yes – can help with the actual cooking part.
We asked some of the UK’s top chefs to suggest some of the smart items in their workplace that make things just a little bit easier to get results. And not one of them mentioned the microwave.
Transformers in the kitchen
Richard Bainbridge, award-winning chef proprietor of Benedicts, Norwich, says the ‘resurrection’ of the Thermomix is one of the modern kitchen’s essentials despite early incarnations of the extreme mixer dating all the way back to the early 1960s. “For me, I still believe it’s one of the best kitchen gadgets due to its versatility of blending, cooking and steaming,” Bainbridge says. “With the knowledge and the right pair of hands it can do as much as one extra chef in the kitchen.”
Head chef at Box’d Fresh, Chris Gay, agrees the Thermomix is a must have in every kitchen. You can weigh with it and mix at different speeds, it blends, kneads, purees, heats, weighs, blitzes, chops, emulsifies and steams (some of these at the same time). It can also cook for you, from basic sauces to full on dishes. Just add the ingredients to the mixer and set the ‘recipe chip’ – a digital cookbook that connects to the Thermomix and holds over 100 recipes – to the right setting using the touchscreen and away you go. (That’s pretty much as close to a Star Trek-style gadget as we’re going to get.)
Also on Gay’s list is the Rational Combination Oven (colloquially called ‘combi oven’). As well as steaming and roasting, which to be fair an oven really should be able to do anyway, you can set probes in a dish to certain temperatures and the oven will cook it to that exact Celsius. “It also self-cleans,” he says. “And tells you when it needs to be cleaned.”
As for Ronnie Kimbugwe, executive chef of Bel & the Dragon Country Inns, he swears by the Josper oven. “It is head and shoulders above other similar versions on the market, hands down the top performer, every chef should have one in their kitchens,” he says. “They are efficient, versatile, can do it all without needing apps and are fun to cook with.”
Hot to the touch
If there’s one thing that’s getting a complaint from eaters it’s a cold dish and Gay says the ultimate answer is a holder mat, a machine that perfectly holds a product at a certain temperature whether it’s meat, bread or a sauce. “You can cook a steak to perfection and hold it in there until ready to send,” he says. “It will keep it at that perfect temperature. And even with sauces it will hold them and not split or set them.”
Some chefs aren’t all about getting their oven-mitts on the next big thing. Founder and head chef Oliver Brown of duck duck goose, London, says that although technology in kitchens is increasingly becoming an everyday part of a chef’s life, and “more computers means less human error and greater accuracy” using kitchen smart appliances can be a luxury and “sometimes you have to sacrifice a little consistency to teach skills.”
“The ability to program a combi oven to cook a rib of beef to a perfect medium rare without having to prod it every ten minutes is remarkable and very useful,” he says. “But I’m not the type of chef to embrace technology to the point where young cooks will only understand the language of sous vide and probe readings.”
Brown prefers to go bespoke. At duck duck goose the kitchen is a tiny portion of a 40-foot shipping container and the one bit of tech he says he couldn’t operate without is their custom built duck dryer – what amounts to a “very clever fridge.”
“It’s a sleek looking glass cabinet with the ability to set temperature, humidity, and fan speed, meaning we can dry our ducks with ease, and consistently produce a beautiful crisp and lacquered duck in a very small space,” he explains, adding that it helps to create a finished product that is far superior. “This is perhaps the best example of how a greater use of technology in the kitchen is a positive for all concerned,” Brown says.
Space age restaurants
In an industry famous for its stress, passion, heat and 80-hour working weeks, technology can often make a chef’s life that little bit easier and more efficient. It can also add to the pizzazz of eating out.
Sublimotion, in Ibiza, offers the ultimate kitchen’s table experience. Run by 2-star Michelin chef Paco Roncero, a master of molecular gastronomy, the out-there establishment has won awards for its 20-course, multi-sensory dining. Often mentioned in the press as being “the world’s most expensive restaurant” it’s also one of the most tech savvy.
On the special chef’s table, up to 12 diners sit together, surrounded by 360-degree projections as the dishes arrive. Previous servings include a “paint your own dessert” and “self-stirring bloody Mary”. Perhaps a replicator isn’t a million light years away after all?