Home On The Range
One of the most important production areas in any kitchen, the hot line can make or break a foodservice facility. FE&S interviewed three chefs about the equipment on their hot lines and how it is arranged and works together, as well as the supplies needed to support it.
Often the final staging area in a kitchen, hot lines must be designed for consistent and efficient production. Which equipment is put on a line, and where it is placed, will help to determine how well a kitchen can perform at peak times.
Effective equipment placement allows three chefs to work comfortably in the approximately 8-ft.-long hot line in the galley-style display kitchen at Morton's of Chicago in Rosemont, Ill. In these tight quarters, chefs prepare about 300 portions and at least 120 lbs. of meat during each dinner service, the only meal the restaurant provides.
From left to right, the Rosemont Morton's hot line contains a small, single-vat fryer, a six-burner gas range with two ovens underneath and two pullout gas broilers with an oven underneath. Across from the line, also from left to right, is a small sink with goose neck faucet, a countertop steamer for sauces and a butcher block counter with undercounter refrigeration for storing steaks, poultry and fish. The butcher block is used to display available products, as Morton's customers are free to pick their own center of the plate items.
The equipment on the hot line at the Rosemont, Ill., Morton's of Chicago steakhouse location is typical of the chain's restaurants.
Also in the back of the house, a small bank of equipment is used to prepare meals for parties and banquets. On this line are a gas range, gas pullout broiler, one double-stack electric broiler, an electric oven used to make soufflés and a small tilting skillet. According to Chris Rook, executive chef at Morton's Restaurant Group, Chicago, Rosemont is the only facility that has a double-stack electric broiler.
"Our Rosemont restaurant does a huge banquet business so staff needed extra grill space. However, we didn't have room to put in two infrared broilers," he said. "We found that by putting in the double-stack broiler, we can have three broiling spaces instead of just two."
Rook said that most Morton's restaurants, of which there are more than 50, have the same equipment, though there are some minor differences. For example, new Morton's units are installing convection ovens under ranges instead of conventional ovens. He noted that two years ago the Schaumburg, Ill., location (where Rook is chef) opened with a convection oven underneath the range in the display kitchen. It worked so well that all restaurants are switching to convection units.
"Convection ovens cook products more quickly and breaded foods get a nice gold color in less time so they aren't dried out," Rook noted.
If space were not a constraint, one piece of equipment that Rook would like added to Morton's display cooking lines is a steamer. "I would love to have a steamer to do vegetables in. Right now, we steam vegetables in a double boiler on our range," he remarked. "It would be nice to have a steamer with perforated pans, but space doesn't permit adding it so, instead, we use a perforated pan over a double boiler to steam asparagus and broccoli."
Rook has been with Morton's for 11 years and is very active in making sure that each kitchen's equipment is arranged in the most practical manner. He noted that he does not have much say about which type or brand of equipment is installed, but he does have a lot of input concerning where each piece is placed so that the kitchens run as efficiently as possible.
For example, a Morton's was recently completed in Honolulu, and Rook was called in to inspect it. Although the equipment was installed correctly from a technical aspect, some of it was placed in such a way as to prevent a smooth production flow.
"I think you need to get a chef involved in kitchen design. It may be a beautiful kitchen but, sometimes, equipment is arranged so that it is not optimally functional," Rook explained. "When our Schaumburg location opened two years ago, the mixer was on the wrong side of the oven. Because of the equipment placement, the soufflé chef had to cross paths with the pantry staff in order to get to the mixer, and then cross over again to put soufflés in the oven."
Understanding the job of each member of a kitchen staff can greatly help to determine whether equipment is placed for maximum efficiency, Rook added. The key, he said, is to create a work flow in which staff do not have to cross each other's path, as well as one that saves as many steps as possible.
"Every restaurant is slightly different in regard to its building plan, so a lot of what I do is look at plans and figure out how to set up each station," Rook noted. "For example, I make sure that the line of sight is such that a head chef can work in the middle of a kitchen and watch all stations at once. Other changes that have been made in kitchens include moving some of the equipment closer together, such as the cutting board and the broiler. We condensed that area so that instead of requiring two steps to get somewhere, it takes only a half a step or one step.
Equipment includes a small fryer, six-burner range with two ovens and two pullout broilers with ovens underneath.
"Trying to make a contractor understand that only having to take half a step instead of two saves a lot of time is difficult. To him, it's only half a second," Rook concluded.
David Walzog, executive chef at Michael Jordan's Steakhouse in New York City, agreed that a compact kitchen can be a benefit. As with most NYC kitchens, availability of square footage for the cooking area at Jordan's was limited. This was due in part because of its location in Grand Central Terminal, Walzog explained. "We were in special circumstances because Grand Central is a landmark location, so we had to use its space parameters to be able to fit the equipment we needed to put on a high-output steakhouse menu. It's a smaller area than I would like, but it is manageable."
In order to produce 400 covers during lunch and dinner, the New York Jordan's hot line, which is located in the back of the house off the prep kitchen, includes (from left to right) a six-burner range, ceramic broiler with conventional oven underneath, double-stack gas infrared broiler, two high-capacity infrared fryers, a lowboy with double-stack steamers above, high-output four-burner stove and a double half-size gas convection oven. Walzog helped spec the equipment for the kitchen before Jordan's opened three years ago, so he has all the pieces he needs, he noted.
Six chefs work this Jordan's hot line. One sauté chef is needed to prepare the hot appetizers, two sous chefs (or Walzog himself) expedite the meals, two staff work on the broiler - one feeding it and the other taking finished products off - and two more prepare the hot side dishes, which include hash browns and other fried items.
Due to its heavy banquet volume, the Rosemont Morton's has a second hot line in its main kitchen (bottom right).
Walzog explained that he has both a ceramic broiler and an infrared broiler because he prefers the high heat of the infrared for cooking steaks. "Steaks don't get enough quality time underneath the heat with a normal ceramic broiler because, with our volume, the grill is opened and shut 10 times a minute while products are being taken out and flipped and loaded," he explained. "The heat retention of the infrared is wonderful and recovery time is not an issue because the temperature never dips."
The ceramic broiler, he said, is also used to finish some side dishes or fish. "The biggest attribute of the ceramic broiler is the warming cabinet above it. Granted it's not regulated heat, but the 600°F. to 700°F. temperature in the cabinet is great for finishing some side dishes."
Of course, in today's kitchens, heat-producing equipment is not the only kind found on hot lines. Undercounter refrigeration has also become extremely popular, as it helps to maintain food safety and efficiency.
"Refrigeration is now considered vital on a hot line," Walzog asserted. "If you're going to spend money on a hot line and in different refrigeration scenarios, choose the best manufacturer and layout of drawers. Even with all the times our drawers have been pushed in and pulled out, we've never had a problem with sliders or rails but, often, less-well-made drawers are difficult to slide."
Selecting The Right Tools For The Job
Gleaming copper pots and pans hang from the walls of the display kitchens at Chicago-based Morton's Steakhouse units. However, they're there only to lend atmosphere, as regular sauté pans are the workhorses of this hot line.
Notably, these sauté pans also are in gleaming condition, because Corporate Chef Chris Rook has authorized his unit chefs to replace the pans as often as necessary.
"We make a lot of dishes, such as hash browns or Lyonnaise potatoes, whose appearance relies on coming out of the sauté pans without sticking," Rook commented. "So, the cost of buying new pans is worth it to us, because the food looks and tastes so much better."
David Walzog, executive chef at Michael Jordan's Steakhouse in New York, also depends on 8-in. and 10-in. sauté pans. "We don't do much batch cooking," he noted, "so our sauté pans get a workout making hot appetizers, side dishes and fish and chicken entrées."
Heavy-bottomed 6- to 8-qt. pots also play an important role on the hot line at Michael Jordan's restaurants, said Walzog. "We believe in freshness of ingredients and immediacy of the cooking techniques to maintain the foods' integrity. So, we have two chefs on the hot line who constantly prepare small batches of sauces and side dishes in the 6- and 8-qt. pots to ensure fresh service. As one pot empties, they can start another to replenish the items."
Of course, the main attraction at both steakhouses are the grilled foods, specifically steak, but also fish and chicken. At Michael Jordan's, grilled seafood and poultry are first placed on sizzle platters, then go into a broiler. "It's easier to manipulate these dishes on a sizzle platter," Walzog said, "than to reposition them on the grill directly. When we use sizzle platters, we reduce the handling of the actual product, preventing any potential damage to it."
The chefs at Morton's use pie tins in a similar manner, especially for crisping up hash browns. In fact, Rook said, chefs use pie tins for all the menu's baked items, such as scallops or shrimp Alexander.
Still, the main attraction on the menus at both operations is steak. And the cleanliness of the grill surface can make the difference in a steak's taste and appearance. "Our grills get heavy use," said Walzog. "We load up the steaks with salt and pepper because some of the seasoning will fall off as we move them around. So, some of that seasoning will build up on the grill and can burn. To avoid that, we provide chefs with grill pads on poles, so they can regularly clean grills and prevent buildup. I like grill pads that have two cleaning surfaces: one with heavy-duty steel, while the other side is more pliable."
Chefs at Morton's also scrub broiler grills regularly, said Rook. "We have two broilers, so chefs can cook on one while they clean the other. We prefer using a grill brush that also has a flat scraping blade that fits between the grates."
Because steaks shouldn't be pierced during the cooking process, the chefs at both steakhouse chains use tongs as an extension of their hands. Although metal tongs are sturdy, Rook said, "I'd like to find a source for high-heat plastic tongs, which chefs could use both for broiling and sautéing. In fact, the reason we have to replace the sauté pans so often is because of the scraping that results from using metal tongs."
Rook, who believes in tight portion control, uses 1- and 3-oz. scoops to measure the exact amount of butter needed for sautéing a dish. "We also use a spring scale to scale out every side-dish order, not only for cost control, but also for product consistency," he said. Rook noted that he prefers spring scales to digital scales for "on-the-fly service."
Both Rook and Walzog expect their chefs to supply their own knives, so they can use the blade type and size with which they're most comfortable.
However, Rook likes to use a knife with a scimitar blade to cut portions of prime rib away from the bone. "Having a long knife with the point up at the end makes it easier to cut along the ribs and feel the chine bone, without damaging the portion," he said. -CMK