Very Cool Cook Chill
Cook-chill equipment and production methods offer operators the ability to dramatically save food and labor costs, provide higher levels of food safety, and deliver consistent, high-quality products to customers.
By Laura Doty, Contributing Editor
The origins of cook-chill production lie in the institutional foodservice environment, where centralized food production facilities for the military, healthcare patient feeding, and in other forward-looking noncommercial segments first pioneered the concept. Like a lot of other modern technology, the evolution of cook-chill equipment and techniques continues to resonate in the commercial sector, which embraces the wide range of potential benefits.
Basically, cook-chill systems cook high volumes of food and then chill them very quickly to safe holding temperatures inside specialized plastic bags, inhibiting the growth of bacteria and extending the product’s shelf life. Kitchen sanitation and temperature monitoring is built-in to cook-chill production methods, simplifying operations’ compliance with HACCP plans. Centralized production enables operations to prepare menu items independently of place and time of service. It also allows operators to streamline and simplify staffing needs and production schedules as well as reduce labor costs. Cook-chill systems can reduce food costs by as much as 10 percent through greater yields and reduction in waste. Last but certainly not least, centralized cook-chill equipment helps produce delicious menu items that retain a consistency in quality and the operation’s recipes day after day, and at every site served by the central production kitchen.
A cook-chill production system consists primarily of cooking equipment such as steam-jacketed kettles and cook tanks, a pump-and-fill station, and chilling equipment. Ancillary items include specialized plastic bags, vacuum sealers, perforated baskets, hoists, conveyors and prep equipment that help support the cook-chill process.
Two main variations of the process exist: one for liquid, pumpable products and another for whole muscle meats or solid food products. Once cooked, the liquid product is placed into portion-controlled bags, which are generally half-, one- or two-gallon capacities. A cold-water bath then rapidly chills the product. While still raw, meats and solid foods are vacuum-sealed in plastic bags with seasonings, then cooked in bags and chilled.
Heavy-duty, insulated jacketed kettles for cook-chill operations may be tilting or stationary, have drains in the bottom, and range in size from 50 to 400 gallons, with most large operations using 100- or 200-gallon kettles.
Most kettles feature built-in vertical or horizontal automatic, programmable agitators to provide laborsaving mixing and stirring of food for even cooking.
Foodservice staff operate pumping stations manually with a foot pedal, filling bags one at a time. Automated systems using rolls of bags do most of the work without an employee present. Many systems feature a temperature lockout, where bags won’t be sealed if product falls below 180°F.
Cook-chill tanks essentially use circulating, ice-water baths for quick chilling. Options for chilling product include a tumble chiller, linear chiller with a conveyor to move bags constantly through long troughs of ice water, or cooking tanks that may be drained of hot water and refilled with cold water, agitated by air bubbling up through the tank. Kettles won’t chill products like a water bath, but cold water may be run through the insulation to keep potato or chicken salads cold while they are prepared and mixed.
Modified cook-chill production may use blast chillers to chill prepared food on trays, and while this technique chills products more quickly than conventional methods, the shelf life of product is not extended for as long as true cook-chill production, and products must be used within days of storage.
Key E&S for Cook-Chill
Insulated kettles with automated agitators
Perforated stainless cooking baskets
Consultant John Egnor, president of New Jersey-based JEM Associates, has been involved with designing and installing cook-chill equipment in large-scale production kitchens, notably in casino hotels, for more than a decade. His first project involving the design of a cook-chill facility was for the production kitchen in Bally’s Atlantic City in 1993. JEM Associates’ design project for the very successful and elegant Borgata Hotel Casino, Atlantic City, which opened in 2003, included cook-chill capabilities for Borgata’s production kitchen in support of its upscale buffet dining as well as other restaurants located on the property. The 1,200-square-foot BOH cook-chill production area includes two large-capacity cook-chill kettles; a cook-chill tank for use in slow-cooking solid foods such as prime rib, top round and turkey; and a pumping station to fill plastic bags with soups, stocks and sauces. The production battery also includes a 100-gallon “turbojet” cook-chill tank, the latest in cook-chill equipment technology. The turbojet is a combination cook tank, ice-water bath chiller and sous vide production unit that provides a gentle tumbling action, appropriate for use with an expanded range of bagged menu items, and useful for smaller volume, la carte cook-chill production. A front-loading tumble chiller, remote ice builder and food bank storage walk-in also support Borgata’s cook-chill production. Egnor explains that because of the weight of the water and ice, ice builders for cook-chill operations are ideally placed in an area that can bear heavy-weight equipment and can be installed on weight-bearing slabs such as in the Borgata’s operation.
“Our goal at the Borgata was to maximize quality control and efficiency in the kitchens to support the high-volume buffet, where 5,000 meals a day may be served,” Egnor says. “Preparing a popular menu item such as prime rib in a cook-chill tank can provide a 20 percent higher yield because of reduced shrinkage, compared to conventional preparation in an oven. So, the use of cook-chill production equipment represents a ‘cool’ $5,000 dollars a week in food cost savings at the Borgata, just for this one menu item.”
Egnor has recently partnered with Robert Zitto, formerly senior vice president of food and beverage operations at Paris-Las Vegas, to create JEM Consulting Group, based in Las Vegas. Providing education, training and design for cook-chill production kitchens is the specialty of this experienced consulting duo. In his former capacity, Zitto helped oversee the creation of production kitchens for Paris-Las Vegas, designed to help support production for foodservices at Bally’s, Caesar’s, The Flamingo and the Hilton as well, and in the process inadvertently became a pioneer in the acceptance of cook-chill processes in large-scale casino foodservice operations in Las Vegas.
“While we know that foods properly prepared using cook-chill equipment have a safe extended shelf life of up to 30 days, local health department codes in Las Vegas required that non-frozen food product be held no longer than 14 days,” Zitto relates. “I had to educate the health department as to how the cook-chill process works, and then appear before the city council to get the health code changed in regard to cook-chill technology. They provided a variance to the code allowing for up to 21 days for cook-chill product holding, but at that time they also required that 12 different products be sent periodically to a lab for testing.
“They were amazed when testing results showed absolutely no bacteria in any product, because an absolutely sterile, bacteria-free product was an outcome that they had never seen before,” Zitto continues. “The health deparment has since allowed us to set up our own small testing lab in our executive chef’s office in the Paris’ kitchen, so we are no longer required to send these samples to the outside testing facility.”
The 1,800-square-foot cook-chill facility area in the production kitchen at Paris-Las Vegas includes five kettles; two cook-chill tanks equipped with electric hoists to aid in lifting heavy product in and out; a pumping station to bag, seal and label prepared product; two tumble chillers; a remote ice builder; and a 1,000-square-foot food bank to store bagged product. The food bank in Paris-Las Vegas is known as the “mother bank,” and holds product for delivery to the four other hotels under the Caesar Entertainment umbrella. Each day using a computer, staff at the satellite locations submit orders for bagged products they require. Upon receiving this information, the team at the Paris loads the bags of food product in stacking plastic cartons on wheeled dollies for delivery the following morning. “While the original intent for the cook-chill equipment was to prepare bulk items that could easily be pumped into bags and stored, innovative chefs started experimenting with cook-chill methods and discovered that other menu items such as prime rib, turkeys and top round could be successfully prepared using the slow-cook tanks that are an integral component of the cook-chill battery, with high-quality results and significantly less shrinkage,” Zitto says. “We also started doing a lot more center-of-the-plate items such as beef stews or chili using the cook-chill bulk production methods. Seafood, fried food and steamed vegetables cannot be cook-chilled, but chefs are experimenting with all kinds of cook-chilling of menu items, and also with smaller portioning, for menu items rethermed on the line for la carte service.”
HACCP monitoring is generally an integral part of all operations in casino hotel kitchens, and was upgraded with the acceptance of cook-chill production in the central production kitchen at Paris-Las Vegas, according to Zitto. For delivery operations, temps are monitored door-to-door using wireless thermometers included in every batch of product that goes into a refrigerated delivery truck. An alarm system was installed for instant notification, on-site or through beepers for managers in remote locations, if food bank holding temperatures drop below the 40°F. HACCP safety zone.
Besides HACCP implementation, the Paris-Las Vegas production kitchens routinely address other food safety concerns. Although it has never been necessary actually to recall any food product, the staff periodically institute mock recalls to make sure that the system works with all checks and balances in place. Additionally, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, high-tech handprint identity screening for access to food bank areas was installed to help further ensure food safety for the casino hotels, Zitto says.
After Zitto’s efforts to educate local authorities as to the safety and efficacy of cook-chill production resulting in the change to local health codes (he half-jokes that he is known locally as “Mr. Cook-Chill”), three other major casino operations installed cook-chill equipment in their on-site foodservice production kitchens. “Cook-chill production offers many obvious advantages in our high-volume casino resort kitchens,” Zitto explains. “Besides the food safey advantages that proper cook-chill production provides, we tracked food cost savings of 2 percent to 6 percent in our kitchen production — obviously significant in an operation representing up to $400 million in food costs annually.
“Labor cost savings are also generally a factor — in our operations using the central production kitchen installed in Paris-Las Vegas, we no longer needed production kitchens in our four satellite hotels, reducing staffing needs by at least 110 hires,” Zitto continues. “Other savings provided by cook-chill production, such as in reduced energy usage and trash creation, are not as obvious. All told, our figures indicate that we saved operations $9 million in our first year of cook-chill kitchen production.”
FoodService Partners Inc., based in Barnesville, Md., designs, builds and operates state-of-the-art, high-volume production kitchens to provide meal services for the healthcare industry. The company, founded in 1998 by Angelo Bizzarro, chairman and CEO, and Bob Dunn, president, currently operates out of three production facilities located in San Francisco, Roanoke, Va., and New York City. The company’s management team has experience in centralized production kitchen operations for healthcare foodservices going back more than 30 years — long before cook-chill production methods were an option in production kitchens. The first FSP kitchen to open in San Francisco produces and delivers 7,000 plated and trayed meals a day in refrigerated trucks to 21 satellite hospitals and retirement homes in the area using conventional kitchen production methods. FSP’s use of cook-chill equipment evolved as the equipment itself evolved, according to Bizzarro, and cook-chill production methods are utilized in their newer kitchens in Roanoke and New York City. FSP’s production kitchen in Roanoke, opened in 2002, produces and delivers the equivalent of 6,000 meals a day for 12 hospitals and long-term care facilities. And the New York City production kitchen, which opened at the end of 2005, also produces the highest volume of meals — approximately 20,000 a day — produced and delivered to 16 hospitals and long-term care facilities throughout the city.
“For us, the most important benefits of cook-chill production are enhanced food safety and HACCP control over food items prepared, and enhanced operational efficiency and economy,” Dunn says. “The system allows us to provide tasty, wholesome meals with a consistent quality, maximizing the use of skilled-labor FTEs in our high-volume production operations.”
FSP’s New York City kitchen comprises 45,000-square-feet on two floors of a renovated, redesigned and re-equipped production facility, and includes wet and dry storage areas, a delivery bay for loading refrigerated trucks, a cold food prep room where temperatures are maintained at 55°F., and a hot food prep area under a fire suppression exhaust hood. This area contains a bank of eight combi ovens, two cook-chill tanks and two 100-gallon jacketed kettles as well as a pumping station. Food pumped into high-density plastic bags is either vacuum-packed, heat-sealed and labeled at the station, or pumped into cylindrical “sausage” bags, clipper-tied and labeled with water-resistant paper labels, depending on the product. Staff use a custom-built blast chiller, capable of holding 30 roll-in carts equipped with slide-out trays to hold bagged product, to bring product cooked at approximately 180°F. quickly down to a 38°F. holding temperature in an hour, effectively inhibiting bacterial growth — the attribute of cook-chill production that enhances the safety of food items prepared in this fashion. While FSP guidelines allow for a 15-day shelf life for products prepared in its kitchens, most product is delivered to satellite locations for service within two days of production, according to Dunn.
Retherm methods for cook-chill prepared foods vary depending on a facility and menu items to be served, but Dunn says that the retherm carts now used in hospitals served by FSP’s production kitchens, capable of reheating trayed patient meals to proper temps and holding them for service, are an example of an evolution in equipment related to cook-chill food production.
Temperature monitoring and recording is an extremely important aspect of cook-chill production, and FSP is one of the first in the industry to introduce a state-of-the-art wireless computerized temperature monitoring system throughout its facilities and to incorporate it into HACCP standards. The system monitors temperatures in all coolers, storage areas, prep areas, chillers and in the dishwasher, providing immediate notifications if temperatures are unsafe according to the company’s production standards, and also provides accurate records through computer printouts for regulatory purposes and for the benefit of client hospitals. The product-temp tracking feature of this system uses wireless temperature probes inserted into food product as it goes into a blast chiller to notify the cook, through a color change on a computer monitor, when food has cooled to the safe temperature zone. “Besides the accurate tracking and notification the wireless temp system provides, staff morale has gotten a boost, because the cook no longer has to walk in and out of the cold blast chiller every hour to record temperatures manually, as in the past, comments Bizzarro.
Operators considering adding cook-chill production equipment should:
- First, do the math. Cook-chill equipment can cost operations up to $180,000 and operators must consider their menus and daily production volumes, along with savings in food and labor costs and other cook-chill benefits to figure out what equipment is needed, and to justify the expense, says John Egnor, president of JEM Associates and founding partner of JEM Consulting Group. Operators should consider a four-year ROI, remembering that ongoing savings may easily be added through additional production shifts and increased production volumes.
- Be aware that modified cook-chill production, using blast chillers to chill food product, can streamline menu production and offer savings, but food chilled in this way has less than half the safe shelf life of four weeks provided by cook-chill ice-water chilling techniques.
- Remember that cook-chill production requires re-training of staff, servicing engineers and supervising managers.
- Communicate early on with operators and designers of a facility to ascertain what they are trying to achieve in a cook-chill production kitchen. Be proactive in educating those involved as to the possible benefits provided by cook-chill equipment, what equipment is available and what alternatives are possible, so that they can make an informed decision as to what equipment is best suited to their needs.
- Be ready to be creative when providing possible solutions for operators who are figuring out how to deal with menu production in their individual kitchens.
- Provide backup in installation, education in technique and operation of equipment, and servicing and troubleshooting equipment after purchase.