Foster Frable is an NRN contributor and a founding partner of Clevenger Frable LaVallee Inc. in White Plains, N.Y. He has designed more than 400 foodservice projects, including restaurants and operations in hotels, colleges and more. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clevenger Frable LaVallee Inc. founding partner Foster Frable
Staging in a restaurant setting is both different and similar to staging in a real estate setting. When selling a house or apartment, real estate advisors recommend removing clutter and placing furniture to ensure the home appears spacious and attractive to a potential buyer. In restaurant terms, the process of staging food is a means to provide faster service and a better product – which also makes the offering more attractive to a potential buyer.
With the popularity of drive-thru food service in suburban locations and delivery services in urban settings, cooking from scratch is no longer an option for many operators. Customer demand requires food preparation systems that are able to accomplish finishing and plating (or boxing) food in no more than two to three minutes from order time.
Staging is nothing new — holding food in warming drawers, steam tables or pots on a stove is a form of staging that has been around for decades, but the result is far less precise than what can be achieved with the technology available today, where temperature and humidity can be controlled in a closed cavity or container. Parcooking is a first step in food staging, but it’s only successful when food can be held without degradation, which takes special equipment and systems.
When staging hot food, the product is brought to the exact internal temperature desired and then held there, without overcooking or drying out, until it’s time to finish and serve the dish. This allows the final, flavor-enhancing and texturing steps to be completed just before the food is served.
As an example, pans of burger patties can be brought to a uniform internal temperature of 135 degrees Fahrenheit and maintained at that temperature until the kitchen receives an order. Since the patties are already at the desired temperature, it takes only a few minutes to finish cooking a customer’s order. The same process can be applied to other meats and is especially advantageous with lean cuts like pork loin, where traditional cooking methods tend to overcook and dry out the product.
While food staging is most commonly related to hot food holding, it can also be used for chilled and refrigerated products. Sous-vide is a form of food staging, along with most cook-chill systems that use re-thermalization or regeneration. Combi ovens, with their precise temperature and humidity controls, parcook the food, and then blast chill it instantly to stop the cooking process, creating far more appealing fare. A dedicated blast chiller with comparable controls that accurately manage the temperature and airflow to maintain food texture and moisture is also imperative.
With a combi-oven-based system, the next step in staging occurs in a holding cooler, where food is held in advance of use. When the food is needed for service, the finishing or regeneration takes place in the same environment that the food was first cooked: in a combi oven, where the temperature and humidity are carefully controlled. Food prepared in these systems can be finished in minutes versus hours. Depending on the product, properly chilled food can be staged up to three weeks without risk to its quality or safety.
Food staging using a combi oven has the potential to revolutionize the banquet business. Since food can be finished and garnished in less than 15 minutes, waiters can take orders from banquet guests similar to what would be offered in a restaurant. Two or three cooks can execute banquets for 500 to 600 people in a stress-free environment, compared to double or triple the staff for traditional cook-service operations. Whatever entrées are not used can remain in the holding cooler for the next function, so there is no waste.
Cold food and dessert plates can also be staged using special racks with multiple rods that secure dozens of plates stacked along a central shaft. Each plate is fully accessible and surrounded by refrigeration while being held.
Private schools, churches, hotels, hospitals and other institutions that regularly serve plated meals in large quantities could also benefit from staging and regeneration systems.
Not every food item is a good candidate for staging, and speed of service is only as good as the most time-intensive item ordered. But the restaurant industry has produced amazing tools for most of the challenging menu items that normally hold up an order. For example, new high-speed ovens can finish a pizza in 20 to 30 percent of the time that would be required in a traditional deck oven with a gas-heated hearthstone.
Staging presents a big opportunity to save labor and energy. Most traditional kitchens depend on brute force to provide fast service: high-power ranges and grills staffed with multiple chefs who try to push food out of the cooking mode as fast as possible. This type of process often yields inconsistent results and disappointing food quality. And all that firepower sucks up energy: Big exhaust systems are required to replace foul air with new air, which then must be either heated or air-conditioned. All this equipment and energy use can be reduced with an appropriate staging process – which would more than recover the cost of the new equipment.