What’s the next big thing in kitchens? It’s a question millions of dollars and more hours are spent trying to answer each year. It’s been decades since anything as widely adopted as the microwave and the food processor made the leap from the commercial kitchen to the home, but avid cooks have been steadily bridging the gap between themselves and the professionals nonetheless. There are even examples of the process working the other way, as with the Thermomix, the heated food processor designed originally for domestic cooking that has since become regarded in many restaurants as the labour equivalent of a first-year apprentice.
“Australians are generally fairly receptive to cooking technology,” says Robert Erskine. At Rely Services, Erskine spends his day distributing digital thermostats, rotary evaporators and other essentials of modern cookery from his Melbourne headquarters to a client list that reads like the GT top 100 restaurants. But what’s more interesting, perhaps, is the growing number of home cooks seeking out his wares. “There’s a lot happening technically in commercial kitchens that domestic end-users are starting to get savvy about,” he says. “It’s streaming down from larger restaurants to smaller ones and, because of the MasterChef phenomenon, from restaurants to domestic cooks too.” The show’s season finale appearance of a Pacojet, a modern-day ice-cream maker that relies on blades spinning at 2000 revolutions a minute to turn the frozen material of your choice into snow, prompted plenty of inquiries. The $5500 price-tag put paid to the bulk of the callers, says Erksine, “but there was still a lot of interest”. Here, then, is what’s at the cutting edge in kitchens.
SOUS-VIDE COOKING The biggest change in restaurant kitchens in the past 10 years has been the take-up of sous-vide and low-temperature cooking. Sous-vide or Cryovac machines suck all the air out of a bag you’ve put the food into, and can compress the food under pressure. Immersion circulators are water baths with digital thermostats and circulators designed to keep the poaching liquid at an even and degree-specific temperature for up to days at a time. The two machines are usually used in tandem, although some chefs use the compression machine simply to compress fruits, or poach things directly in the water bath without bagging them. US chef Thomas Keller champions these techniques. “Ten years from now, sous-vide cooking in the home kitchen will be like the microwave,” he says. “The difficult thing is not the hardware. It’s the software. When microwave cooking first began there was nothing; today there’s a whole aisle in the supermarket for the microwave.” When the sous-vide revolution comes, says Keller, most consumers won’t be bagging up foods themselves, but rather buying pre-bagged food or meals from the supermarket.
STEAM AND COMBI OVENS In the same way induction cooking has made stovetops faster, cooler, cleaner and greener, advances in oven technology have also led to a change of hearth in the kitchen. Steam ovens are used by restaurant cooks to keep food colour and nutrients high and minimise shrinkage. While early steam ovens forced cooks to choose either fast and healthy steam-cooking or the crisping and browning capabilities of traditional convection ovens (or alternatively, install two ovens in the kitchen), new generation combi-ovens are capable of pumping out both steam and dry hot air, allowing chefs professional and otherwise to not only bake their cake, but, if the recipe calls for it, steam it too. As for a benchmark to measure against, it’s hard to look past Swiss company V-Zug’s Combi-Steam XSL. Not just big on features, its 51-litre maw makes it big – the country’s biggest, in fact – on capacity too.
COOLING SYSTEMS Advances in kitchen technology aren’t limited to the warm end of the thermometer. From manufacturers such as Liebherr and Samsung comes a new refrigerator temperature zone (colder than the rest of the fridge, but not freezing) that drastically reduces food spoilage. While this feature will be of little use to those lucky enough to be able to shop for ingredients daily at farmers’ markets and greengrocers, being able to keep meat and greens in a stable environment can reduce waste and ensures the time-strapped can make the very most of their weekly shop.
Fridges are also being made-over cosmetically, their features downplayed so as to preserve the kitchen’s slick, streamlined look. Most covetable of these new-generation chillers are the cooling drawers from Scholtès and Fisher & Paykel – fridges that can be pulled out and pushed in like drawers beneath benches and counters. Featuring multiple temperature zones like traditional fridges and freezers, they deliver big-time on both form and function.
And then there are the fridges you won’t want to hide, at least not if you’ve got bottles of Grange and Grand Cru Burgundy perched prominently in their tinted windows. Dedicated wine fridges allow space-poor oenophiles to stash prized bottles at temperatures and humidity levels ideal for cellaring. For the true enthusiast, the multiple temperature zone models available from the likes of De’Longhi, Liebherr and Miele are difficult to fault.
AND EVEN COOLER SYSTEMS Then there’s the even colder end of the spectrum. Hoshizaki is one of the most respected names in the bar world and its ice makers can be found in the homes and yachts of Australia’s biggest home entertainers, booze nerds and anyone else who appreciates Hoshizaki’s calling card: clear, slow-melting ice, all the better for keeping spirits and cocktails cold and undiluted.
Other recent sightings in home kitchens include blast chillers, vitamin-retaining cold-press juicers, and cutting boards bolstered by germ-destroying ultraviolet light. As a role model for the future, it’s hard to look past Melbourne’s new Vue de Monde with its “cold kitchen”, powered entirely by electricity with no naked flames – remarkable for its safety, its of-the-moment equipment and its green credentials (less heat in the kitchen means a reduction in the need for air-conditioning, for example). Expect sustainability and energy efficiency to become higher priorities in home kitchens too.
LOW-KEY DESIGN Like the technology with which they’re being bolstered, kitchens themselves are changing. Of course, if you opt for an all-in-one makeover, much of the decision-making will already have been done for you, certainly in the case of Kyton, one of the new customisable Italian-designed and manufactured kitchens from Poliform. Kyton’s design is au courant with the need for kitchens to integrate seamlessly into living spaces.
Simon Hodgson from the Kitchen and Bathroom Designers Institute believes low-key styling will continue to drive kitchen design – but it doesn’t start and finish with stark minimalism. “It’s going to be all about texture in various forms, from soft subtle textures on vinyl doors to heavy timber looks,” he says. “Digital enhancing and printing technology has come such a long way, it’s now possible to make products that are flat look textured.”
Some closing advice: thorough research is prudent when you’re planing a big purchase (a kitchen can easily break the $50,000 barrier), but it’s important to ensure you’re not too set in your ways. “It’s best to come into a showroom with an open mind,” says John Maiorana, director of Designed Kitchen Appliances in Perth, and no stranger to serious culinary building projects. “You’re going to be in your kitchen for 10, 15 years. You don’t want to start five years behind.”
ILLUSTRATIONS ANTONIA PESENTI
This article is from the November 2011 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.