Is cooking with fire cool or quaint? Judge for yourself
With the climate crisis causing more extreme weather events than ever, it’s an excellent time to review the full measure of our historic relationship with fire.
It was Top Five on the homo sapiens’ hit list of original quests, along with food and shelter, and remains strongly associated with the notion of home. Aside from providing heat and light, it’s recognized as the perfect inducement for storytelling and dancing (I’m partial to Earth Wind & Fire for the latter). As we learned how to unearth a wide variety of things to burn, we also learned to respect fire’s power and fear its destructiveness, and still sustain crews with bright red trucks on stand-by to douse it at the first whiff of smoke.
That said, home is also where the hearth is and where, over centuries, we have devised all manner of tools and techniques to apply flame and smoke to foods, both directly and indirectly, and with good (and delicious) reasons. However, at this point in time, the idea of burning anything that emits CO2 and pollutants into our shared global atmosphere ought to be extinguished – and as quickly as we can manage it.
So could, or should, we break up the marriage of flame and food? It’s sure to be a messy divorce fraught with plenty of conflict and cost – even without any lawyers in the mix. For your consideration, here are the main facts and arguments for-and-against saving this ardent union…sorted by the three principal aspects of the case.
Take the romance of fire out of the equation and cooking very quickly becomes a question of energy (calories, actually) with efficient transfer being the primary goal and waste an increasingly unacceptable by-product.
There are no global statistics on this so, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that 90 percent of all cooking with fire is indirect, in that flames heat a pot or pan on a range top, air in an oven or both the air and cooking surface in a wood-fired pizza oven, which then transfers the heat energy to the solid or liquid being cooked. The other ten percent would include foods cooked directly by flame-roasting over charcoal or other fuel, as well as those hot-smoked by the heat and smoke of solid fuel…where the goal is to impart flavours considered authentic to a dish or cuisine.
Applying the laws of thermodynamics to burgers and fries is the daily specialty at the Food Service Technology Center (FSTC) in San Ramon, California. An independent testing lab, FSTC evaluates the performance and efficiency of commercial foodservice equipment on behalf of both public utilities and their many high-volume customers in the restaurant industry. FSTC test methods and results also underpin many ENERGY STAR ratings, which have certainly served to boost manufacturing standards and generate incentives for companies and customers seeking an energy-efficient (read high-performance, low operating cost) option.
The Efficiency Index (see below) co-developed with my colleagues at FSTC for a book about the future of restaurant innovation illustrates, from Low to High, the status quo on cooking efficiency for professional kitchen equipment. As you might expect, wood-fired ovens anchor the bottom end (max 10 percent) while induction, the best electric technology we currently have, tops the scale at more than 90 percent.
It’s an uncomfortable realization for waste-conscious chefs (and most are) that, on average, 70 percent of the energy firing their professional gas ranges does no useful work, other than radiating into the kitchen to sustain the can’t-stand-the-heat environment. Given that open gas burner technology hasn’t improved much at all the past 100 years, primarily because few chefs have asked, it may never exceed the average 30 percent efficiency.
However, in much the same way that many automakers (and more drivers) acknowledge that the internal combustion engine’s days are numbered, equipment manufacturers and professional cooks will need to ‘go electric’ and embrace induction…though it, too, is also a century-old technology.
Vancouver chef Rob Feenie likes induction cooking’s precision and efficiency enough to install it in his home kitchen, and doesn’t fear a flame-free future. “Gas happens to be what’s commonly used right now, but it doesn’t have to be part of the future,” he says. “We are chefs—if a new and more sustainable way of doing things is what’s needed— we’ll figure out how to cook with it. We adapt.”
Unlike the car analogy, where the type of motor under the hood doesn’t necessarily affect the quality of the driving experience, taking flame all the way out of the cooking equation can clearly impact the nature and quality of flavours across a wide range of global cuisines.
If you’ve ever worked in or even visited a traditional Chinese restaurant kitchen with its wall of flame-throwing, running water-cooled woks, you’d be hard-pressed to imagine an electric equivalent. High-powered induction woks are a reasonable alternative, though not without some compromise. Chris Whittaker, former executive chef of Forage and Timber on Vancouver’s Robson Street, plans to specify an all-electric and induction setup for any new kitchen coming his way. “That technology works for my style of cooking, but what about Asian wok cooks who rely on expertly-timed blasts of searing heat to create particular flavours?” he says. “Not having an effective equivalent, that’s changing a cuisine.”
In European culinary traditions, learning to apply flame directly to food has also been integral to the professional chef’s skill set for centuries. In early 2017, when the City of Vancouver was talking about restricting natural gas consumption to help its Greenest City 2020 goals, the response from the local restaurant industry was both swift and, not surprisingly, heated. Feelings still run strong on this issue. Never shy with an opinion, noted chef David Hawksworth makes a case for fire. “Instead of gas, I’d like to burn compressed coconut husks…a renewable, sustainable resource,” he says, inspired by a visit to Kiln in London’s famed Soho district. “They do all their cooking with this compressed material, and there is fire management, of course, but cooking with flame is the goal. And it works. In London!”
Hawksworth does concur with many of his peers that high-efficiency Induction ranges are perfectly suited to many kitchen applications, from boiling water quickly to simmering sauces. Most also agree that ovens, fryers and other appliances, whether electric or gas, are pretty much the same. However, sacrificing the ability to apply flame to certain foods and dishes, despite the inefficiency and environmental impact, still seems like a lot to ask.
Combine that last item with the next batch under consideration, and you begin to approach what in the aforementioned marriage/divorce metaphor would qualify as ‘irreconcilable differences.’
Given my line of work, I get asked for recommendations on ‘the ultimate range’ for the home kitchen. My stock answer is, as you might surmise at this point, is not ‘one-size-fits-all. ‘ While I typically make a strong case for an induction cooktop on an electric convection oven, it’s often difficult to get past the same core challenge the pro chef faces…and which is often a deal-breaker.
That challenge was evident in a recent Labour Day sale flyer from a major appliance retailer on a line of high-tech (WiFi!) ranges; the stock electric version was $1,499, the gas model bumped up to $1,999 and the induction option topped out at $2, 499. While the induction cooktop can outperform the gas model in terms of speed, efficiency, temperature accuracy and even safety, it typically comes at a premium price. And if you’re the average non-professional cook committed to stop burning fossil fuels, you’ll likely still need a compelling reason to spend $1,000 more on induction versus the standard electric.
The price/value gap gets even wider in the pro restaurant market. Standard gas ranges have essentially been a commodity product for decades and are generally inexpensive, especially in the pre-owned market (where few induction ranges are found). While volume deals can be had, the average price on a comparably-equipped new induction range is typically 100 to 150 percent more than the natural gas version. Furthermore, to match the power and reliability (if not efficiency) of gas equipment, commercial-grade induction ranges need 3000W-5000W elements…up to 8000W for induction wok stations. That’s a lot of amperage, which can be a problem unto itself. Chef-owner Andrea Carlson found out just how power-hungry induction can be when she was sorting out her kitchen at Burdock & Co.(Vancouver). “The utility told us our building wasn’t wired in a way that allowed us to install at a reasonable cost] as much induction as we wanted,” she says. “Induction is fast, clean, efficient . . . but we still need something better.”
In the predominantly single-bottom-line restaurant business, even in British Columbia where electricity is inexpensive, monthly energy costs for induction ranges can, comparing kilowatt/hours to gigajoules, also be 75 to 100 percent more than their gas-powered equivalents. Winnipeg-based chef/caterer Ben Kramer would like to see better and leaner induction. “It’s efficient and precise, but not cheap to buy or use. And, as with many energy-efficient solutions, like heat pumps and solar panels, in order to save $3,000 over 5 years I have to spend $20,000,” he says. “If they want to encourage a fuel switch from gas, the electric utilities and city governments will need to offer some very healthy incentives.” The sustainable business models and systems needed to manage that switch will likely demand, in the short-to-medium term, a premium cost or investment that will continue to be, for most consumers, untenable given the rapid pace of change.
To summarize the case for-and-against cooking with fire, we have: issues of inefficiency and waste versus authentic flavours and tradition, laid over business-as-usual economics. In the absence of a ‘wild card’ or disruptive element, the prospect of an amiable, win-win resolution is still on the back-burner.
Celebrity chef-restaurateur Vikram Vij is optimistic by nature, and fully expects a high-efficiency, low cost cooking technology will someday allow the sustainability of his kitchen to match that of a local. organic menu. “I think we ought to have solar panels on rooftops to energize our kitchens, and technologies to recover heat from water and air and redirect it to growing produce,” says Vij. “It may take another Elon Musk, though, to build the next-generation range that has zero-waste heat and energy.”
About the Author:
André LaRivière is the author of The Next Course: Reinventing the Modern Urban Restaurant, a book based on the Forage project that explored the potential future of foodservice and sustainable urban dining. Recently, at the request of culinary educators and operators, André adapted some of the content from his book and combined it with his years of experience to produce the SFP (Sustainable Foodservice Professional) Level 1 online course and certification, which has been adopted by several culinary/hospitality colleges as well as by leading foodservice operations.